March of the Wooden Soldiers: The Original Christmas Classic
March of the Wooden Soldiers, also known as Babes in Toyland, was not the first Christmas themed movie. This 1934 movie was the first Christmas themed movie to become a perennial part of Christmas television programming. It is a good example of the humor of the comic duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. There were 3 remakes of Babes in Toyland.[i] None of the remakes had the prominence of the original. With the movie over 80 years old it gives a good indicator of what has changed and what remains the same. The fist indicator of a change is in the opening title sequence. The film opens with the screen stating; “This picture approved by the Production Code Administration of the Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America.” The Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, started in 1930 and strict enforcement began in 1934. Then to the lower left of the roaring MGM lion there is a logo of an eagle silhouette with the initials NRA. The initials stand for the National Recovery Administration, a depression era Federal Agency, not the National Rifle Association. This article contains spoilers.
There is a colorized version of the movie available. The family of Laurel and Hardy were big fans of colorization. They believed color versions of Laurel and Hardy movies would better showcase Laurel and Hardy to modern audiences. The Mother Goose characters and settings make March of the Wooden Soldiers a good choice for a movie to make the case for colorization.
[i] These include a 1961 movie staring, Tommy Sands and Annette Funicello, a 1986 TV movie staring, Drew Barrymore, and a 1997 animated movie. There were also 2 TV movies of the same name in 1954 & 1955.
The movie opens with Mother Goose (Virginia Karns) singing Toyland. The song’s prelude seems especially written for those who first watched this movie as children. The opening scenes are of a typical morning in Toyland. It shows the characters in Mother Goose rhymes. Enter the villain Silas Barnaby (Henry Brandon), the crooked man who lived in the crooked house. Barnaby wants to marry the eldest daughter of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe (Florence Roberts), Little Bo-Peep (Charlotte Henry). Barnaby proposes to Bo-Peep. When she balks Barnaby gives her a thinly veiled threat. Bo-Peep firmly tells him:
I wouldn’t marry you if you were young, which you can’t be.[i] Honest which you never were, and if you were about to die tomorrow which is too much to hope for.
It is arguably one of the most forceful verbal rejections in movie history. Barnaby threatens Mother Peep with foreclosure if the mortgage isn’t paid. Ollie Dee (Oliver Hardy) wants to give his savings $1.47 to Mother Peep to pay the mortgage but Stannie Dum (Stan Laurel) spent the money to buy pee-wees. In 1934 hitting pee-wees was a common game. Pee-wees don’t have the boomerang effect shown in the movie. Stannie got Santa Clause’s order for toy soldiers wrong. So instead of making 600 soldiers 1 foot tall the factory made 100 soldiers 6 feet tall. This got Stannie and Ollie fired.
Tom-Tom (Felix Knight) proposes and Bo-Peep joyfully accepts after a playful game of “hard to get”. Ollie unsuccessfully tried to get the mortgage by pick pocketing. He and Stannie tried burglary. Stannie, in typical Laurel fashion, doomed the plan. Stannie and Ollie were sentenced to be tortured by dunking and banished to Bogeyland. Old King Cole was a merry old soul and laughed as Ollie was being dunked. Bogeyland was populated by half man and half animal beasts that eat people alive. Banishment to Bogeyland was equivalent to feeding someone to zombies. Bo-Peep agreed to marry Barnaby so he dropped the charges.
Everyone is heartbroken when Barnaby and Bo-Peep are pronounced man and wife. Barnaby hands over the mortgage to Ollie who tears up the mortgage then lifts the veil on the wife. It’s Stannie in the wedding dress. When Ollie tells Stannie he has to live with Barnaby since they are now married Stannie whimpers. In 1934 the situation was ludicrous. Today the joke may be dated.
Barnaby plans to frame Tom Tom. He blows over the house of Elmer, the little pig with a house of straw, in Big Bad Wolf fashion. His plan works long enough for Tom Tom to get banished to Bogeyland.[ii] Ollie and Stannie rescue the Elmer. The townspeople chase after Barnaby and Bo-Peep takes the raft to Bogyland to find Tom Tom.
The action starts about 15 minutes before the end of the movie. Barnaby finds Bo-Peep and Tom Tom and the two men fight. Barnaby summons the Bogeymen. Stannie and Ollie find Tom Tom and Bo-Peep then lead them back to Toyland. Barnaby leads the Bogeymen in an attack on Toyland. The Bogeymen rampage until Stan and Ollie activate the wooden soldiers. Here, and at other times in the movie, they use their middle finger to press. Then the action meant nothing. Today such a move wouldn’t be allowed in a children’s movie. There is about a minute of stop motion animation, which includes a few seconds of split screen with the stop motion on one side and Stannie and Ollie on the other side. The wooden soldiers drive the Bogeymen out of Toyland. Stannie and Ollie decide to use the cannon to give the Bogeymen a parting shot. The plan literally backfires with great comedic effect.
Much of the movie’s humor involves wordplay. The plot is slow moving by today’s standards. The song scenes are lackluster compared to the action packed song scenes in Disney cartoon movies. It is questionable how many children will catch many of the Mother Goose rhyme references. While it is still a movie children can watch it may be a movie adult audiences can better appreciate.
[i] Henry Brandon was 21 at the time, 4 years younger than Felix Knight who played her love, Tom Tom.
[ii] Tom Tom doesn’t get dunked.