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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 in the guise of Revenge Is Sweet, as bizarre a title as was ever hung on a family musical comedy adapted from Victor Herbert. And what of the colorized version? 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. Now there is (finally) good news on DVD fronts. Babes In Toyland is 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 could see detect nothing missing. All footage from any 16mm print I ever had appears to be here. There is a colorized version on the disc, but that is in addition to black-and-white, and extras here are plentiful, but more of that anon …

Are there 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 eight-year-olds accompanied or being dropped off by parents, the latter casting uncertain looks as you gingerly approach the ticket window --- 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. A first encounter with March Of The Wooden Soldiers was no small embarrassment in that respect, though clearly worth it. To my astonishment, a theatre in Winston-Salem played MOTWS in 1972, and I'll claim without fear of correction that I was the only high school senior in attendance. My peers, had they known, would assume I’d gone way beyond geekdom, but friend Brick Davis accompanied me, and he was but a year younger. I distinguished myself at least for being the only kiddie there to put coins in a parking meter. Better still was March Of The Wooden Soldiers being a brand new print in 35mm that had probably never looked better.

The film's birth was difficult. Producer Hal Roach 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 maintained that Babes In Toyland was lousy, and a commercial disaster besides. Fans would argue it was neither. Laurel wanted to model Babes in Toyland after Christmas pantomimes he had 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 Laurel and Hardy concede a spotlight to romantic sub-plotters. Ninety sustained minutes of any comedians was thought excessive by studio supervision. 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 had been made in color. 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-strip 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 supplied 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 been sold. Christmas Toyshop presents a 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 as they are guided through an early thirties cartoon depicting his workshop. Meanwhile, Dad pursues blundering effort to set up a tree and disguise himself as Jolly Saint Nick. All ends happily in less than nine minutes. According to Scott MacGillivray’s excellent Castle Films book, these subjects were 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 specifically for Castle in 1951, according to Scott. I’ve little memory of Howdy Doody from television, and judging by this subject, that may be as well. Guess this is 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 "Ugly Sam" holds Santa Claus prisoner. I assume Sam was a staple on the TV program. Suffice to say a little of his routine goes a long way. Howdy stands (hangs) by impassively as Bob, Sam, and Clarabelle wrestle briefly on the floor. Santa effects an 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 and Howell each holiday season between 1951 and 1961 (the years it was available through Castle’s catalog). Kids at home must have been thrilled to watch Howdy on their family’s own movie projector. I know I plenty enjoyed it on DVD. 


Blogger Uncle Gustav 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.

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous 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 Anonymous 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 Anonymous 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:

And here I found something from my native Argentina:

6:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous 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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