Monday, December 3, 2012

Caftan Woman`s Choice: One for December on TCM

In the United Kingdom a popular Christmas season entertainment is the Pantomime. The Christmas Pantomime is a play based on well-known children's stories such as Cinderella or Aladdin or Robin Hood told in a spirit of fun and irreverence. There must be a leading female character played in "drag", simpering sweethearts, and outlandish clowns. Audience participation is a must as in booing the villain and shouting helpful instructions to dimwitted heroes.

Mother Goose sets the scene with a familiar song.

British born Stan Laurel retained a fondness for the "Panto" all his life. Georgia born Oliver Hardy appreciated the team`s films which had "production". He felt that the greater the effects and cast surrounding the comics, the better for the film. Stan proposed setting the team's well-meaning but dim-witted characters in an adaptation of Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough's Broadway hit Babes in Toyland, which had enjoyed many Holiday revivals since its 1903 debut. The big boss Hal Roach was somewhat in agreement with the plan. After all, the boy's adaption of Auber's comic opera Fra Diavolo aka The Devil's Brother had been a hit in 1933. Why not another operetta?

"I wouldn`t marry you if you were young, which you can`t be, if you were honest, which you never were and if you were about to die tomorrow, which would be too much to hope for!"

The film was an expensive undertaking for the studio in terms of set, costumes, and performers. However, Roach wasn't willing to spend the extra for the Technicolor that Stan dearly wanted. Wouldn't Technicolor have been glorious? The movie has been colourized twice, in the 1990s and as recently as 2006.

However, to Mr. Roach's credit, he approached his friend and fellow studio mogul Walt Disney for the use of the image of Mickey Mouse and the popular song Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf by Frank Churchill and Ted Sears from the Oscar-winning short Three Little PigsWho's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf, Marvin Hatley's The Ku-Ku Song to identify the team of Laurel and Hardy in the opening credits, and the traditional Rock-a-Bye Baby are the only non-Victor Herbert songs used in the film. Herbert's I Can't Do the Sum is not sung, but featured in the score as a delightful background whenever Ollie Dee and Stannie Dum are on screen. Stan and Roach argued over the treatment of the story with Stan prevailing and Roach forever after (and he lived to 100 years!) claiming Stan made a bad film. Generations disagree.

"I thought you said 100 soldiers, 6 foot high."

Ollie and Stannie live in Toyland and you would think that of all the places these innocents would fit in, that this would be the place. Ah, but Toyland is as fraught with danger as any other place in this world or fantasy land. There is an evil, rich man - the evilest and richest man in town - Silas Barnaby. When Barnaby's dubious charms fail to win the hand of the lovely Bo-Peep he threatens to foreclose on her family home, which happens to be a shoe. Ollie generously informs Mother Peep that he will borrow the money from the toymaker and all their troubles will be over. Sadly, Ollie hadn't reckoned on a villain we are all too familiar with - the cranky boss. It doesn't help their cause that Stan mistook Santa's order for toy soldiers reversing the request for 600 soldiers at 1 foot high. Naturally, they have a plan to set things to a right which only makes things worse for Bo-Peep and her beloved Tom-Tom (you know, the piper's son.)

He captures her heart singing.

Bo-Peep is forced to marry Barnaby. Stan and Ollie trick Barnaby. Barnaby frames Tom-Tom for pignapping. Of course, you all know the penalty for pignapping! Banishment to Bogeyland. Bogeyland?! Yes, Bogeyland. Home of the Bogeyman. "They're half man and half animal with great big mouths and great big claws and hair all over their body". They are the image of monsters that hide in the closet and under the bed. They may well be somewhat haphazardly costumed extras on the Roach lot, but they still set the butterflies searching for a way out of my belly in the same feeling I had sitting beside my sister on the floor in front of the television when were 4 and 5 years old.

"Why, that`s neither pig nor pork."

Being scared and booing the villain is a part of the delight of watching Babes in Toyland today. Laughing is the best part  It is a truly funny movie featuring the most endearing qualities of Laurel and Hardy' screen characters. On some television screenings, they would cut one or two of the songs, but this Victor Herbert fan would feel lost without the songs Toyland, Never Mind, Bo-Peep, Castle in Spain and the lullaby Go to Sleep. They have become as much a part of the season to me as Silent Night or White Christmas. When the score plays the triumphant March of the Wooden Soldiers I can`t keep the smile off my face.

Was anyone surprised to learn Barnaby is the leader of the Bogeymen?

Babes in Toyland was the first major role for Henry Kleinbach (later Brandon) as the evil Barnaby. The 21-year-old actor gives his all as the perfect ``Panto`` villain. In a career lasting until his death in 1990, Brandon was featured in hundreds of movies including The Marshal of Mesa CityDrums of Fu Manchu, Joan of Arc, Cattle Drive, The Caddy, Vera Cruz, The Searchers (Scar), and Assault on Precinct 13. Broadway child star Charlotte Henry of Charlie Chan at the Opera and Alice in Wonderland plays Bo-Peep. Tom-Tom is played by tenor Felix Knight who would have a career at the Metropolitan and as a vocal coach.

March of the Wooden Soldiers

Among the large cast of Toyland citizens is Alice Cooke as Mother Hubbard. Alice, her husband Baldy and Stan were teamed on the Vaudeville stage as the Stan Jefferson Trio from 1914 to 1917 and off-stage remained close friends. Stan found work for his friends at every opportunity. A teenaged Marie Wilson (My Friend Irma) makes her film debut as Mary Mary Quite Contrary.

The fun and the traditions of the holidays are found in abundance in Babes in Toyland. It is a movie that is an integral part of my December viewing habit. TCM is screening the movie, sometimes called March of the Wooden Soldiers, on Christmas Eve at 6:30 pm. Pop that corn and get a blanket ready for hiding under when the Bogeymen attack!


  1. Sweet. I've actually never seen the whole thing. Perhaps I should fix that, hmm? Nice comparison with British Pantomine.

  2. Well, it looks like your Christmas Eve is settled!

    There are times when I shake my head at TCMs schedule. Why are they showing this title in the wee hours or another when the kids are in school - I shake my head and sigh. I must say that Christmas Eve at 6:30 for "Babes in Toyland" seems just about perfect. I may enjoy Christmas Eve more than the day itself.

  3. I wrote about this film last Christmas after seeing it for the first time. It has a surprising amount of nightmare fuel for a kiddie movie (some of those costumes are really unnerving to look at). I don't recall ever seeing this on TV growing up, though I'm told it was a Christmas tradition for many years here in NYC. I haven't seen many L&H films, but what I have seen I liked well enough.

  4. A lovely recommendation for the month! Too bad BABES wasn't made in color, though. (Have you seen the ill-fated Disney BABES IN TOYLAND?)

  5. Rich, there's something comforting in those childhood nightmares. You get to experience fear without anything really bad actually happening to you.

    It's funny how one person's tradition is another person's new experience.

  6. Rick, the best thing about Disney's "Babes in Toyland" was the Wrap Party that ran on "The Wonderful World of Disney" to promote the movie. Lots of likeable people, but the missing ingredient was charm.

  7. A great favorite of mine, and for a long time the only colorized movie in my DVD collection.

    I was going to recommend this to my friend, who as a nine-year-old daughter. I thought she might be too sensitive for it, until her dad told me he caught her sneaking glimpses of "The Walking Dead" series. Yeah, I think she can handle the bogeymen.

  8. I LOVE THIS MOVIE!!! There, I said it and I'm glad. Thanks for posting about it, C.W. I talk about this film every Christmas too, can't help it. For me, it wouldn't be Christmas without MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS.

    I watched it on television when I was a kid year after year, and it's still the kind of movie that instantly transports me back.

  9. Caftan Woman, you've really transported me to Memory Lane! My longtime pal Ingrid was the first to introduce me to MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS, back when we were in fifth grade. It was funny, scary, trippy, goofy -- something for everyone! Next time I come across it on TCM, I'm gonna nonchalantly turn it on and see what my daughter Siobhan thinks! Thanks for the heads-up for this blast from the past!

  10. Kevin, it really is a shame that Roach didn't splurge for the Technicolor.

    It appears today's youth has a greater fright threshold than mine. I have to switch channels if I come across a promo for "The Walking Dead"!

  11. Yvette, it is such a comforting feeling to know Stannie and Ollie will be there every year.

  12. Dorian, it would be very interesting to see what Siobhan thinks of Toyland.

    With Gavin settled in the Group Home some of our holiday traditions have a twist. The other night I phoned the home to remind them that "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" was on CBC at 8 o'clock. They laughed and said Gavin had switched the TV on right after dinner and was sitting patiently waiting for the show.

  13. Believe it or not, as a rabid classic movie and Laurel and Hardy fan, I've never seen this. Why? Hell, I don't know. But I am setting my DVR to record on Christmas Eve! The only version of Babes in Toyland I ever saw was the one with Annette Funicello. I liked it so much, but then I was a little kid, so what did I know? Interesting piece that has made me really want to see this one!

  14. Becky, I can't believe you haven't seen this old chestnut yet! Well, it looks like TCM has come to your rescue. It's certainly for the best as, unlike a lot of us, you won't be bedeviled with commercial breaks on your first viewing.

  15. So why do you suppose the innocent chestnut became the symbol for old and outdated? Does it take them an inordinately long time to ripen, so they seem to be around forever? You know, like a kid that comes back home after college and stays forever because they aren't ripe until over 30.

  16. H'm. I think it's because chestnuts, innocent though they may be, look old. I don't believe there is an older looking nut out there.

  17. Oh I don't know ... I've heard a few things about you ... ROTFLMAO! I'm glad we don't live close enough for you to drive over and beat me to a pulp!

  18. Hey! I wouldn't beat you. I'd stand at a respectable distance and lob chestnuts in your general direction. (And every spot they'd hit you'd lose a thumb and grow an eye! You see, I come from the planet "Twila" where chestnuts are more plentiful than walnuts.)

  19. LOVE a rabid Dick Van Dyke fan like me! LOL!

  20. Among surprising revelations in actor identification, three that's around the top of my list:
    1) The young hero Freaks is the crabby, plump guy of Spellbound and Harvey. (Wallace Ford)
    2) The bewildered hero of Room Service is the lecherous Texas millionaire in Psycho. (Frank Albertson)
    3) Barnaby is Scar!

    'Tis the season to be Laurel & Hardy, apparently. I was just visiting the Greenbriar blog before coming here, and the boys are headlining that place as well. As for me, a Christmas without Big Business is simply unheard of. "Come on, Personality—"

    In your earlier post, "I Love to Laugh", you requested a review of the Harry Langdon biog I was about to devour, so here it is.

    Despite some minor flaws - overlength, repetitions and some reproduction problems - this is a most impressive feat of research and scholarship. Whether you're a big or just "lukewarm" Langdon fan, as a comedy buff you'll love the detailed look at one comedian's life and times. The reader virtually smells the sawdust of the vaudeville stage, as it were.

    Especially rewarding are the insights on Harry's pre-Hollywood career, helped by vintage reviews and original sketch scripts. The book is also generously adorned with paraphernalia such as the posters and ads that the many-faceted Langdon designed and illustrated himself.

    Overall, it's the best kind of biography for my money - neither a hatchet-job nor an uncritical hagiography. Along the way are some familiar names including Frank Capra (their difficult relationship is treated most fairly, it seemed to me) and of course his late-career collaborators Stan and Ollie.

    So my two bits of advice is, treat yourself to this terrific tome, as well as such films as you can lat your hands on with Mr. Langdon — the man described by both Stan and Buster as "one of the greats."

    Chuck Harter and Michael J. Hayde: "Little Elf: A Celebration of Harry Langdon"

    With best Christmas and New Year wishes to the Caftan Woman and her gang,

  21. Ha. The timeline of an actor's career and our perception of them can lead to great surprises. Scar!

    Thanks for your look at the Langdon book. I find that it is the Hollywood careers that draw me to wanting to read about a personality and when I do, it is their pre-Hollywood life I find most interesting and am most sad to leave behind. I'll definitely be treating myself to "Little Elf".

    All the best to you and yours. Here's to more sharing and laughter in the coming year.

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