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.