Directed by: Gus Meins and Charles Rogers
Starring: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charlotte Henry, Felix Knight, Henry Kleinbach
Babes in Toyland (1934)—which generations of children have grown up knowing only by its re-issue title, March of the Wooden Soldiers—is the second of Laurel and Hardy’s excursions into opera or operetta (no, they don’t sing), and it’s by far the most elaborate and most popular. It’s been a Christmas staple for as long as I can remember, which is kind of odd, since it’s not really a Christmas-themed film. However, it is set in a place called Toyland and Santa Claus does make an appearance—and it has the right tone for a Christmas movie, so who am I to argue? For the opera-phobic, it might be noted that only four of the Victor Herbert songs remain in the film (five if you count the instrumental “March of the Wooden Soldiers”). The whole thing has been modified—and extremely toned-down from the rather grim original show—and geared to incorporate Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee as the bungling would-be helpers of the much put-upon romantic leads, Bo Peep (Charlotte Henry) and Tom Tom (Felix Knight). The couple, you see, are persecuted by “the meanest man in town, ” Silas Barnaby (Henry Kleinbach), who is determined to force Bo Peep into marriage. It’s a very pleasant, genial diversion—though I will say that I can easily imagine the Bogey Men being the stuff of nightmares for very young children. This, by the way, is the original cut of the film under its proper title, which is four minutes longer than the re-issue version.
The story is pretty simple—and it’s largely just something to pin the songs and comedy routines to. Bo Peep is the daughter of the Old Woman in the Shoe (Florence Roberts) and the object of the romatic designs of Barnaby (“The meanest man in town”), who naturally holds the mortgage on the shoe. When he presses the old gal on her “little financial obligation,” her boarders, Ollie Dee and Stannie Dum determine to get the money from their employer, the toymaker (William Burress). Unfortunately, Stannie has screwed up an order from Santa Claus (Ferdinand Munier, who would be Santa again in 1945 in Road to Utopia), resulting in the manufacture of 100 soldiers at six feet high instead of 600 soldiers at one foot high. This not only means they don’t get the money, but they lose their jobs, leaving Peep at the mercy of Barnaby.
Their subsequent plans to steal the mortgage agreement from Barnaby goes awry and the boys are sentenced to be dunked in the village pond and banished to Bogeyland—an apparently horrible place populated by monsters “with great big ears, great big teeth, and long claws that they catch you with”—seemingly with a mind of eating you. Peep bargains for their freedom by agreeing to marry Barnaby, but there are other plans afoot—and then plans and complications beyond that.
The film works primarily on its genial air of charm. From the moment that Mother Goose (Virginia Karns) steps out of a storybook (a sequence deleted from the re-issue prints) and sings of the wonders of Toyland and its inhabitants, the movie strikes just the right note of gentle nostalgic whimsy. Amazingly, it never loses this tone. Both of the film’s big sets—Toyland and Bogeyland—are impressive creations (the latter is pretty scary, for that matter). The costumes and supporting storybook characters are spot on, too—in a kind English pantomime manner. Some of it is quite impressive and it’s really hard not to wonder just how they got the monkey that’s dressed up in a mouse outfit (complete with a face mask) to put up with this indignity, let alone perform on cue! (Something tells me the Humane Society was not involved.)
Much of what makes the film, however, falls on the shoulders of the main characters. Stan and Ollie, of course, are effortlessly appealing. But Charlotte Henry—fresh from her turn as Alice in Paramount’s Alice in Wonderland the previous year—makes for a perfectly charming Bo Peep, while Felix Knight is an unassumingly heroic Tom Tom. Knight—who cuts a pretty dashing figure—has a fine singing voice, but what’s really interesting is his speaking voice. Like Oliver Hardy, Knight was from Georgia (about 100 miles apart), and they both have the same pleasing soft tone and speech pattern. (It’s very easy to imagine them speaking each other’s lines.) And a lot of credit has to go to the 22-year-old Henry Kleinbach (who would change his name to Henry Brandon) as Barnaby, who is made to look far older than his years, and who strikes just the right mix of genuine menace and theatrical camp in the role.
Fair is fair, so it really isn’t a Christmas movie, but it’d take an outright Scrooge to complain about that. And anyway, have you ever noticed how very little of Holiday Inn takes place at Christmas? Exactly.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Babes in Toyland Tuesday, Dec. 20, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther. Hanke is the artistic director of the A.F.S.