Most everyone has “musts” that make a holiday special, traditions that never get old. For me on Thanksgiving the “musts” include family, friends, turkey, rice and beans, yuca (cassava) and March of the Wooden Soldiers, the 1934 MGM-distributed, Hal Roach Studios‘ production of Gus Meins’ musical-comedy, which stars Laurel and Hardy.
Known by many as Babes in Toyland, March of the Wooden Soldiers (the movies’ most popular alternate title) is loosely based on Victor Herbert’s 1903 operetta Babes in Toyland. The film was released as a Christmas offering on December 14, 1934*, however, for many of us who grew up in the New York City area it was (and still is) shown on Channel 11, WPIX every Thanksgiving and remains a must-watch as part of the festivities every year.
The story of March of the Wooden Soldiers takes place in Toyland, a town whose inhabitants are all takes on popular fairytale characters – Little Bo Peep, Tom Tom, the Piper’s son, the old lady who lives in a shoe, otherwise known as the Widow Peep, the Cat and the fiddle, Mother Goose, who opens the film and introduces the characters in song, the Three Little Pigs (Elmer, Willie and Jiggs), and a host of others. The stars of the movie, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy play Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee respectively. And then….there’s Silas Barnaby, the villain in the story – evil personified.
So…the story goes…with spoilers!
The rich, old, evil Barnaby is interested in Bo Peep and wants to make her his bride. Bo Peep, however, is in love with Tom Tom. Barnaby actually has the nerve to ask Bo Peep to marry him, a proposal she refuses. However, Barnaby is a man used to getting what he wants by any mean means at his disposal so he wastes no time in attempting to force marriage on the innocent maiden. Knowing the Widow Peep is having a difficult time paying the mortgage on the oversized shoe she lives in, which he owns, Barnaby offers the old woman an ultimatum – unless her eldest daughter Bo Peep agrees to marry him he will foreclose on the shoe, which also houses boarders Stanley Dum and Ollie Dee. Well, the Widow Peep may be broke, but she’s not about to agree to selling her daughter and tells Barnaby so in no uncertain manner. However, she is worried about where she’ll get the money to pay the mortgage and upon seeing her worry, Ollie offers her all the money he has stored away in his savings can. Such a sweet offer. It’s unfortunate, however, that unbeknownst to him, the only thing left in his can is a note…
Yes. Stannie has “borrowed” all of Ollie’s money to buy peewees (a favored toy) which obviously angers Ollie. But knowing the gravity of the matter at hand, the peewee situation is quickly forgotten and the duo tell the old lady they’ll ask their boss, the Toy Maker, to lend them the money to cover the mortgage.
Unfortunately, before the boys get up the nerve to ask the Toy Maker for a loan, they’re fired because Stannie has botched up one of Santa’s orders and Christmas is the mainstay of the toy factory.
The Toy Maker: What do you think of the wooden soldiers?
Santa Claus: They’re nice but they’re not what I ordered. I ordered 600 soldiers one foot high.
Stannie Dum: Oh I thought you said 100 soldiers six feet high.
“That’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”
Needless to say, the Toy Maker doesn’t lend Ollie and Stannie the money for the mortgage so the duo come up with a fool-proof plan to sneak into Barnaby’s house and steal the mortgage to the shoe. Disguised as a Christmas present for the evil Barnaby, Ollie hides in a box that is delivered by Stannie. Once the gift box is tucked in Barnaby’s house and the evil man goes to sleep, Ollie will get out of the box and steal the mortgage. Anyway, that’s the plan. However, as the suspicious Barnaby is leading Stannie out of his house after the delivery, the good-hearted loaf, Stannie, turns and says “Goodnight, Ollie” to which the other one sticks his head out of the box and replies, “Goodnight Stannie.” The jig is up and Barnaby then accuses Stannie and Ollie of burglary, which he again uses to blackmail Bo Peep into marrying him. If she doesn’t accept his offer her friends will be exiled to Bogeyland…forever. Bogeyland, by the way, is a terrible place from where it is rumored no one ever returns. Seeing no other option, a heartbroken Bo Peep agrees to marry Barnaby who immediately drops the charges against Stan and Ollie and announces to all in Toyland that Bo Peep will become his wife.
The day of the terrible wedding arrives and there’s no way Stannie and Ollie can allow Bo Peep to go through with the nuptials so Stannie dresses up as the bride and marries Barnaby in her place.
Now livid about the joke played on him, Barnaby comes up with a sinister plan for revenge – he pignaps Elmer, one of the Three Little Pigs, by blowing his house of straw down to the ground and frames Tom Tom for the crime. As punishment for the pignapping Tom Tom is banished to Bogeyland by order of a Royal Proclamation.
Suspecting Barnaby is behind the entire pignapping scheme, Stannie and Ollie come up with a plan to expose his evilness. They sneak into Barnaby’s house and sure enough, they find Elmer safe and sound. No crime has been committed! But there’s a problem – Tom Tom is already in the dreaded Bogeyland AND Bo Peep has gone through the crocodile-infested waters to get to him. But, don’t worry too much for the young couple because despite the dangers they find each other and have time for a lullaby. That is, before all hells breaks loose! You see, now found out with a ransom on his head, Barnaby too escapes to Bogeyland where he has the allegiance of the horrible boogeymen – ugly, hairy, fanged, man-beasts with a thirst for human blood (I sort of added the blood thirst thing for effect.)
Surrounded by the boogeymen, Barnaby finds Tom Tom and Bo Peep, who’s somehow managed to take a nap amidst the horrors of Bogeyland. Anyway, Tom Tom and Barnaby go at it in a fearsome battle over the damsel. Tom Tom beats Barnaby off, but not before the evil man releases the Kraken! Er…I mean, the boogeymen, unleashing them upon Toyland to wreak havoc. BUT, Stannie and Ollie have a secret weapon – the wooden soldiers! The two hurry into the toy factory and quickly press the button on the 100 six-foot toys that Santa thought useless.
…and the inhabitants of Toyland live happily ever after…forever.
March of the Wooden Soldiers is loads of fun, a must-see during the holidays. As one of the oldest of the perennial holiday favorites it has stood the test of time. And not by happenstance. For the 1930s it’s an impressive production, which required the services of many independent workers unlike most other films being made. March took twelve weeks to make and had approximately 300 people appearing in it in one manner of another. A Hollywood crocodile “farm” supplied the reptiles used in the swamps that surround Bogeyland, reptiles that were so ferocious that it was necessary to have armed guards stand by while expert swimmers, playing the role of “boogeymen”, were in the water with them. Although IMDB notes the production was plagued with injuries, it’s a wonder not one person was seriously hurt during the making of the film. In addition to the crocodiles, ensuring costuming for such a large cast was an impressive undertaking. Over two hundred of the furry suits with rubber masks were made for the Bogeymen, and over one hundred period costumes were needed for the villagers who, as mentioned above, represented characters of many of the popular fairy tales. Over three hundred wigs were supplied by outside specialists and were cared for during production by a staff of 12 hairdressers. (Picturegoer Weekly)
As entertainment I still buy into all of it including the triumphant March that saves the day in March of the Wooden Soldiers. It always thrills me. And the creatures that scared me as a child still (kinda) do as I watch the movie today. Although the Bogeymen have never scared me as much as Silas Barnaby. He still makes me shiver. I place him right up there next to the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz on my list of scariest things ever! He’s as wicked as they come. Proper credit must be given to Henry Brandon, in his film debut, for his performance as Barnaby, reportedly the part producer, Hal Roach had the most difficult time casting. Hal Roach “discovered” Brandon when he attended a stage production in which the actor appeared. In the production, Henry Brandon played a sadistic, decrepit old man, exactly the type Roach was looking for in Silas Barnaby so he set up an interview with the actor and was surprised when into his office strode a six-foot-five inch, twenty-one-year-old man. (IMDB) I too was quite surprised to learn this. Brandon gives a great performance as Barnaby. I fear and hate him!
As far as Laurel and Hardy go, they are their usual selves in the film, which means they are supremely entertaining. The pair is one of my favorites excelling at both physical humor and the usual schtick that often revolves around an innocent kind of “dumb and dumber” theme. March of the Wooden Soldiers plays to the pair’s strength and features a series of routines that compliment the main story. I never tire of their optimistic humor as evidenced in the Christmas gift scene I described above. It’s silliness, but it’s funny as heck. Laurel and Hardy characters are so good-hearted one can’t help but love ’em.
The bottom line is there are a host of reasons why March of the Wooden Soldiers remains one of my favorite holiday classics. It’s a fun, sweet, entertaining film for the entire family – the kind of movie that both evokes and creates memories. It is a movie I hope all parents show their children, something New York Times critic, Andre Sennwald agreed with in 1934 when he wrote, “The film is an authentic children’s entertainment and quite the merriest of its kind that Hollywood has turned loose on the nation’s screens in a long time…Every youngster in New York ought to find a ticket for “Babes in Toyland” in his Christmas stocking.” I hope that remains true in today’s terms – every youngster ought to find a DVD of March of the Wooden Soldiers in his/her stocking – or turkey stuffing. It’s a wonderful addition to every family’s yearly tradition.
Stanley Dum . . . . . Stan Laurel
Oliver Dee . . . . . Oliver Hardy
Bo-Peep . . . . . Charlotte Henry
Tom-Tom . . . . . Felix Knight
Barnaby . . . . . Henry Brandon as Henry Kleinbach
Widow Peep . . . . . Florence Roberts
Santa Claus . . . . . Ferdinand Munier
Toymaker . . . . . William Burress
Mother Goose . . . . . Virginia Karns
*This is the release date noted in IMDB, which coincides with the original review for the film in the New York Times published on December 13, 1934. However, I saw varying release dates listed on several other sites that spanned from March through November of that year.