Friday, March 21, 2014

Babes in Toyland (Hal Roach/MGM, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a movie last night: the 1934 version of Victor Herbert’s opera Babes in Toyland, retitled March of the Wooden Soldiers in its early-1960’s TV release to avoid confusion with the Walt Disney remake from 1962 (which I haven’t seen since it was new and my age was still in single digits, though what little I remember of it — mainly the scenes with the laser cannon — indicates it was a really silly movie distinguished only by the presence of Ray Bolger in the cast). This was a Hal Roach production featuring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as “Stannie Dum” and “Ollie Dee,” respectively, silly character names but ones which at least allowed them to address each other as “Stan” and “Ollie,” as usual as they fit into (and expanded) the usual comic-relief roles in a turn-of-the-(last)-century operetta. It was also quite handsomely produced — obviously Roach was out to prove to the rest of Hollywood that he could do a lavish production with quite elaborate and beautiful sets, and hundreds of extras, instead of just cheap (but enduringly funny) little slapstick shorts. The edition we were watching was a 77-minute release from MGM Home Video in 2008 that restored a beautiful scene in which the romantic leads, Tom-Tom (Felix Knight) and Bo-Peep (Charlotte Henry, a year after her stunning performance as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in the 1933 Paramount version of Alice in Wonderland), sing a duet in the forest to which they’ve been exiled and ghostly visions of the Sandman and his fairies sprinkle dust in their direction to lull them off to dreamland. What’s most fascinating about Babes in Toyland is how strongly it anticipates The Wizard of Oz, an MGM production from five years later, from the opening establishing shot of Toyland (even though the crane shot at the very start, through which we approach Mother Goose [Virginia Karns] as she sings the famous “Toyland” song, is surprisingly jerky for a 1934 film) to the scenes in the forest, where Our Hero and Heroine are menaced by the monstrous Bogeymen (who look like they were hired to be native villains in the serial The Lost City and made it to the wrong soundstage by mistake).

The plot isn’t much: Old Widow Peep (Florence Roberts), Bo-Peep’s mother, lives (like the original Old Mother Hubbard) in a giant shoe that’s about to be foreclosed on by the bad guy, Silas Barnaby (played by a German refugee actor named Harry Kleinbach, who later changed his name to Henry Brandon). Stannie and Ollie work in the factory of the Toymaker (William Burress) and hope to get enough of an advance on their salaries to pay off Widow Peep’s mortgage, but instead they get themselves fired because they screwed up an order from Santa Claus (Ferdinand Munier), who wanted 600 toy soldiers, each one foot tall, and instead they built 100 toy soldiers, each six feet tall. The bad guy says he’ll forget about the mortgage if Bo-Peep marries him — and, not wanting to let her mom become homeless, she says yes. Instead, to spare Bo-Peep the Fate Worse Than Death, the good guys play a trick on him and marry him to a heavily veiled Stannie in drag — a joke that no doubt plays quite differently in today’s age of same-sex marriage than it did in 1934! Barnaby responds by kidnapping one of the Three Little Pigs (who are drawn as typically stereotyped movie Blacks, though since their roles are mute this isn’t as offensive as it would have been if they’d spoken) and framing Tom-Tom for the pig’s murder, and when the pig is found alive in Barnaby’s cellar (but not soon enough to save Tom-Tom from exile to Bogeyland, where Bo-Peep joins him) Barnaby decides to get his revenge by mobilizing the Bogeys for an all-out assault on Toyland.

What’s fascinating about this film is it isn’t the light, fey children’s fantasy we’d expect from the opening reel, but a surprisingly dark movie — like the Winged Monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, the Bogeys come off as a genuinely frightening menace, and parts of Babes in Toyland are scary enough to qualify as horror — one wonders if Harry Kleinbach’s real-life experiences of Nazi persecution informed the film’s portrayal of the Bogeys’ march on Toyland, which anticipates all the scenes of Nazis marching into innocent villages we got during World War II-era movies. The Victor Herbert songs are genuinely lovely (especially the sleep duet, which for some reason was cut from the film for years and only restored for this version) and Felix Knight’s high tenor and Charlotte Henry’s serviceable soprano are good voices for them. Henry is also quite winsome in her role; apparently Hollywood was hoping she’d be the next Mary Pickford — an adult actress who could credibly play children — only that got short-circuited by the spectacular mega-success of Shirley Temple, a real child who was just as precocious as Pickford or Henry. Kleinbach’s reading of the villain is weird, speaking not in the Snidely Whiplash voice we expect but in a rather odd cross between George Arliss and Boris Karloff, and though there were times during the movie I wished Roach had got Karloff for the role (they’d worked together before in the 1931 French-language version of Laurel and Hardy’s Pardon Us, now alas lost) he’s certainly credible as a figure of menace. Babes in Toyland is a quite sophisticated movie given its provenance in an operetta for kids, and between the horrific darkness of the Bogeyland scenes and the surprisingly frank gags about Stannie’s marriage to Barnaby, it’s a wonder how this film, released in December 1934, got past the Production Code Administration and got awarded Code Certificate #401 (prominently displayed in the opening credits along with the National Recovery Administration emblem!).