Perhaps there is nothing remotely binding between the holiday in which we partake of turkey and welcome family fellowship with the obscure 1934 Laurel & Hardy musical March of the Wooden Soldiers (a.k.a. Babes in Toyland). All I know is that at my house growing up, it wasn’t Thanksgiving without this odd comedy (it used to be a holiday staple on TV in the 60′s and 70′s). The film stars the legendary comedy team of the infantile Stan Laurel and the rotund Oliver Hardy and features an interesting—and sometimes dark—peek into the world of fairy tales and nursery fables.
My deep admiration of Laurel and Hardy clearly influenced my enjoyment of this twisted yarn, but even for the uninitiated this film has undeniable charm and an incorrigible sense of whimsy…but it wouldn’t hurt to enjoy some of their other work and funny shorts first. The duo’s shtick was a basic one: two grown men with extremely childlike sensibilities saunter in and out of trouble while the softer more naive Laurel inadvertently causes more duress for the more domineering Hardy. They would put these characters into many situations and milk the comedy out of any circumstance and, naturally, the darker the dilemma the funnier the situation. Like Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy were always funniest to me when they were up against monsters, killers, ghosts, psychos, gangsters, etc. and in March of the Wooden Soldiers (directed by Gus Meins and Charley Rogers) they bounce from delightful childhood storybook characters to an army of Bogeymen led by the conniving Crooked Man, Silas Barnaby (Henry Brandon).
Based on Victor Herbert’s 1903 operetta, the story goes like this: Silas Barnaby is the wealthiest and meanest man in town (you don’t get rich by being nice to people), and he is in love with Little Bo-Peep (Charlotte Henry), but she loves the gallant Tom-Tom Piper (Felix Knight). Barnaby will not be beat so he frames Tom-Tom for pig-napping one of the Three Little Pigs and then furthers the deed by making it look as though Tom-Tom also ground him into sausage. Ollie Dee and Stannie Dum (Laurel and Hardy), two boarders with the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe (Florence Roberts) and friend of Bo-Peep, suspect foul play and so embark on a mission to find the truth…but get themselves arrested for burglary when they try to steal Mother Peep’s mortgage back from Barnaby.
Screwball mishaps abound as the lovable duo rub elbows with Mother Goose, Rock-a-bye Baby, Old King Cole, Mary Quite Contrary, Santa Claus, the Sandman, and many others. There are five musical numbers including the memorable “March of the Toys” instrumental piece that plays during the final battle when Laurel and Hardy unleash 100 giant Wooden Toy Soldiers on the vicious Bogeymen. The battle at the end is a lot of fun. All the characters band together to fight off the onslaught of monsters in their own unique ways. March of the Wooden Soldiers is a funny, entertaining, scary, bizarre, and fun Thanksgiving adventure for everyone. I will be the first to admit I was never a fan of most of the singing, but as I get older I appreciate its campy oddness more and more.
Personal notes: The Bogeymen are actually not the scariest part of this film. My family and I have always been slightly perturbed by the weird rubber pig costumes and the glassy eyed cat playing the cello (pigs and cat all played by people in suits). Another spooky aspect (but somehow absolutely fantastic in an incredibly deranged way) is the presence of Mickey Mouse. I’ve heard that they couldn’t get the rights from Disney (little surprise), but they still have a black mouse character with round head and ears, white gloves, red trousers, and yellow shoes. The spooky part: Mickey Mouse is played by small monkey that has been freakishly adorned to vaguely resemble the iconic rodent. The Mickey Mouse creature scrambles around, throwing bricks at the cat and is easily one of the coolest parts of the Bogeyman Battle (I won’t ruin it), but it is still slightly unnerving. Last note: This film is one of those rare movies that really benefits from the computer colorization process. Originally shot in black and white, the colorized version actually works for the film’s strange artificiality and brings a lot more surreal magic to this already kind of special movie.
Yeah, it’s weird. This celebrated classic may be strange, but I encourage you to invite Laurel and Hardy and the rest of Toyland into your home this Thanksgiving. Or any time of the year really. This movie isn’t themed to any holiday technically. It’s not really a great movie either. But it’s kinda kitsch now, I suppose. It doesn’t exactly matter.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” November 25, 2009.