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Posted by on Nov 22, 2006 in At TMV | 1 comment

Guest DVD Review: Laurel & Hardy’s “March of the Wooden Soldiers” (Part 3)

NOTE: We occasionally run Guest Voice posts from thoughtful readers (and those who comment under our posts). This is the THIRD AND FINAL PART of three-part review of the DVD of Laurel and Hardy’s classic film “March of the Wooden Soldiers” (aka “Babes in Toyland”) written by Dan Schneider who sometimes leaves comments on this site. See link below for Part I. Schneider has this site and this new film site.

DVD Review Of Babes In Toyland (aka “March of the Wooden Soldiers”)
(Part III)
Copyright © by Dan Schneider

But it’s not just the anarchy of Babes In Toyland that leaves decades long nightmarish images in the mind of a child.

Really look at some of the deeper goings on- such as the precariously perched Rockabye Baby in the crib up in the tree, Barnaby’s evil bidding dwarf, the doubly sharpened wooden peewees that somehow behave like boomerangs when whacked by Stannie’s stick, the unmovable expressions of the masks the Three Little Pigs wear- which seem like the masks of Drama and Comedy, and the psychotic glee of the Mickey Mouse knockoff puppet, who acts more like the brick tossing Ignatz Mouse to the man in a bad cat suit’s Cat with the Fiddle’s Krazy Kat. Many critics cite Tom and Jerry as the inspiration for this antagonistic duo, but they were, in fact, the derivations that had yet to appear in cartoons. The obvious inspiration was really the then wildly popular Krazy Kat newspaper cartoon. The fact that the mouse puppet is so badly operated also adds to its inhuman creepiness.

Also, there is something very fascistic about Toyland, where a fat Old King Cole (Alan Hale, Sr., father of Gilligan’s Island’s The Skipper, in an uncredited role) takes to torturing subjects accused of crimes without a writ of habeas corpus, nor a trial by jury (Ollie’s dunking/Iraq War detainees’ waterboarding?), and the enforcers of all this are sadistic black hooded and bare armed executioners. The horror is even added to by the annoyingly saccharine songs sung by the cartoonish lead characters, as well as the very stagey sets used in the film. Absolutely no attempt at reality is made.

None of the later versions of this film- not a cartoon version, a 1961 Walt Disney Technicolor remake (in name only), nor a more recent Drew Barrymore vehicle, come close to the humor nor creepiness this film showcases.

And, it should be noted, this DVD is the colorized version of the movie, and runs a brisk 78 minutes, which really adds to the nightmarish tinge. Usually, black and white is more dream-like medium, but the bright colors tend to ‘realize’ the nightmarish aspects of the tale even more, and this version never goes too far in saturating the skin color. Stan Laurel’s hair color, as example, is his natural auburn, not the glaring orange other colorized versions have it. It is also rumored that the comedy team always wanted this feature filmed in color, but the costs were too prohibitive for that technology when it was filmed.

This is a film crying out for a film commentary to expound upon such aspects of the film and its making, but, alack, there is none. There is a grand three minute trailer for the film, with its original title of Babes In Toyland, as well as a three minute 1950 television interview with Oliver Hardy, and an odd minute or so long silent home film of Stan Laurel with an Academy Award in his den. How this snippet was obtained for the DVD would be an interesting anecdote in itself.

The film was written by Frank Butler and Nick Grinde, and directed by Gus Meins and Charley Rogers, who should be credited with the nightmarish quality the film exudes, even if some of this is because of their incompetence- such as technical problems, like the shaky opening zoom in to Mother Goose, poorly integrated matte paintings of mountains that blur onto Toyland in the opening vista shot. Yet, in a sense, even these unintentional grotesqueries work well in the film’s illogical context. Many parts of the sets used in this film were later reused in countless Hal Roach Our Gang comedies, especially the tunnels of Bogeyland. The acting, save for Laurel and Hardy and Brandon’s pitch perfect scenery chewing Barnaby, is not good, yet, again, this works, for it makes many of the minor characters seem all the more robotic and unreal, therefore scarier and dream-like oddities that have been recycled from the unconscious.

I forget whether this was the first Christmas themed film I ever saw, but it’s the earliest one that stuck, and like many of the later Christmastime chestnuts that I love (It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle On 34th Street, White Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, The Gathering, and The Homecoming- the initial The Waltons tv movie) I cannot be totally objective about it.

That said, Babes In Toyland does everything a film or any work of art should do- it entertains, moves, and affects you in deeper ways than are immediately understood, even if none of this was intended. Art is not about intention, for if that were the case I guarantee you that this film would be a long forgotten period confection, not the holiday classic it is. There are Laurel and Hardy snobs (yes, they do exist!) that loathe this film, and with good reason, compared to some of their more classic Vaudevillian classics. Yet, they too are skewed, not unlike all the characters in Toyland, for they refuse to merely accept what is presented, and instead judge this terrific little film against what they feel a Laurel and Hardy film should be. Therefore it always falls short.

But, if one merely sits back and lets the movie run free of presentiment or expectation it will not fail to entertain- on a first or hundred and first viewing, at the age of four, forty, nor eighty-four. Go ahead, prove me wrong!

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