Babes in Toyland, also known as March of the Wooden Soldiers, is one of the very best and most highly acclaimed films that comedy legends Laurel and Hardy ever made. This is a true comedy classic that, alas, has been only rarely seen in recent years. Babes in Toyland used to make pretty regular appearances on television. I remember watching it many times when I was growing up. But I can not remember the last time I saw it on TV, it has been so long. Which is a shame because this is simply a wonderful film. Babes in Toyland is based on a popular 1903 operetta of the same name by American composer, conductor, and cellist Victor Herbert (February 1, 1859 – May 26, 1924). Producer / director Hal Roach produced Laurel and Hardy’s version of Babes in Toyland in 1934. But the operetta has also had numerous other reincarnations over the years. Walt Disney remade Babes in Toyland as a musical film in brilliant Technicolor in 1961. Disney’s version starred former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello and pop star Tommy Sands as young lovers. Drew Barrymore and Keanu Reeves remade Babes in Toyland in 1986. And Christopher Plummer was the voice of the villainous Barnaby in an animated 1997 Babes in Toyland. While I am a fan of Annette Funicello’s 1961 version, Laurel and Hardy’s 1934 Babes in Toyland is by far the best.
Laurel and Hardy’s Babes in Toyland film actually differs quite a bit from the operetta. In Victor Herbert’s original operetta, villainous miser Barnaby is trying to steal the inheritance of his nephew Alan and niece Jane. Barnaby also lusts after Alan’s girlfriend Contrary Mary. Alan, Jane, Contrary Mary, and her brother Tom Tom the Piper’s Son all seek protection from the Master Toymaker of Toyland. But the Toymaker is an evil genius in cahoots with Barnaby. Alan is accused of the Toymaker’s death after his demonic dolls kill him and Contrary Mary is forced to marry Barnaby to save Alan from a death sentence. Barnaby tries to poison Alan but dies from his own vile brew and Mary and Alan live happily ever after. While both the operetta and the 1934 film versions are loosely based on popular old nursery rhymes, Hal Roach, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy threw most of the operetta story out for their 1934 Babes in Toyland.
Stan and Oliver play two simpletons who live with the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe (Mother Peep) and work for the Toymaker. Nasty Silas Barnaby holds the mortgage to the Peep family shoe and threatens to throw them all into the street unless the mortgage is paid or lovely damsel Bo Peep marries him. Stannie Dum (Stan Laurel) and Ollie Dee (Oliver Hardy) plan to ask their boss the Toymaker for an advance so they can pay the mortgage but it turns out they have screwed up an order of toy soldiers for Santa Claus and they end of fired and money-less. They make a screwball attempt to steal the mortgage and are stuck in the stocks. Poor Bo Peep, who is in love with Tom Tom the Piper’s son, is forced to marry Barnaby – or rather Barnaby ends up marrying Stannie Dum disguised in Bo Peep’s wedding dress. Barnaby then frames Tom Tom for the pig napping of one of the Three Little Pigs and Tom Tom is exiled to Bogeyland. Stannie Dum, Ollie Dee, and Bo Peep manage to rescue Tom Tom. In retaliation, evil Barnaby leads the Bogeymen in an attack on Toyland but Stannie and Ollie activate the toy soldiers to save the day.
The film Babes in Toyland features six musical numbers from the operetta including the opening song “Toyland”, “Never Mind Bo Peep”, “Castle in Spain”, “Go to Sleep, Slumber Deep”, “March of the Toys” (an instrumental piece), and “I Can’t Do the Sum” (an instrumental version is used as the running theme for Laurel and Hardy). Hal Roach was great friends with Walt Disney and Roach asked to borrow the instrumental tune “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” from an earlier Disney cartoon for use in his film. Disney said yes and Roach thanked him by including a strange little character that resembles Mickey Mouse in his film. This little mouse character shows up throughout the film and even plays a key role in fighting the villain. Disney later gave a friendly nod to Roach and his film by including two comedians who are obviously impersonating Laurel and Hardy in his own 1961 Babes in Toyland.
Babes in Toyland may be a fun musical comedy but its production was full of trouble and injuries. Stan Laurel fell off a platform and tore ligaments in his leg. The actor playing villainous Barnaby was injured in a fight. The assistant director slid off Mother Peep’s shoe house and tore ligaments in his leg. Kewpie Morgan who played Old King Cole had to laugh a lot for his role. After two days of laughing continuously during filming, the poor actor had ruptured muscles in his stomach. Oliver Hardy became sick and barely made it through filming. He entered the hospital to have his tonsils removed the day after filming wrapped. Hal Roach himself developed appendicitis. Extra John Wood injured his back when he was thrown into the ducking pond and sued Stan Laurel and his stunt double for $40,500 in damages but ended up settling out of court.
Laurel and Hardy, who played simpletons Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee in Babes in Toyland, are a legendary comedy duo but both actors had thriving film careers before they became a famous team. Thin Englishman Stan Laurel (June 16, 1890 – February 23, 1965) worked as a writer and a director and also starred in over 50 silent films before teaming up with Hardy in 1926. Heavy-set American Oliver Hardy (January 18, 1892 – August 7, 1957) had a busy career and made 117 silent shorts as Babe Hardy. All told, Hardy made more than 250 shorts before the famous team up. Unfortunately, more than a hundred of Hardy’s old shorts have been lost over time. Both men separately joined Hal Roach studios in 1926 and they were officially a team with the release of their 1927 silent short Putting Pants on Phillip. The duo stayed with Hal Roach until 1940 although the the experience of filming Babes in Toyland in 1934 actually started a rift between Hal Roach and Laurel and Hardy. Laurel was unhappy with the original script and demanded, and eventually got, to make the film his way. Hal Roach was so upset he said he did not want to produce any more films with the duo. Roach and the comedy kings stuck it out for a few more years and then Laurel and Hardy moved to 20th Century and later, MGM studios in search of more creative freedom. Laurel and Hardy made more than 107 films together including 32 silent shorts, 40 short sound films, 23 full length feature films, and 12 guest or cameo appearances. Their last film together was Atoll K in 1951.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are the undisputed stars of Babes in Toyland. But the film also starred handsome Felix Knight as lovelorn Tom Tom, Florence Roberts as the Widoe Peep and mother to Bo Peep, Virginia Karns as Mother Goose, William Burress as the Toymaker, and Ferdinand Munier as Santa Claus. Charlotte Henry played lovely damsel Bo Peep. Charlotte had started modeling and acting when she was young and she had some success as Alice in the 1933 film Alice in Wonderland and as Bo Peep in Babes in Toyland but ultimately she got lost among the starlets and her studio dropped her contract. She acted in lower budget films for a few more years but simply lost interest and retired from Hollywood. Charlotte moved to San Diego, married, became the secretary to the Roman Catholic Bishop of San Diego, and occasionally acted in local stage productions.
Babes In Toyland was also the film debut of actor Henry Brandon who played nasty old villain Silas Barnaby. Hal Roach discovered Henry after seeing him portray another old villain in a stage play and immediately hired Henry to play the villainous Silas Barnaby. When Henry Brandon arrived at Roach’s studio office to take up his new role, Roach had no idea who the 21 year old young man was Roach was angry and demanded to know what happened to his evil old villain. Hal Roach had only ever seen Henry Brandon in his heavy stage makeup which turned him into a very credible old man and never realized Henry was actually a very young man playing an old geezer. After his role of evil, old Barnaby in Babes in Toyland, Henry Brandon went on to have a successful 60 year long film career with more than a hundred films and a wide variety of ethnic roles. Henry also had a very successful and long lasting relationship with his partner, fellow actor Mark Herron.
Babes in Toyland has had numerous other titles including Laurel and Hardy in Toyland, Revenge is Sweet, and Wooden Soldiers. The studio renamed it every few years and re-released it to theaters in the hopes movie goers would think it was a totally new film. The film got a final rename as March of the Wooden Soldiers when it became a television staple in the 1960s and 1970s. A missing copyright notice on some older prints of the March of the Wooden Soldiers version is also how the film entered the Public Domain. Although there seems to be some argument as to whether the notice was really and truly missing and whether the film is really and truly in the Public Domain.
Overall, Babes in Toyland is a wonderful, fun filled classic film. There is music, singing, and dancing and some of the tunes are very catching. There is lots of slapstick comedy and hilarious banter between Laurel and Hardy. Hardy’s famous complaint “There’s another mess you’ve gotten us into” even makes an appearance. Babes in Toyland is a little over one hour and 17 minutes long. It was filmed in black and white and like all films of its age is often blurry and faded but never so much that it distracts from the story. And the audio is excellent. The film is often considered a Christmas classic but the story actually takes place in July when Santa is checking up on the progress of his toy orders (the month is named in the film itself). So I reviewed the movie for summer (besides I really wanted to watch and review it and just could not wait until next Christmas). The make up, costumes, and settings are fantastic. I especially loved the Cat and the Fiddle costume. The Three Little Pigs masks were a bit stiff but still fine for the times. The settings are gorgeous and extremely detailed. Too bad the film is not in color because it would probably have been beautiful (although the film has been colorized twice I have never seen those versions). Excellent stop motion animation is used in some scenes when the toy soldiers begin to march and actors in costumes are used in other scenes. The big clunky feet of the toy soldiers are hilarious and probably caused quite a few falls in real life. While this is a great film and a long time childhood favorite there are some scenes that younger movie fans might find disturbing. Silas Barnaby is quite nasty and often cackles evilly and the Bogeymen are very, very scary. Especially scary is a prolonged scene when Barnaby and the Bogeymen menace our heroes in a spooky cavern. Parents be warned. Babes in Toyland aka March of the Wooden Soldiers can be downloaded or watched FREE online at the Internet Archive. IA also has several musical selections from the operetta. A short medley of tunes runs less than five minutes and can be found here or here. IA has individual recordings of “Toyland” and “March of the Toys”. IA also has sheet music of the waltzes from Babes in Toyland. The operetta script and the operetta score can also be found FREE online.