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Christmas Watch: Babes in Toyland (1934) AKA March of the Wooden Soldiers

Join us Tuesdays and Thursdays in December for our Christmas Watch. Each time you comment and share a post, you are entered into a drawing to win a free paperback of your choice from Bear Manor Media. Today Adam and Samantha discuss a beloved Laurel and Hardy feature.

A: Like a story book come to life, Mother Goose steps out of the pages and begins our journey by singing the ode to a child’s imagination, “Toyland.”

S: I didn’t realize “Toyland” was such an old song. I’ve always loved that one. It reminded me even when I was very young how short-lived that period of life would be and that I should appreciate it fully while I had it.

A: While turning the pages of her book, she introduces us to the good inhabitants of Toyland: Little Bo-Peep, Tom-Tom, The Little Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe, The Cat and the Fiddle, The Three Little Pigs, Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee. She also introduces the mean old miser, Silas Barnaby, who will ultimately stoke the flames of war between Bogeyland and Toyland.

S: Charlotte Henry is adorable as Bo Peep. She was Alice in the very surreal Alice in Wonderland from a year prior.

This isn’t really a Christmas movie. It is set in July, but Santa makes an appearance at the toy shop to order soldiers for kids for Christmas, and Stan and Ollie make a Trojan horse Christmas gift for Barnaby. But TV stations often showed it at Christmastime under the re-release title March of the Wooden Soldiers so it became a seasonal tradition.

A: Even without the appearance of Santa, it felt seasonal to me. The wooden soldiers resemble the traditional nutcracker. They also reminded me of my favorite Christmas movie, Jean Renoir’s The Little Match Girl which has a sequence involving “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” from Hans Christian Andersen’s story.

It might seem odd that this was the first time I’ve seen Babes in Toyland, but as my fondness for Oliver and Hardy has grown, I’ve decided not to overindulge but rather appreciate their movies slowly over time. While I might not have encyclopedic knowledge, at least I’ve got fresh comedies to look forward to.

S: That’s okay. I haven’t seen many of their features. The baby boomer generation grew up with them on TV, but I never saw them until I was a teenager because their films weren’t available. A friend of mine sent me a disk with some of their silent shorts because I wanted to see the Jean Harlow appearance in Habeus Corpus. I didn’t start seeing their sound shorts until I began attending Cinevent.

This version of Babes in Toyland is vastly more watchable than the 1961 remake, because of Laurel and Hardy. They are delightful, as always.

OLLIE: You are upset, aren’t you?

STAN: Upset? I’m housebroken.

A: I laughed out loud at that line!

I knew Hal Roach put some extra money into this production, but I was still impressed with the whimsical set design and the genuinely riveting climatic battle scene. Those mangy bogeymen were suitably repulsive.

S: The bogeymen remind me of the morlocks in The Time Machine. I had to look them up to compare them. It isn’t a strong likeness, but their rubber faces and staggering walks gelled in my mind.

A: I was thinking H.G. Wells, too—Dr. Moreau’s beasts.

S: In the scene where they break into the kids’ room in the shoe, you can see Jerry Tucker, Jackie Lynn Taylor, and Marianne Edwards from Our Gang.

A: There’s a great behind-the-scenes photo where a bunch of kids visited the set and sitting atop the old lady’s shoe house are Spanky, Stymie, and a few other rascals.

Weeks after the film’s release, New York Times’ critic Andre Sennwald wrote an article, “Children and the Cinema,” where he relates how he “…advised parents to make their children happy by depositing seats for the picture in their Christmas stockings.” A friend of his took his advice and brought her 5-year-old to the seemingly gentle picture. Predictably, the appearance of the bogeymen immediately frightened the child to the point of hysterics, and she had to be ushered out of the theater. There is a lesson here for parents: never take the suggestions of a childless film critic.

S: I would watch this with my kids, both under age five, but kids are less sensitive nowadays. Mine cheer watching dinosaurs attack people in Jurassic Park at the babysitter, so I don’t know what that says about them.

A: They’re pro-dinosaur, perfectly natural!

Henry Kleinbach (a.k.a. Henry Brandon) as Silas Barnaby was the surprise of this movie. His performance is a mixture of blood-and-thunder melodrama and German expressionism. A lot has been made about the young age in which he took the role of Barnaby, but it’s worth emphasizing. This fresh-faced 21-year-old completely transforms himself into the decrepit old man! Coincidentally, the drinking age in California was 21 in that post-Prohibition year and Kleinbach was arrested for drunken brawling on Hollywood Boulevard just months before the release of this movie. This guy is obviously a madman so now I’m very curious to learn more (I’ve added this book from BearManor Media to my wish list.)

S: My first exposure to Barnaby was in Our Gang Follies of 1938 where he stalked Alfalfa to be sure he sang opera in the streets for all eternity. Brandon is excellent, menacing and creepy without being too scary.

A: I once sat in a film lecture—something to do with the evolution of genres—where the professor presented the idea that some categories of movies have a finite lifespan. The popularity of certain genres, like horror or the western, wax and wane over the decades while others burn bright momentarily but die out forever. The example he used of a dead genre was the operetta. Nobody makes them anymore; they have no relevance to modern culture. At that moment, my counter-cultural instinct kicked in and I decided I would have to explore operettas. That was over twenty years ago, and I have indeed grown to love the German/Austrian ones from the early 1930s and many American examples. How do you feel about them?

S: They are definitely not my favorite. The closest I’ve come to being an opera fan is listening to Deanna Durbin sing and that only in moderation. They are definitely a relic of their time. I will watch an operetta but I never seek them out, and often I feel that the music could be excised and the movie would be better for it, as I felt with this movie.

A: I’ve always gravitated to more sensational, less plot-oriented movies. I enjoy the musical interludes. Often with feature-length comedies there is some dull subplot that pads the running time. But not in this case--all the elements work together: The Victor Herbert songs, the Stan and Ollie routines (especially the dunking scene), the weird Little Pigs and the even weirder Mickey Mouse monkey, and the stop motion wooden soldiers.

S: Cat and the fiddle and the mouse are downright creepy by today’s standards. Forget Barnaby scaring kids. That mouse, and possibly the three little pigs, will be doing all the scaring.

A: My brain froze when I first saw the mouse, I couldn’t process what I was seeing.

The storybook atmosphere would have probably been better served in color (the colorized version was recommended to me—I’m no purist, so I would watch it that way) but that’s a minor complaint. I’m slipping a sable under the tree, 4 stars for me.

S: I am absolutely a purist. I didn’t see this movie for years because the only version the library had was the colorized version. Thank goodness it was the black and white version recently screened on TCM. 3 stars for me, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, a fun Laurel and Hardy romp but certainly not my favorite of their efforts.

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I watched this a couple or so years ago with my adult son (who was terrified of the Morlocks in The Time Machine, which only made me laugh, telling him he will too when he grows up) and although I have never purposefully watched a colourized film, I did find it added that little bit of extra something fantastical to the story. I think if it had been affordable, Hal Roach Studios might have preferred it in colour. I know this has nothing to do with it, but since learning that Oliver was billed as "Babe" before teaming with Stan, it's a cute reference if your mind goes there.

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