Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Laurel and Hardy holiday classic Babes in Toyland a.k.a March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934). I’d never heard of this film until they began to show it on cable television in the 1980s. It rapidly became my favorite holiday film, for it is every bit as bizarre and dark as it is charming and festive.
For some reason Hal Roach liked to experiment with starring Laurel and Hardy in operas and operettas (he’d previously done the same with The Bohemian Girl and Fra Diavolo). Here of course, the team adapted the popular 1903 show by Victor Herbert. Much is changed from the stage version however. The film is set in a land populated by all the characters from nursery rhymes and other children’s literature (Stan and Babe are versions of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, two toymakers who live in the Old Woman’s Shoe).
The thing is very stage bound — they seem to have built two sets (the storybook village, and the hellish land of the bogeymen) on a couple of sound stages and shot the whole thing in a heartbeat. Much more enjoyable than the conventional plot about young lovers and a rapacious landlord/suitor are the film’s memorable details: a live monkey in a costume inexplicably dressed as Mickey Mouse;
three midgets as the Three Little Pigs;
the army of hairy little bogeymen;
the melodrama villain Silas Barnaby, made up to look like the Crooked Man from the nursery rhyme;
and the relentlessly marching wooden soldiers who save the day in the end, through Stan and Ollie’s quick thinking.
The whole thing is both sweet and unsettling and I can never get enough of it.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy, including the films of Laurel and Hardy, please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media