March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934)

March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934)

March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934; also known as Babes in Toyland). 77 minutes. Directed by Gus Meins and Charles Rogers. Starring Stan Laurel (as Stannie Dum), Oliver Hardy (as Ollie Dee), Charlotte Henry (as Bo Peep), Henry Brandon (as Silas Barnaby), Felix Knight (as Tom-Tom, the Piper’s Son), Florence Roberts (as Widow Peep), Virginia Karns (as Mother Goose), and Kewpie Morgan (as Old King Cole). Music by Victor Herbert, Frank Churchill, and Ann Ronnell. Produced by Hal Roach.

This 1934 comedy, based on the Mother Goose stories and starring Laurel and Hardy, is known alternately as March of the Wooden Soldiers, Wooden Soldiers, Babes in Toyland, Laurel and Hardy in Toyland, and Revenge Is Sweet. I have a general feeling when I watch a movie that the more titles it has, the worse it is going to be (I think, for example, of 1962’s deliciously awful The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, which in its final credits is also called The Head That Wouldn’t Die). In this case, the multiplicity of titles indicates to me that the focus of the original movie is not entirely clear: is it about Santa Claus and the wooden soldiers that he orders from the Toyland toy shop? Is it about Mother Goose and young people in love? Is it a Laurel and Hardy movie? Is it a movie about thwarted romance and revenge? The answer is that the movie tries to be all of these things at once, which is too great a task for a story that clocks in at just over an hour, or maybe for any story at all. Additionally, although the movie has become a minor holiday classic, it teeters on the verge of being timely and dated at points. Yet ultimately March of the Wooden Soldiers redeems itself somewhat through its creative fantasy elements, which resemble those of the 1933 Alice in Wonderland that also stars Charlotte Henry.

In Toyland, where all of Mother Goose’s nursery rhyme characters live, the miserly and evil Silas Barnaby longs to marry Little Bo Peep, but she is in love with Tom-Tom, the Piper’s Son. When she refuses to wed Barnaby, he threatens to foreclose on her mother’s house: a gigantic shoe that Bo Peep lives in with the Widow Peep and her many children. Also residing in the Peeps’ shoe are Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, who are employed in the toy workshop nearby. They are inept workers whom we see early on bungling a toy delivery for Santa Claus involving life-sized wooden soldiers. Stannie and Ollie struggle to come up with money to free the Widow Peep from her financial obligation to Barnaby and fail, with the result that Bo Peep consents to marry Barnaby in order to save her family. On their wedding day, however, Barnaby is married to a veiled lady whom he thinks is Bo Peep but who after the ceremony, and after Barnaby has torn up the Widow’s mortgage, is revealed to be Stannie Dum. An enraged Barnaby kidnaps one of the three little pigs and frames Tom-Tom for its murder, and King Cole banishes Tom-Tom to neighboring Bogeyland. Stannie and Ollie discover the pig alive and reveal Tom-Tom’s innocence, and the townspeople chase after Barnaby, who rushes to Bogeyland via a secret passage and summons the Bogeymen to wreak havoc on Toyland. Back in Toyland, Stannie and Ollie fight off their adversaries by enlisting the life-sized wooden soldiers, who drive the Bogeymen back into Bogeyland, and Bo Peep and Tom-Tom are reunited.

The movie is a bit of a hodgepodge of genres. As far as the Laurel and Hardy comedy is concerned, the funniest moment by far occurs when Laurel dresses as a bride to thwart Bo Peep’s pending nuptials to Silas Barnaby. Otherwise, the laughs are a bit few and far between. Part of this has to do with the fact that the movie really is a fantasy melodrama with Laurel and Hardy merely thrown into the mix as supplementary characters. Indeed, the primary plot involves Bo Peep, Silas Barnaby, and Tom-Tom in a love story that seems more akin to an old silent film in which a girl with painstakingly curled hair is tied to the railroad tracks.

But the film strives to be more than just a love story. For example, the sequence involving the trip to Bogeyland and the Bogeyman invasion goes on for quite a while, which may lead us to think that March of the Wooden Soldiers fancies itself an action film. The rather unsavory Bogeymen introduce yet another genre: the adventure film. Made up as monstrous African natives with fright wigs and grass skirts, the Bogeymen invade Toyland, grabbing girls and babies—for what purpose, I do not know. The sequence seemed both distasteful and a bit of a puzzle.

Of course, we also find a musical grafted onto this material from the operetta on which it is based. I must admit, the songs are sung in such a high style that I was able to understand only some of the words, and what I did understand seemed strangely out of place given the story. I am thinking in particular of the “Castle in Spain” number, in which Tom-Tom sings about whisking Bo Peep off to that titular country. The concept of taking one’s loved one off to this locale had been well established in popular music by the early 1930s as a hackneyed idea. Perhaps that is part of the joke here—that Tom-Tom is singing in inflated style about something corny and outlandish to a shepherd girl out of a children’s rhyme. Still, it seems incongruous in the larger narrative, which for the most part does not engage in similar irony.

There appears to be an interesting tension in this movie between its desire to be of its era and its desire to be timeless. Apart from the “Castle in Spain” number, there are two ways in which the film seems time-bound to me that have the potential to limit its accessibility. First, March of the Wooden Soldiers alludes to other films of its period: the immensely popular Disney animated shorts of the 1930s. The mouse that accompanies the cat playing the fiddle is clearly made up to resemble Mickey Mouse (it is actually a monkey dressed in a mouse costume), and the three little pig characters dance to “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?,” the song that debuted in the famous Disney cartoon of the same year. It is cute to see the movie winking at these other films, and it is nice that we still understand the allusions; but it is always a risk to draw the audience’s attention to something that they could be watching instead of your movie, especially if that something is very much of a particular cultural moment.

The movie also seems time-bound to me in a different way because it can be construed as a Christmas story. The holiday theme is located primarily in the brief appearance of Santa Claus and the suggestion in one scene that Laurel and Hardy work specifically as Christmas toy makers. I am not really sure why Santa was a necessary justification for the existence of their toy workshop, but his inclusion here has, I think, rather than limiting the film, certainly helped to grant longevity to it: it is still shown on television during the holidays, presumably because of Santa’s minute involvement in it.

These points aside, there are ways in which the movie feels less time-bound and more classic. I am thinking in particular of its creative use of both fantastic space and its admixture of historical periods. Toyland exists within its own imaginative geography and is detached from the real world: we see fanciful houses, such as the Widow Peep’s oversized shoe, the toy factory, the Peeps’ fields, and Bogeyland—the latter with its nefarious forests, caves, and swamps. The story also takes place in an indefinite time period that cannot be said to be real. The characters are dressed as weird approximations of people from various historical epochs, but they all coexist in the same linear narrative. Tom-Tom, the Piper’s Son wears a sort of Robin Hood outfit, and there are ladies who wear the high-pointed hats of medieval fantasy. Bo Peep, on the other hand, is dressed like an eighteenth-century shepherdess, whereas the Widow Peep and Silas Barnaby are costumed like characters from a Charles Dickens novel. This melange of periods, which resembles the way Mother Goose stories have been illustrated, means that, for the most part, the movie has no direct correlation to any one time in history.

Because it is a fantasy film, March of the Wooden Soldiers reminds me of the 1933 Alice in Wonderland that also stars Charlotte Henry (in the latter movie’s title role); here the same actress plays Bo Peep. Whereas Henry’s Alice lacked the punctiliousness that is so much a part of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, her ditsy Bo Peep is a cute approximation of the Mother Goose nursery rhyme character. March of the Wooden Soldiers, like Alice in Wonderland, has a large cast of characters, although whereas Alice’s characters act out their stories in small vignettes, here the back story of each Mother Goose character is implied in a strategic shot—the rock-a-bye baby sleeping in a treetop, or the cat playing the fiddle. For a movie that encompasses so many stories, it does a fairly tidy job of activating each nursery rhyme character briefly but recognizably. That is no small feat and is perhaps one reason why this movie has survived in the popular consciousness for as long as it has. While I cannot exactly recommend March of the Wooden Soldiers as required holiday fare, nevertheless, if you are interested in the 1933 Alice in Wonderland and early fantasy films in general, you should probably see this movie. It is a notable early attempt at making an imaginative literary world come to life on screen.