It’s the Holidays, and, like jury duty, that means we are obliged to cater to the holiday, just as all musicians must eventually put out a Christmas album. If only because that’s how we roll during the holidays. Now, there are plenty of good Christmas style movies to watch. Miracle on 34th Street, Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life, Christmas Story, remakes, updates, reboots, Muppet versions, etc.

My review today is about one of the rarer films that is close to my inner child’s heart, Laurel and Hardy’s 1934 musical fantasy Babes In Toyland, also known as March of the Wooden Soldiers, based off the 1903 Operetta by Victor Herbert.

Produced by Hal Roach and dual directed by Gus Meins and Charley Rogers, the film has the legendary comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as brothers Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, with Charlotte Henry as their sister Little Bo Peep, Felix Knight as heroic Tom Tom Piper, Florence Roberts as widow Peep the old woman who lives in the shoe (with so many kids she didn’t know what to do), with Henry Brandon (billed as Henry Kleinbach) as the villainous Silas Barnaby. The story starts out with a fairy tale introduction by Mother Goose as she showcases storybook characters. As the movie shows Toyland, we get to see all the familiar nursery rhyme characters come to life: Old King Cole, the Three Little Pigs, the Cat and the Fiddle, Jack and Jill, etc.

The main plot involves Silas Barnaby (the Crooked man who lived in a crooked house) demanding a house (Shoe?) payment from Widow Peep. Most of Widow Peep’s children are young 6-7 year olds, but there are the three oldest: Bo Peep, Stannie and Ollie. On the verge of being kicked out of their shoe home, Stannie and Ollie vow to get the money from their employer, the Toy Maker. Stannie and Ollie, however, are lovable goof ups who can’t seem to do anything right, and lose their jobs when they mess up an order for Santa Claus. Santa orders 600 1 foot tall wooden soldiers, but they make 100 6 foot tall soldiers by accident (a foreshadowing the titular wooden soldiers who come into play later in the film).

Unemployed, they come home empty handed and unable to take care of the deed held greedily by Barnaby. Barnaby, of course, has a nefarious alternative. He offers to marry sweet little Bo Peep, which horrifies both moth and daughter Peeps. Bo Peep has just fallen in love with the handsome Tom Tom Piper, so Stannie and Ollie hatch a scheme to take the deed from Barnabas’ house in the middle of the night with a doomed “Trojan Horse” trick. The scheme gets screwed up by Stannie and Ollie’s comedic bumbling. Barnabas has them punished by being dunked in a pond for all the Toyland citizens to witness. Bo Peep, faced with her family’s eviction and her brothers getting dunked (oh the horror!) Finally relents to old man Barnaby’s creepy desires to get married. Kudos to Henry Brandon, who was only 21 at the time, for his portrayal of old man Barnaby. Even Hal Roach was fooled when he spotted Brandon playing an old villain on the stage, and was shocked when he brought young Brandon in to audition for the role. Brandon’s physical portrayal and makeup easily makes him look like the oldest actor in the cast.

The wedding is planned, but Stannie and Ollie, not to be outfoxed by Barnaby, play up one more scheme by disguising Stannie as the bride just long enough for Ollie to get the Deed mortgage and rip it up. An almost happy ending as Tom Tom reunites with Bo Peep and breaks into song about taking her away where Barnaby can never get her. The music is mostly based from Victor’s Operetta compositions, with songs like “Toyland”, “Never Mind, Bo Peep” and “Spanish Castles”, though there is the rendition of “Rock-a-bye baby”, originally published in 1765. Plus, Hal Roach was good friends with Walt Disney, and was given the opportunity to use the trademarked “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” for the scenes involving the Three Little Pigs. Disney also let him use another famous trademark with the Cat and the Fiddle having a mouse friend who looked like Mickey. Oddly, the “Mouse” is portrayed by a capuchin monkey, but it fits with the rest of Toyland very naturally. I used to think it was a small child playing the mouse, but the creativity of using the monkey pays off well for the film.

Almost defeated, Silas Barnaby ups the stakes by kidnapping one of the three little pigs (their names are Willie, Elmer and Jiggs) and framing Tom Tom by placing the pig’s hat and a plate of hot dogs in Tom Tom’s house. What follows can be a session of CSI/NCIS/Law and Order jokes for a trial that should never reach a guilty verdict but does as Old King Cole sentences Tom Tom to be banished to “Bogeyland” for pignapping. Stannie, given an opportunity, starts eating the plate of hot dogs used as evidence for the trial and sets off a chain of events that rolls towards the big climax and titular marching of wooden soldiers. “This doesn’t taste like pig, it tastes like pork” Stannie comments, showing off his misuse of logic that is his schtick. Ollie tries the food “This is neither pig nor pork….IT’S BEEF! I smell a rat!” Eat your hearts out, Gil Grissom, Horatio Cane and Mac Taylor. Crime solved, kidnapped pig rescued, Tom Tom found innocent (even though he has just been banished to Bogeyland)

It is a race against time to stop Barnaby, save both Tom Tom and Bo Peep (who went after Tom Tom while everyone was distracted) and get away from the Bogeyman army led by Barnaby. Barnaby, having had enough, decides he will ransack and burn down Toyland to avenge himself on everyone. The chaos leads to the famously titled march of Wooden soldiers and heroics by many of the Mother Goose characters from childhood storytelling. A satisfying climactic battle that leads to a predictable end to the film with one last good joke for Laurel and Hardy to play up.

Is this a great movie? Not exactly. It is a classic, with a sweetness seldom seen in most holiday films. The musical moments may be a bit antiquated, and the drama/romance a bit too cornball, but this film holds a special place in my heart. As a child of the 1970s, I was witness to many revivals of the old comedy groups and vaudeville stars. Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, etc. A lot of them died in the 1950s and 60s. A few, like Moses “Moe Howard” Horowitz, was fortunate enough to live to see the Three Stooges become beloved again by a whole new generation of kids who laughed at the antics from the old black and white films. I leave it to those who would take a chance on “Babes in Toyland” to decide if it stands the test of time, though it is certainly more memorable than the remakes that came out in 1961, 1986 and 1997 (all of which have their own merit). The film’s greatest strengths lay in the comedy of Laurel and Hardy, the awesome singing talents of Charlotte Henry and Felix Knight, but most of all in its innocence. We live in a jaded society. Even Pazz magazine, for which I am a contributor, lends itself to a hardcore pop cultural landscape. And yet, there will always be room for something sweet in our pragmatic lives. I’ve known cynical, tattooed people who live it up on a Saturday night to melt and smile at the notions of a “simpler” time, and Babes in Toyland is an excellent holiday fantasy that helps us forget and escape to a musical, happy place. There will always be room for that.

About the Author

Jon Hodges
Jon Hodges
Jonathan has enjoyed doing community theater since 1989, and has been involved with shows in Van Wert, Wapakoneta, Waynesfield and Fostoria as well as Lima Encore. He is a judge for the Northwest Ohio Film Festival. Jon feels that the human imagination is one of the greatest adventures to share, and it is always fascinating to see others bring something to life. The second greatest adventure to share is a good dose of chocolate.