Originally published December 8th, 2020
There’s no shortage of memorable holiday films coming out of the classic era of Hollywood. It seems there is something for everybody, taking in all tastes and genres. Everyone has their favorites. Thinking back on my childhood, even before I’d watched White Christmas, Meet Me in St. Louis, or even Little Women, I was a fan of Laurel and Hardy. While the duo isn’t associated with holiday films, they made at least one feature that continues to be held as a nostalgic family classic. Here’s everything you need to know about the 1934 version of Babes in Toyland (also known as March of the Wooden Soldiers).
Babes in Toyland follows Stan and Ollie (Laurel and Hardy), residents of Toyland. They have little choice but to step in and save the day when Mother Peep (Florence Roberts) learns Barnaby Barnacle (Henry Brandon) is going to evict her, her children, and boarders (Stan and Ollie) from their house…which also happens to be a shoe (she’s the little old woman who lives in a shoe, after all). To make matters worse, the evil Barnaby also has his eye on her eldest daughter, Little Bo Peep (Charlotte Henry), despite the girl’s betrothal to the adorable Tom Tom the Piper’s Son (Felix Knight). Will Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee be able to save the day? Gus Meins and Charley Rogers direct the film from a script by Frank Butler and Nick Grinde among others.
Even almost 90 years after it hit theaters, Babes in Toyland feels like the cinematic equivalent of a storybook. It is very much like that bedtime story you always read as a child. There is something so easy about it. It is a fun, joyful, and comforting movie from the get-go. A vivid sense of whimsy and nostalgia permeates from everything: from the set design to the costumes and even in the performances.
Sure, this movie isn’t the most subtle. While this could play as a negative for some, it never felt like a hindrance for me (this is a yearly viewing in the Pierce household, after all). Of course, there are elements that don’t have the same effect in 2020 that they did in 1934: namely the many animal costumes with human eyes (read: nightmare fuel), and also what is reportedly a monkey dressed in a mouse costume. These are strange, even surreal sights at times.
At the same time, there’s a highly theatrical feel to the entire movie, which I believe stems from the operatic elements in the story. The music is different. The acting can potentially feel over-the-top. Babes in Toyland show us a cinematic environment that contemporary viewers just don’t see anymore. This musical is very at home in the style, aesthetic, and tone of the 1930s. It is “of its time”. This is not a bad thing; however, this might not sit well with all viewers who aren’t ready for the joys of operetta.
However, the performances throughout the feature are incredibly fun, with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy leading the cast. Henry Brandon in particular is a mustache-twirling, scene-stealer as the villainous Barnaby. He’s the kind of bad guy meant to be tying women to railroad tracks or wrestling them into perilous positions in sawmills. Brandon’s performance is brash, colorful, and completely memorable in that he’s just having so much fun being despicable.
It always amazes me that at the time of production, Henry Brandon was reportedly 22 years old. He gives such a massive performance that it’s easy to lose sight of the man behind the character. He amassed more than 150 screen credits during his lengthy career, with his last roles coming deep into the 1980s.
At the same time, Felix Knight is likely the cause of my fondness for 1930s tenors in all their forms. Appearing opposite Charlotte Henry, Knight neatly folds himself into this very specific group of musical performers, and fans of Allen Jones, Nelson Eddy, and Kenny Baker, should definitely take a look into his work. He absolutely shines with the music, making me wonder why we didn’t see more of him during this era. TomTom is Knight’s biggest, and likely best-known role (his filmography lists 8 credits), with most of his career being spent on-stage and on the radio in New York.
Meanwhile, it isn’t a surprise that Laurel and Hardy bring a number of strong comedic routines throughout the movie, showing just why their success during this era was so steady. The duo’s comedy isn’t always big and splashy. It doesn’t have to be. They are traditionally stellar in their memorable, choreographed physical comedy (Laurel batting his “peewees” absolutely makes the movie). However, Laurel and Hardy shine in the quiet scenes as well, selling the material down to the smallest moment. All it takes is a single look or a shrug to bring home a laugh.
All in all, Babes in Toyland is one of my all-time favorite Laurel and Hardy movies. These two cinematic legends helped craft the direction of comedy as the film evolved from the silent era, and each and every time they step in front of the camera is a joy and one to remember. If you haven’t seen Babes in Toyland, make sure you add this one to your list this holiday season.
Babes in Toyland is currently streaming on the Watch TCM app as well as on Amazon Prime. Keep an eye on TCM for lots more Laurel and Hardy content for the month of December. Interested in picking stocking up on your physical media? You can pick it up on Blu-ray through Amazon right here!
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