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Friday, November 17, 2006





Finally --- A Good Babes In Toyland DVD


Sometimes a new DVD will come down the pipeline and surprise you. I hadn’t expected much for pre-ordering Babes In Toyland. It’s always been a problematic show, having passed through innumerable hands over decades of tangled ownership. Worse, there were title changes and edits --- lots of them. They called it March Of The Wooden Soldiers from 1950 on. Some renegade prints circulated about in the guise of Revenge Is Sweet, as bizarre a moniker as was ever hung on a family (musical) comedy adapted from Victor Herbert. And what of that colorized version? Indeed, Babes In Toyland was the great unknown among Laurel and Hardy features. Seeing it truly intact seemed as unlikely as rediscovering The Rogue Song, or finding decent prints of The Flying Deuces and Utopia. Well, there’s (finally) good news in DVD land. Babes In Toyland is now available in a transfer worthy of a holiday favorite too long out of quality circulation. Box art says March Of The Wooden Soldiers, but the print carries all original MGM credits, including Babes In Toyland's main title. I couldn’t see anything missing. All footage from any 16mm print I ever had appears to be here. There is a colorized version on the disc, but that’s in addition to black-and-white, and extras here are plentiful, but more of that anon …





Are there any over-aged kiddie show patrons out there? I was one on several occasions during the seventies and eighties. Here’s the conundrum --- a theatre schedules a program you’ve just got to see. Trouble is, it only plays matinee, specifically ones designed for small fry. What to do when you’re 18, or 21, even 30, and there’s Gorgo, The Time Machine, or Jack The Giant Killer beckoning to you from ticket windows lined with six-year-olds with parents, the latter casting uncertain looks as you gingerly approach --- by yourself. Gosh, lady. I don’t want to prey on your child. I just drove down to see "The Wizard Of Oz." Try selling that to a doubtful exhibitor as you enter his auditorium with a gaggle of innocent babes. I doubt they’d even let me in today. Maybe it’s as well they’ve stopped running things like Rodan, Horror Of Dracula, and Republic serials at kiddie shows, for even at age 52, how could I stay away? A first encounter with March Of The Wooden Soldiers was no small embarrassment in that respect, though clearly worth it. To my utter dumbfoundment, the Winston Theatre (in Winston-Salem, naturally) played MOTWS in 1972, and I'll claim without fear of contradiction having been the only high school senior in attendance. My peers, had they known, might assume I’d entered a twilight zone way beyond simple geekdom, but friend Brick Davis accompanied me, and he was but a year younger. At least I distinguished myself for being the only kid there to put coins in a parking meter. Better still was fact that March Of The Wooden Soldiers was a brand new print and had never looked better.




Hal Roach had started out writing a treatment for Babes In Toyland. I’ve read his synopsis --- it sounds awful. Stan Laurel thought so as well. He and Roach wrangled until the producer gave up and allowed Stan to proceed his way. Estrangement that caused would fester with Roach into old age. He’d maintain Babes In Toyland was lousy, and a commercial disaster besides. Fans would argue it’s neither, though I lack figures to show whether it made or lost money. Laurel wanted to model Babes in Toyland after Christmas pantomimes he’d grown up with. Such a concept was simple and straightforward. Disney’s 1961 remake would show what happens when such pageants get overstuffed. Laurel and Hardy are better integrated into the story than is customary for their features. Usually, narratives stop to allow extended routines. Good as it is, The Devil’s Brother tends toward this, and later ones like Bonnie Scotland and Swiss Miss are pretty rough going when L&H concede a spotlight to insipid romantic subplotters. It was was not unlike The Marx Brothers. Ninety sustained minutes of these comedians was thought excessive by supervisory hands. Audiences needed relief from too much fun making. Now it seems ludicrous to have turned a camera’s gaze away from these clowns, but few seem to have questioned policy then. Stan wished later that Babes In Toyland could have been made in color. Had it been four years hence, that dream might have been a reality, but no major studio was shooting Technicolor features in mid-1934, this being transition between the old two-color process and introduction of a substantially improved three-color system. Sole Technicolor that year would be novelty sequences in otherwise B/W features. Granted Babes In Toyland would have looked fabulous in color, but timing was wrong for that, and besides, with what we now have on DVD, the movie looks as good as one could hope for in monochrome.





Extras on this DVD are bountiful. There are actually Castle Films here! Christmas Toyshop was produced in the mid-forties. It’s a sort of reel Dad bought to show the family on new home movie projectors. 8 and 16mm boomed after the war. Parents who could afford it were eager to capture offspring on film. Castle provided entertainment subjects to supplement a family’s own efforts. Judging by volume of these reels that turn up on ebay, tens of thousands must have sold. Christmas Toyshop presents comforting fantasy for post-war suburbia --- Mom, Dad, and two kids listen to radio on Christmas Eve (not having yet put up a tree!). Kids dream of encountering Santa, through which they're guided by an early thirties cartoon depicting his workshop. Meanwhile, Dad pursues blundering effort to set up a tree and disguise himself as Jolly Fat Man. All ends happily within nine or so minutes. According to Scott MacGillivray’s excellent Castle Films book, these subjects were often cobbled together from old Yuletide trailers done for theatres, animated footage of yore (some of it by Paul Terry), and whatever new material could be shot, very cheaply, to link content together. The Babes In Toyland DVD also includes Castle’s Night Before Christmas and a really strange Howdy Doody’s Christmas, produced, according to Scott, in 1951, specifically for Castle. I’ve little memory of Howdy Doody from television, and judging by this subject, that may be as well. Guess this is one of those where you really had to be there. How many of these kinescopes survive? For all I know, this may be an only time the act was captured on film, as opposed to being shot off a TV monitor. Is it me, or does Howdy seem overburdened with strings? I kept waiting for Clarabelle to come along with shears and collapse him altogether. What a traumatic moment that would have been for kiddies! The clown’s routine made me flinch, especially when he (or she?) drove a nail into a mantelpiece with his/her forehead. I don’t know that I needed to see that. Buffalo Bob comes on strong toward a fragile Howdy, forever jutting his finger at the puppet and barking in his ear. For reasons too obscure to recount here, they all decamp to the North Pole (aboard a stock footage Flash Gordon rocket), where a deranged stooge called Ugly Sam holds Santa Claus prisoner. I assume Sam was a staple on the vid program. Suffice to say a little of his shtick goes a l-o-n-g way. Howdy stands (hangs) by impassively as Bob, Sam, and Clarabelle wrestle briefly on the floor. Santa effects all-round reconciliation and we dissolve to his animated departure from the Pole (courtesy a Van Buren, Iwerks, Terry --- who knows? --- cartoon). Howdy Doody’s Christmas is one priceless artifact. No telling how many fathers threaded this up on the Bell&Howell each holiday season between 1951 and 1961 (the years it was available through Castle’s catalogue). Kids at home must have been thrilled to watch Howdy on the family’s own movie projector. I know I plenty enjoyed it on DVD.

UPDATE: Lo and Behold, they've gone and released an even better Babes In Toyland since this posting went up in November 2006, this time from the negative's owner, MGM/UA. It's really terrific and highly recommended.

8 Comments:

Blogger Flickhead said...

Excellent write-up -- this new DVD sounds terrific!

6:56 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Received an e-mail just now requesting a link to the DVD of "Babes In Toyland", which I've included below. The label is Genius Entertainment/Legend Films. Accept no substitutes! --- and rest assured I'm not advertising for them, as I've had no contact with these folks. I just happen to like what they did with this DVD.

http://www.amazon.com/March-Wooden-Soldiers/dp/B000HLDFKO/sr=1-1/qid=1163777191/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/104-0260781-4762302?ie=UTF8&s=dvd

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Griff said...

Another 1934 black & white picture with a Technicolor sequence was MGM's all-star catastrophe HOLLYWOOD PARTY, which included a gorgeous Walt Disney color cartoon featuring the Freed & Brown song, "Hot Chocolate Soldiers." L&H also turn up briefly (and very effectively) in this star-crammed fiasco -- though unfortunately they have no scenes with Mickey Mouse, who is also a member of the picture's gigantic cast.

As a child, I always liked that Disney allowed Roach to include costumed versions of The Three Little Pigs among the denizens of Toyland -- he even licensed a few bars of Frank Churchill's theme song!

10:47 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

You've talked me into it John; this Babes in Toyland DVD is for me. I think I'll even get it myself rather than put it on my Christmas wish list (for fear of some well-meaning niece or nephew giving me the Disney version by mistake).

As for the supplements, I can't wait to check them out, especially the Castle Films stuff -- intensely nostalgic for me. Why, I even remember the Castle nickelodeons in our local Woolworth's and Ben Franklin stores; if I could wangle a dime from my folks I could enjoy a loop of Abbott and Costello as they Hit the Ice.

As for the Howdy Doody bit, I'm a little nervous. I for one remember the Howdy show vividly; I seldom missed it ("Hey kids, what time is it?!?!"). But I've reflected often on the last 30-or-so years on how my memory has no doubt rosified the experience. Can my nostalgia withstand the hard evidence of how truly cheesy the show no doubt was? (Besides, if this one doesn't include Dilly Dally, Princess Summerfallwinterspring, or the Flub-a-Dub, what's the point?)

11:15 AM  
Anonymous Greg said...

L&H's Babes In Toyland is the ONLY film I've ever preferred in the colorized version. If I watch it in black and white now it seems flat.

2:26 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

"Babes In Toyland" is my favorite of all Laurel and Hardy films.

Here is a souvenir from its original release in Spain:

http://www.bermemar.com/cepashis/ecosocia/gordoflaco36-entero.jpg

And here I found something from my native Argentina:

http://www.moviecard.com/laurelandhardy/lhcards4.htm

6:21 PM  
Anonymous James said...

Kino Video offers an excellent DVD of "Flying Deuces." As with your endorsement of "Babes," there's no association here. It's just a great disc of a movie that's all over the place in really poor copies.

Now if someone could just come up with a DVD of Bob Hope's "My Favorite Brunette" that's watchable!

9:22 PM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

I disagree about Roach's original BIT treatment, and it has been suggested that Laurel's refusal to have any part in filming it had more to do with his desire to maintain control over the team's material than with its perceived quality. The film as it exists is still wonderful, colorized or not, although the fact that it isn't the "All Star" vehicle it was slated to be leaves a faint bitter taste in my mouth. I wonder how Charley Chase and Our Gang would have fared in it...

1:22 AM  

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