Monday, December 3, 2012

Caftan Woman`s Choice: One for December on TCM


In the United Kingdom a popular Christmas season entertainment is the Pantomime.  The Christmas Pantomime is a play based on well-known children's stories such as Cinderella or Aladdin or Robin Hood told in a spirit of fun and irreverence.  There must be a leading female character played  in "drag", simpering sweethearts, and outlandish clowns.  Audience participation is a must as in booing the villain and shouting helpful instructions to dimwitted heroes.

Mother Goose sets the scene with a familiar song.

British born Stan Laurel retained a fondness for the "Panto" all his life.  Georgia born Oliver Hardy appreciated the team`s films which had "production".  He felt that the greater the effects and cast surrounding the comics, the better for the film.  Stan proposed setting the team's well-meaning but dim-witted characters in an adaptation of Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough's Broadway hit Babes in Toyland, which had enjoyed many Holiday revivals since its 1903 debut.  The big boss Hal Roach was somewhat in agreement with the plan.  After all, the boy's adaption of Auber's comic opera Fra Diavolo aka The Devil's Brother had been a hit in 1933.  Why not another operetta?

 "I wouldn`t marry you if you were young, which you can`t be, if you were honest, which you never were and if you were about to die tomorrow, which would be too much to hope for!"

The film was an expensive undertaking for the studio in terms of set, costumes and performers.  However, Roach wasn't willing to spend the extra for the Technicolor that Stan dearly wanted.  Wouldn't Technicolor have been glorious?  The movie has been colourized twice, in the 1990s and as recently as 2006.  However, to Mr. Roach's credit he approached his friend and fellow studio mogul Walt Disney for the use of the image of Mickey Mouse and the popular song Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf by Frank Churchill and Ted Sears from the Oscar winning short Three Little PigsWho's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf, Marvin Hatley's The Ku-Ku Song to identify the team of Laurel and Hardy in the opening credits, and the traditional Rock-a-Bye Baby are the only non-Victor Herbert songs used in the film.  Herbert's I Can't Do the Sum is not sung, but featured in the score as a delightful background whenever Ollie Dee and Stannie Dum are on screen.  Stan and Roach argued over the treatment of the story with Stan prevailing and Roach forever after (and he lived to 100 years!) claiming Stan made a bad film.  Generations disagree.

"I thought you said 100 soldiers, 6 foot high."

Ollie and Stannie live in Toyland and you would think that of all the places these innocents would fit in, that this would be the place.  Ah, but Toyland is as fraught with danger as any other place in this world or a fantasy land.  There is an evil, rich man - the most evil and richest man in town - Barnaby.  When Barnaby's dubious charms fail to win the hand of the lovely Bo-Peep he threatens to foreclose on her family home, which happens to be a shoe.  Ollie generously informs Mother Peep that he will borrow the money from the toymaker and all their troubles will be over.  Sadly, Ollie hadn't reckoned on a villain we are all too familiar with - the cranky boss.  It doesn't help their cause that Stan mistook Santa's order for toy soldiers reversing the request for 600 soldiers at 1 foot high.  Naturally, they have a plan to set things to right which only makes things worse for Bo-Peep and her beloved Tom-Tom (you know, the piper's son.) 

He captures her heart singing.

Bo-Peep is forced to marry Barnaby.  Stan and Ollie trick Barnaby.  Barnaby frames Tom-Tom for pignapping.  Of course, you all know the penalty for pignapping!  Banishment to Bogeyland.  Bogeyland?!  Yes, Bogeyland.  Home of the Bogeyman.  "They're half man and half animal with great big mouths and great big claws and hair all over their body".  They are the image of monsters that hide in the closet and under the bed.  They may well be costumed extras on the Roach lot, but they still set the butterflies searching for a way out of my belly in the same feeling I had sitting beside my sister on the floor in front of the television when were 4 and 5 years old.

 "Why, that`s neither pig nor pork."

Being scared and booing the villain is a part of the delight of watching Babes in Toyland today.  Laughing is the best  part.  It is a truly funny movie featuring the most endearing qualities of Laurel and Hardy.  On some television screenings they would cut one or two of the songs, but this Victor Herbert fan would feel lost without the songs Toyland, Never Mind, Bo-Peep, Castle in Spain and the lullaby Go to Sleep.  They have become as much a part of the season to me as Silent Night or White Christmas.  When the score plays the triumphant March of the Wooden Soldiers I can`t keep the smile off my face.

Was anyone surprised to learn Barnaby is the leader of the Bogeymen?

Babes in Toyland was the first major role for Henry Kleinbach (later Brandon) as the evil Barnaby.  The 21-year-old actor gives his all as the perfect ``Panto`` villain.  In a career lasting until his death in 1990, Brandon was featured in hundreds of movies including The Marshal of Mesa CityDrums of Fu Manchu, Joan of Arc, Cattle Drive, The Caddy, Vera Cruz, The Searchers (Scar), and Assault on Precinct 13.  Broadway child star Charlotte Henry of Charlie Chan at the Opera and Alice in Wonderland plays Bo-Peep.  Tom-Tom is played by tenor Felix Knight who would have a career at the Metropolitan and as a vocal coach.

March of the Wooden Soldiers

Among the large cast of Toyland citizens is Alice Cooke as Mother Hubbard.  Alice, her husband Baldy and Stan were teamed on the Vaudeville stage as the Stan Jefferson Trio from 1914 to 1917 and off-stage remained close friends.  Stan found work for his friends at every opportunity.  A teenaged Marie Wilson (My Friend Irma) makes her film debut as Mary Mary Quite Contrary.

The fun and the traditions of the holidays are found in abundance in Babes in Toyland.  It is a movie that is an integral part of my December viewing habit.  TCM is screening the movie, sometimes called March of the Wooden Soldiers, on Christmas Eve at 6:30 pm.  Pop that corn and get a blanket ready for hiding under when the Bogeymen attack!