Still Marching: A Laurel and Hardy Kind of Thanksgiving…or any other time of the year. It doesn’t exactly matter.

Everybody remembers the Disney "Babes in Toyland" (1961), but do they remember us?!

Everybody remembers the Disney “Babes in Toyland” (1961), but do they remember us?!

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.

Santa Claus. Because Thanksgiving is just a primer for Christmas.

Santa Claus. Because Thanksgiving is just a primer for Christmas.

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).

Silas Barnaby, he Crooked Man of Toyland.

Silas Barnaby, he Crooked Man of Toyland.

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.

The boring love interest.

The boring love interest.

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.

The last march of the ents.

The last march of the ents.

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.

Bogeymen.

Bogeymen.

See? Scary pigs.

See? Scary pigs.

See? Spooky man in cat costume and monkey in Mickey Mouse costume.

See? Spooky man in cat costume and monkey in Mickey Mouse costume.

Mouse monkey!!!!

One more time! Mouse monkey!!!!

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.

Laurel & Hardy

Laurel & Hardy

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” November 25, 2009.

Jim Henson is the Story Teller

Great TV seems to be a rarity these days. Especially in the realm of high-end fantasy. In times like these (dominated by “reality,” shockers, and wanton crassness) I find it refreshing to revisit older television shows. Jim Henson’s The Storyteller (1988) is a welcome oddity from the past. Only nine episodes were made, but they are fresh and fun. Four more episodes were made for Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Greek Myths (1990).


Jim Henson gets a lot of credit as the creator of the Muppets and Sesame Street (1969-present), but few seem to realize that he was much more than a simple puppeteer. In addition to performing as Kermit the frog, Rowlf the dog, and Dr. Teeth, Jim Henson was a pioneering innovator in the field of modern puppetry, animatronics, and special effects. The Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (which was developed for films like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth) was responsible for some of the most memorable movie monsters of the past few decades (including The Witches, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Babe, The Flintstones, Dr. Doolittle, MirrorMask, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, etc.).

John Hurt (A Man for All Seasons, The Elephant Man, Watership Down, Alien, Hellboy) stars as The Storyteller, a wizened old man who sits in a tatterdemalion chair at the best place by the fire. Brian Henson (Return to Oz, Labyrinth, Monster Maker) performs the voice and puppeteers the role of the Storyteller’s dog. Together in an old and mysterious castle they huddle by the fireside and tell stories from ancient European folklore. The hallmarks of the show are that the tales told by the Storyteller are very obscure and each episode is assured to feature some new makeup, monster, or prosthetic from the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Some familiar faces do make appearances in the stories themselves. Sean Bean (Ronin, Fellowship of the Ring), Bob Peck (Jurassic Park), Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Evita), Miranda Richardson (Blackadder, Sleepy Hollow), Joely Richardson (Event Horizon, 101 Dalmations), Alison Doody (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), Bryan Pringle (the butler in Haunted Honeymoon), Robert Eddison (the knight at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), Philip Jackson and Pauline Moran (Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon from Agatha Christie’s Poirot), and a few others all play roles in these bizarre fables, but the real stars are the innovative special effects.

A high fantasy children’s show about obscure foreign tales with grandiose production qualities featuring spooky and distorted monsters and hideous makeup was doomed to be short-lived from the beginning it would seem. When one of your episodes features a hedgehog monster-man who rides a giant rooster, marries a princess who fears him, and removes his skin every night to hang out with barnyard animals naked you know you don’t have a typical mainstream smash hit on your hands. The stories are dark and unforgivingly strange and cryptic at times. The puppets, animatronics, and makeup and indeed even the tone is sometimes enough to make one uneasy, but after almost a decade of dark 80s films for kids (The Black Cauldron, Watcher in the Woods, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Gremlins, Black Hole, Return to Oz, Time Bandits, etc.) I don’t see it as anything the young ‘uns couldn’t have handled.

The two episodes Jim Henson himself directed “The Soldier and Death” and “The Heartless Giant” were probably the best. “The Soldier and Death” I found to be particularly good and actually surprisingly complex..not to mention the great creepy devil puppets and death too. John Hurt must been having the time of his life as the Storyteller. He plays the role with such grizzled vigor and in the episode “A Story Short” he actually becomes the central character in his own narration. The filming is fun and imaginative, featuring many expressionistic touches and collage and silhouette techniques. The puppets are great (perhaps a bit odd at times, but it’s all good). Sea monsters, devils, griffins, giants, wolves, trolls, magical lions, and other creatures speckle the landscape here. Major props to the clever writing as well. The Storyteller does not Disney-fy tragedy or strangeness and keeps the morals relatively ambiguous, favoring just being thought-provoking and entertaining over being clear about morality. It is admirable that a children’s show would respect its audience to the degree The Storyteller does. It does not offer easy answers to anything.

Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Greek Myths (1990) features a new narrator. Brian Henson returns as the dog and Michael Gambon (The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover, Toys, Gosford Park, Harry Potter, Fantastic Mr. Fox) is the new storyteller. This time the tales are not so much more dark as they are more sad and hopeless. This short series does not water down Greek tragedy for a younger audience. At times narrator, Gambon, seems to be delighting in horrifying his dog sidekick with unhappy twists. The monsters are still cool and scary. Medusas and minotaurs galore! Classic Greek myths come to life as you see stories of Perseus, Icarus, Theseus, and Orpheus all rise and fall. Derek Jacobi (Brother Cadfael, Hamlet, Gosford Park) plays Daedalus in the first episode.

Both series are quite unique and unforgettable. The original Storyteller intro might be one of the best TV intros ever (it’s almost reminiscent of Tales from the Crypt). What I really liked about the stories they selected are not only that many were new to me, but that it says something of culture and history. Ancient Greek myths are a completely different beast from early European folklore. The rules and flow are different. We don’t really tell stories the way they did back then. As a master storyteller and master in special effects, Jim Henson was just the man to tackle this idea. Henson really did think outside of the box. Yes, his wonderful, iconic Muppet characters will undoubtedly be loved and cherished for years to come, but he was much more than a puppeteer. Revisit the Storyteller series and while you’re at it, the old Muppet Show too (still arguably one of the finest and cleverest variety shows ever put together). Fraggle Rock? The Muppet Babies? Have at it. And fans of all that Henson did might also be interested in revisiting another short-lived favorite from my childhood: The Jim Henson Hour (1989).

picture references:

ign.com

muppet wiki