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DVD SAVANT

Savant Guest Review:

March of the Wooden Soldiers


March of the Wooden Soldiers
Eureka Video
1934 / B&W / 1:37 flat / 77m. / aka Babes in Toyland
Starring Starring Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charlotte Henry, Felix Knight, Henry Kleinbach, Florence Roberts, Virginia Karns
Cinematography Art Lloyd & Francis Corby
Film Editors William Terhune & Bert Jordan
Music Director Harry Jackson
Writing credits Frank Butler & Nick Grinde based on the operetta by Victor Herbert Lyrics by Glen MacDonough
Produced by Hal Roach
Directed by Gus Meins & Charles Rogers

Reviewed by Lee Broughton

Missing from British television screens for nearly twenty years and only available in the US in edited or colourised form, a complete black and white version of March of the Wooden Soldiers (aka Babes in Toyland) has appeared in the UK on PAL Region 2 DVD.

Did Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy ever appear in a truly awful film? It's hard to be objective when dealing with characters as likeable as these two but I really don't think that they did. Okay, some of their later features weren't always as good as their earlier classics but they managed to bring a degree of personal charm and magic to every film they made. Any complaints usually centred around distractions that only served to cut down on Laurel and Hardy's screen time: the occasional, over-involved subplot concerning supporting characters or the sometimes overlong musical interludes that featured in some of their operettas. March of the Wooden Soldiers is an operetta, and it devotes much screen time to a multitude of supporting characters and subplots, but it stands as one of Laurel and Hardy's best.

Synopsis:

Stannie Dum (Stan Laurel) and Ollie Dee (Oliver Hardy) are two happy-go-lucky Toy Factory employees who lodge with cash-strapped Mother Peep (Florence Roberts), the Old Woman who lived in a shoe. Evil Silas Barnaby (Henry Kleinbach) holds the mortgage on the shoe and threatens to evict Mother Peep and company unless her daughter, Little Bo-Peep (Charlotte Henry), marries him. Stannie and Ollie offer to help out financially but a routine visit by Santa Claus reveals that Stannie has messed up his latest order. When the Toymaker discovers that they have built 100 six-foot toy soldiers, instead of the 600 one-foot high figures that Santa had actually ordered, he fires the pair of them. They're down but by no means out. Unfortunately, when the duo eventually succeed in outsmarting Barnaby, he concocts a plan that results in Little Bo-Peep's true love, Tom-Tom Piper (Felix Knight), being wrongly banished to Bogeyland. When this wicked ruse is found out, Barnaby flees to Bogeyland too, where he assembles the monstrous Bogeymen and leads them in an all-out assault on Toyland. Hopelessly outnumbered, Stannie, Ollie, Mickey Mouse and the Three Little Pigs valiantly stage a defence, which looks doomed until our heroes remember the oversized Toy Soldiers.

When Hal Roach first came up with the idea of placing Laurel and Hardy in a film version of Victor Herbert's 1903 operetta Babes in Toyland, Stan Laurel wasn't overly keen and insisted on re-working elements of the screenplay before agreeing to sign up. The end result is an intriguing amalgam of comedy, fantasy and opera, which features an array of instantly recognisable characters from European nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and American cartoons, presented in a manner reminiscent of the British pantomime tradition. And it all works extremely well.

There's a nice 'stagey' feel to some of the sequences and setpieces that successfully conveys the theatrical elements of the original operetta presentation and adds to the pantomime-like atmosphere. When the gates of Toyland open at the beginning of the film, it's like the curtains being drawn back at the start of a theatrical performance. Toyland itself is laid out like a giant pantomime set but with detailed and realistic structures replacing the more familiar two-dimensional cutouts and painted backdrops. Both Laurel and Hardy play directly to the camera at several points, adding to the 'audience participation' feel, while Silas Barnaby generally skulks into frame from off camera (his presence signalled by his very own 'he's behind you' style signature tune) or is seen advancing directly towards the camera with malevolent intent. Expertly played by Henry Kleinbach (later known as Henry Brandon - War Chief Scar in The Searchers!), Barnaby is a suitably sinister panto villain. A natural antecedent of the type of nightmare-inducing characters that later appeared in the likes of The Wizard of Oz and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

The sets and costumes look particularly lavish and impressive while the bizarre architecture of Toyland, and the 'otherworldliness' of some of the many characters who live there, successfully evoke the sense of strangeness and potential unease that is associated with the best fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Clever costuming brings to life the Cat (with the fiddle), Mickey Mouse and the Three Little Pigs as well as an army of horrific Bogeymen. And some neat special effects allow Laurel and Hardy to interact with stop-motion animated Wooden Soldiers and Mother Goose (Virginia Karns) to turn the pages of a giant story book that features moving pictures.

The handful of songs featured are generally good and are sung in an accessible manner, which allows the lyrics to be understood and appreciated by the whole audience (not just those with classical training). One song even features an extended, almost English Music Hall-style, group sing-along section. By and large, all of the songs have good melodies and fairly instant hook lines and the incidental soundtrack music, which is present in literally every single frame of the film, is uniformly excellent. Bubbling away in the background, almost working at a subconscious level in places, it accurately reflects and amplifies the changing moods and emotions that are present in the story.

It's pretty much business as usual for the Laurel and Hardy characters though there are a few subtle changes that 'soften' their approach slightly, possibly implemented with the potentially younger than usual audience in mind. Stan still fouls things up and steers Ollie's well intentioned, if over-ambitious, schemes to less than successful conclusions, but these setbacks don't seem quite as serious as they would in the real world. Ollie's familiar seething stares are dropped in favour of less intimidating expressions of exasperation. And while Ollie still has to eat humble pie here, it seems to be a reasonably manageable slice, as opposed to the usual plate full. Consequently, his verbal and physical attacks on Stan aren't as harsh or as prolonged as usual. Stan is never once driven to the point of retaliation in this feature. In fact, the pair both come over as much more self-assured and confident individuals. At times, Ollie is more like a Danny Aiello-style tough guy, who is showing his softer side, as opposed to a big softy who is trying to act tough. And, at the end of the day, the duo really are heroes who manage to help their friends and save Toyland. They're not afraid to tackle the spooky Silas Barnaby when he threatens Mother Peep and conspires against Tom-Tom Piper and, when everybody else flees and hides in terror, Stan and Ollie make the conscious decision to stand and fight the dreaded Bogeymen.

Maybe the prospect of appearing in a film full of characters that every viewer would instantly recognise, and fondly remember from their childhood, subconsciously prompted Laurel and Hardy to make an extra effort in order to quickly establish a place for their own loveable personas within the magical populace of Toyland. Or maybe they were just having as much fun as they appear to be. Either way, they both give superlative performances and it's no wonder that this outing is rumoured to be Oliver Hardy's personal favourite.

Originally released under the title Babes In Toyland, it seems that different cuts of the film were circulated from the outset, simply because nobody was certain which age group the film should be targeted at. It has been suggested that some distributors deleted a couple of the songs while others kept the songs but cut the more frightening parts from the attack of the Bogeymen sequence, etc. They needn't have bothered: in its complete state, the film possessed everything needed to appeal to, and successfully entertain, any combination of different age groups. And it still does. At some point in the 1950s, the film began appearing under the new title of March of the Wooden Soldiers and, a few years later, Disney appropriated the Babes in Toyland title for their own 1961 remake.

The version now available in the UK appears to contain all of the sequences previously reported as missing from the black & white video versions issued in the US: Mother Goose's 'Babes in Toyland' storybook intro, the Bogeyland sequence where Tom-Tom Piper sings Bo-Peep to sleep and the unedited attack of the Bogeymen sequence.

The picture quality of the DVD is pretty good, given the film's age, with relatively few scratches and just the occasional, very minor, jump due to lost frames. The sound is reasonably good, too. While seeming to sit in semi-isolation outside of Laurel and Hardy's main body of work, this charming feature, with its engaging storyline, strong supporting cast and characters and generally good camera placement, direction and pace is as good a film as any to remind us all of the unique and enduring comic talents of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
March of the Wooden Soldiers rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good+
Sound: Good
Supplements: Short Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy biographies, Stan Laurel solo short ('Hustling For Health', 1915), one sheet chapter index card
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 23, 2001



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DVD Review Text © Copyright 2007 Lee Broughton

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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