By Hank ParmerSince this is the time of year when Christmas movie reviews litter the intertubes, and since the retro stuff seems to be more my bailiwick, I thought a look back at the 1934 Laurel and Hardy vehicle Babes in Toyland (original title: March of the Wooden Soldiers) might be worthwhile. Even though the holiday connection is rather tenuous, with Santa only appearing for a short cameo, and in fact, according to the movie's outrageously overacting villain the action is taking place in the middle of July.
But from the time this loose adaptation of Victor Herbert's insanely popular 1903 operetta debuted in November of '34, it's been considered a Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday film. So much so that it became a staple on second-tier TV and UHF stations, before Rankin-Bass, etc. began to crank out fare oriented toward a more contemporary kiddie market. There was even an edited down to 45 minutes version, which was distributed free to public schools back in the 1950s.
The "bogeymen" certainly scared the willies out of me when I saw this movie as a preschooler. Viewing it as an adult, though, I can't help but feel there's way too much Victor Herbert -- okay, "The March of the Toys" is a catchy little tune -- and nowhere near enough Laurel and Hardy. Although it is slightly refreshing to see a kiddie flick that wasn't put together for the sole purpose of merchandising hunks of Chinese plastic.
We begin with an introductory solo from Mother Goose:
Sorry... Thought it was the porta-potty!
Of all the lands you youngsters will travel in your dreams, she promises in her tune, the best of them is Toyland.
And at first glance, it does seem an enchanting place. Characters from nursery rhymes and fairy tales throng its quaint, quasi-Medieval streets, everyone from the Three Little Pigs to the Cat with a Fiddle. Who's relentlessly stalked by a mischievous monkey in a Mickey Mouse costume.
That's the original Mickey Mouse, who if you ask me looks more like a rat. His presence here might seem odd to anyone familiar with the litigious ways of our modern entertainment juggernaut, but back then Walt was eager enough for the publicity to let Hal Roach borrow the character. Although that hairy, prehensile tail is disturbingly un-mouselike.
Nursery rhymes are literally interpreted here in Toyland, even to the extent of egregious child neglect, like the rock-a-bye baby whose cradle is precariously parked twenty feet up in the top of a slender pine.
The main plot revolves around the Old Lady Who Lives in a Shoe. You know, the one who had so many children she didn't know what to do. (Note that the question of how she came by all these children is deftly handled by identifying her as Widow Peep. You know, lady, contraception might have been something worth checking out.) Tragically, she's actually only in her mid-thirties.
The eldest of her extensive brood is Little Bo Peep. (Charlotte Henry -- who, at age 19, had played the title character in Paramount's 1933 film of Alice in Wonderland.) Bo Peep's love interest is Tom-Tom, piper's son and lead tenor. (Felix Knight)
But there's a dark undercurrent to life in this magical realm and capitalist's paradise. For starters, creepy Silas Barnaby (Henry Brandon) is about to foreclose on the old lady's shoe. As is traditional in these affairs, he offers to forget about the mortgage, if he can have innocent Bo Peep's hand in marriage.
Brandon -- billed here in his first credited movie role as "Henry Kleinbach" -- was actually only twenty-two at the time he played the distinctly Fagin-esque miser, a part that launched him on a career as a character actor on the silver screen. Mostly portraying heavies, albeit thankfully without the age makeup. Occasionally in A-list features like John Ford's The Searchers, where he played "Chief Scar", but more often in far less prestigious fare. (MST3K fans may remember him as the space pirate "Rinkman" from the Rocky Jones epic Manhunt in Space.)
Surprisingly, Widow Peep also found space in her size 1000 Doc Marten for a couple of lodgers, Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee. As she's preparing their breakfast, Ollie notices she's holding back the tears. When he learns the cause of her distress, he gallantly offers to donate their savings to help pay the mortgage.
But oh dear, Stannie raided the piggy bank. He spent their entire accumulated capital -- a dollar and 48 cents -- on something he calls his "pee wee". Ollie promises he'll try hitting up their boss for a loan.
On their way to work, Ollie demands to see Stannie's pee wee.
Which, despite what smutty-minded types might think, is actually one of those bygone cultural artifacts, from a time when kids were expected to supply most of their own amusement. The pee wee is a short wooden cylinder, tapered at both ends. The object is to whack it on one end with a stick, so that it pops up into the air, and then you try to hit it.
Laurel is quite good at this. He even has one of those rare enchanted pee wees, with boomerang action. Ollie scoffs at this childish nonsense, but of course he's hilariously incompetent when he tries his hand at it. Then Stannie the show-off demonstrates once more how it's done, and semi-accidentally knocks Barnaby's hat off his head. The cantankerous bully pursues them to the door of the toy shop where they're employed, and breaks Stannie's pee wee stick over his knee.
They're a half-hour late for work, earning them their employer's ire right from the start. Stannie of course wants Ollie to brace the boss about that loan immediately, but after they spill a can of paint in his lap, Ollie considers this probably isn't the right moment to broach the subject.
The scene switches to Bo Peep. Predictably, she's lost her sheep, providing the opportunity for a lavish chorus number centered around her search for the uncooperative ungulates. Eventually, Li'l B'eep and Tom-Tom find themselves alone together, seated at the stocks by the ducking pond -- just the spot for a romantic chat. If you're into BDSM.
In what may be a portent of things to come, Tom-Tom humorously puts Bo Peep's legs in the stocks until she agrees to marry him.
Back at the toy shop, Santa shows up, to check on an order he placed with the toymaker for wooden soldiers which come to life when you press a button on their back. It's never made clear whether he did this because demand outstripped the elves' manufacturing capacity, or he's outsourcing due to a labor dispute. But this is the height of the Great Depression...
Regardless, it turns out that our lovable man-child made a tiny clerical error when he took the order: Santa wanted six hundred soldiers, a foot high, but Stannie recorded it as one hundred soldiers, each of them six feet tall!
Jolly old Saint Nick predictably gets a major hoot out of this, but the boss -- seeing his profits evaporate -- promptly cans our feckless duo. Which shows a real inability to properly gauge the market, if you ask me. What red-blooded adolescent wouldn't want his or her very own six foot tall death machine? And just think of the military applications!
On their way out, the boys goof up and allow one of the wooden soldiers to blunder about the toy shop, wreaking comic havoc. While Santa laughs uproariously. The sadistic bastard sure does get a big kick out of others' misfortunes.
Now that the possibility of raising the money for Old Lady Peep's mortgage is out of the question, the boys resort to a subtle subterfuge to get their hands on the document. Stannie attempts to sneak Ollie into Barnaby's house, utilizing the old crate with a card marked "Don't Open 'Til Christmas" ploy.
It's a present, Stannie explains to Barnaby, to make up for their having been so rude to him that morning.
"But, it's the middle of July!" objects the vaguely suspicious usurer.
Still, Barnaby's greed gets the better of him, and he accepts the package. It seems as if the boys are going to get away with their cunning plan, until of course they botch it as Stannie is heading out the door. I'll say this much for Brandon: His comic timing is really quite good, which is no mean feat when you're sharing the scene with Oliver Hardy.
The bumbling pair are put in the stocks to await their just deserts. King Cole, that merry old soul, pronounces the sentence: In this joyous land of lighthearted childhood fantasies, the penalty for attempted housebreaking and theft is a ducking.
Followed by banishment to Bogeyland -- where they'll be hunted down, killed and eaten by the Bogeymen. Seems fairly proportionate to the crime. I guess this is why they don't have jails in Toyland.
Wait a sec...just exactly how did it come to be called "Toyland" anyway? Maybe I'm being too literal-minded here, but it's not populated by toys, and judging by Stannie and Ollie's former place of employment, their manufacture hardly appears to be a mainstay of the economy. So why name your country "Toyland"? At the very least, it seems like an open-and-shut case of false advertising.
On to the ducking scene: Ollie is first up for a turn in the chair. We get the inevitable fat joke, as hefty guy Hardy breaks the beam from which he's suspended. King Cole is close to soiling himself, helpless with uncontrollable mirth, as he watches Ollie almost drown. I wonder if Laughing Boy and Santa are related.
Bo Peep can't take it anymore; she promises to wed Barnaby, if he'll drop the charges against the boys. So Stannie and Ollie get a timely reprieve.
Things look pretty bleak for poor Bo Peep and Tom-Tom, but at the last minute Stannie and Ollie save the day with a brilliant ruse -- which for once actually succeeds! Oh, okay, it's probably one of the hoariest gags of all: They stuff Stannie in Bo Peep's wedding gown, and have him wear a thick veil. Of course Barnaby has to hand over the mortgage before he's allowed to kiss the bride.
Furious over his public humiliation, Barnaby abducts one of the little pigs and plants evidence to frame Tom-Tom for the crime. After all, according to the rhyme -- you know: Stole a pig and away he run -- he's got to be the prime suspect!
The clues are exhibited at Tom-Tom's sentencing: the musical porker's fiddle and cute little sailor's cap, plus a plate of yummy sausages. Which in a bit of rather grisly black humor Stannie absentmindedly samples, and then shares with Ollie.
After all, it's not exactly cannibalism...
But Stannie and Ollie detect a fatal flaw in Barnaby's dastardly deception: That's beef sausage, not pork! They slip away to investigate Barnaby's digs.
Two brawny types in traditional headsman's sleeveless tunic and hood release Tom-Tom from the stocks and hustle him through the nearby gate that leads to the gloomy subterranean kingdom of Bogeyland. They ferry the luckless piper's son across an alligator-filled underground lake -- oh, okay, the production could only afford two of the beasts -- and deposit him on the other side.
Stannie and Ollie rescue the kidnapped oinker and expose Barnaby. Too late to help their friend, true, but still... Barnaby manages to elude the outraged citizens. By running into his cottage and locking the door. Stannie and Ollie cut around the side and spot the villain as he bolts from the back door and disappears down a dry well, which -- unknown to the boys -- has a secret entrance to Bogeyland at the bottom. Thinking they have him trapped, they decide to wait Barnaby out.
Meanwhile, Bo Peep resolves to brave Bogeyland on her own; apparently none of the other good folks of Toyland felt awful enough about the injustice they did Tom-Tom to accompany her. Carelessly leaving the raft on the Bogeyland side of the lake, she searches frantically for her boyfriend, and soon links up with him in a large and well-lit cavern set.
While ghostly garden gnomes watch over them, Tom-Tom sings weary Bo Peep to sleep -- or puts her in a sugar coma -- with a lullabye.
"Wait 'til they're asleep -- then we can go through their pockets!"
Putting a merciful end to these proceedings, Phantom Rabbi Sandman appears and scatters handfuls of sleep dust, sending Tom-Tom off to join his love in saccharine slumber.
Back at the well, Stannie and Ollie have also dozed off, while waiting for Barnaby to reappear. Ollie wakes up, and clouts Stannie. They call down the well, but get no response, then try dropping a couple of big rocks down it, with no result. They decide to climb down and see what's happened to the guy.
Meanwhile, the crafty villain comes upon Tom-Tom and Bo Peep, cuddling together in the sleep of the innocent. That single-minded lech tries to carry her off, but she wakes Tom-Tom with her screams. The guys duke it out.
Tom-Tom decks Barnaby with a solid punch to the miser's jaw. But his surprisingly spry opponent gets right back up on his feet and the fight continues. They're clearly not using stunt doubles, either, when a few moments later Barnaby tumbles off a ledge. (Brandon is supposed to have said later that young as he was, it was a good thing they cast him in this role, because it likely would have killed an older man. And I believe him.)
Silas quickly recovers from his fall and bangs a stick against a couple of wobbly stalactites, summoning his Bogeyman minions!
Remember how I mentioned earlier that back in the Fifties abbreviated copies of Babes in Toyland were distributed to public schools? Look at that bogeyman, and tell me this movie didn't inspire the Simpsons' parody The Christmas That Almost Wasn't, But Then Was. You know, the terrible 1930s holiday film that a desperate Principal Skinner inflicts on Bart and his schoolmates, when a freak blizzard traps them all inside the school. Both are musicals, and both feature Little Bo Peep. Coincidence? I think not.
Anyway, Barnaby, at the head of a horde of Bogeymen, pursues Tom-Tom and Bo Peep through dank, dreary passages.
Wait! Don't you want to see our interpretation of 'Le Sylphides'?
Stannie and Ollie, having found their way into Bogeyland through that concealed entrance, soon meet up with their friends. After they all manage to evade the Bogeymen, using that secret entrance in the well the boys return to the surface with Tom-Tom and Bo Peep.
Barnaby, not to be thwarted in his lustful obsession, leads the Bogeymen in an assault on Toyland. They easily overpower that paltry pair of guards and pour through the Bogeyland gate, ready to terrorize the helpless inhabitants of Toyland. Barnaby and a detachment of his furry friends swarm Old Lady Peep's shoe, trying to get at Bo Peep. A couple of Bogeymen corner Stannie and Ollie in the toy warehouse. Here Stannie's proficiency with his pee wee saves the day, as he bats steel-pointed darts (and these are toys?) with stunning accuracy.
Into the creatures' butts, of course. You ever notice how frequently comedy in the first half of the last century consists of something painful being done to the antagonists' posteriors? Sure, that particular comic trope probably goes back to Ook and Gorg's Australopithecine antics, but you know what I mean. Disney cartoons in particular just couldn't seem to get enough of that gag. But then, Walt was kind of a twisted old ferret.
Stannie and Ollie hurl armfuls of those darts at their foes. Stuck so full of the steel missiles they look like two-legged pincushions, the Bogeymen beat a hasty retreat from the warehouse, howling in agony. Outside, a Bogeyman's trying to haul Bo Peep out of her shoe through a window, but drops her when Stannie plants a couple of darts in his butt, too.
In the most surreal sequence of the entire movie, Mickey Monkey loads a bunch of M-80s into the gondola of a toy dirigible, starts the engine and casts loose. (Credit where credit is due to the monkey and his trainer: That was a fairly complex sequence, but they got it all in one shot.) The diminutive aviator then flies around dropping cherry bombs on the Bogeymen's butts. Until Stannie gets a little too carried away with the darts and punctures Mickey's gasbag by accident. Fortunately the little guy has a parachute.
Even in the face of this intense aerial bombardment, Barnaby and his hyper-hirsute henchmen succeed in breaking into the Old Lady's shoe. Bo Peep's siblings are dragged screaming from their home.
The boys are back in the warehouse. While stuffing a full-size cannon -- again, this is a toy? -- full of gunpowder and darts, Stannie has a sudden inspiration: the wooden soldiers! By dint of some hasty button-pushing, the two finally unleash these six-foot-tall, bayonet-wielding automatons against Barnaby and his malodorous minions. Via some Puppetoon-style stop-action animation, the wooden soldiers form ranks to the rousing strains of Herbert's "March of the Toys".
They double-time it out to the town square, and just in time: Barnaby has Bo Peep in his lascivious clutches. He's bearing her back to Bogeyland in triumph, while the Bogeymen joyously caper around their leader. They run smack into the advancing column of wooden soldiers. Barnaby gets bonked with a balloon by his former pig-napping victim, and with an agonized grimace exits from the story. The soldiers rescue the Toylanders; the Bogeymen are herded back through the gate at bayonet point.
The battle ends with a bit of lighthearted genocide as the portal is sealed behind them, pushing most of the would-be invaders into the lake, to be drowned, or eaten by alligators.
But there's always time for more ass punishment: Remember that cannon full of darts and powder? Stannie and Ollie plan to open the gate again and give the remaining Bogeymen a parting blast of pointy steel. Naturally it goes hilariously wrong. When the barrel flips over of its own accord, Ollie ends up taking the full load in the where else, and the movie concludes with Stannie plucking the darts out of his friend's buttocks, one by one.
Hope the big guy got his tetanus booster.