Have you ever watched a movie and been absolutely sure that somewhere you watched it before? That is how I felt when I watched The March of the Wood Soldiers on Thanksgiving. I have no tangible memory of ever having seen it, but as I watched it I couldn’t shake the sense that it all felt faintly familiar. Perhaps sometime when I was a very young child?
“Babes in Toyland” was a 1903 operetta by Victor Herbert, designed as a Christmas show containing various characters and songs related to nursery rhymes and fairy tales. In the early 1930s, Hal Roach – producer of many of Laurel and Hardy’s films – had the idea of adapting the operetta to film and putting Laurel and Hardy in the film as supporting players. Oliver Hardy and especially Stan Laurel were not thrilled with the idea of being merely side characters, so the script was rewritten, largely by Laurel, to give them a more prominent part. The result is the classic Thanksgiving/Christmas/Holiday film The March of the Wooden Soldiers.
The scene is set by Mother Goose, who sings a song and introduces the principle people of Toyland while turning the pages of a book. There is Little Bo Peep (Charlotte Henry), who takes care of her sheep and lives with her mother in a shoe along with her many siblings. Also living in the shoe are two boarders, Stannie Dum (Stan Laurel) and Ollie Dee (Oliver Hardy), who work for the Toymaker. Little Bo Peep is in love with Tom-Tom (Felix Knight), the piper’s son, but Silas Barnaby (Henry Brandon) is also an unwelcome suitor who presses her to marry him. If not, he’ll evict her family from the shoe, who are behind in their rent. Stannie and Ollie vow to come to their rescue, initially with somewhat less than impressive results. But finally flummoxed, Barnaby attacks Toyland with his gang of bogeymen and Ollie and Stannie must come to the rescue with an imaginative use of the Toymakers stock, most particularly an army of large wooden soldiers,
I have seen very few Laurel and Hardy films and I’ve read that The March of the Wooden Soldiers is atypical for them, with somewhat softer comedy which arises more naturally from the story. They are not entirely bumbling. They do have their issues where Laurel messes up Hardy’s plans, but they also manage to effectively execute a few others (with minor mishaps along the way) and save Toyland. The film, purely as a musical, would have been a bit slow, but with Lauren and Hardy it comes alive. Though that is not to take away from the rest of the film. I enjoyed the few songs that the film contains (a fraction of the songs Victor Herbert wrote for his operetta) and Henry Brandon as Silas Barnaby is superb. Looking like a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and a New England Puritan, Silas Barnaby skulks his way through the film and persecutes poor little Bo Peep and Tom-Tom Pipe, though Stannie and Ollie come in for more than their fair share of attention from him due to their efforts to save Bo Peep.
Toyland is certainly a unique land. A combination of nursery rhyme and fairy tale elements, there is also an element of the grotesque…rather like German Expressionism meets fairy tales. There are gargoyle-like figures on the door of Toyland and some of the inhabitants are definitely more on the picturesque side. There are the three little pigs, Santa Claus makes an appearance to check on his order at the toyshop, Mary Quite Contrary tends her garden, the cat and the cello (it’s supposed to be a fiddle, but it looks like a cello) and the mouse romp through the land. The mouse is played by a monkey in a mouse suit. He gets up to all sorts of mischief and even helps fight off the bogeymen by chucking firecrackers at them from a small blimp, until his blimp is burst and he must parachute down. Old King Cole is the monarch of Toyland, which seems odd, since the land of this merry old soul seems to be governed by Puritan laws, like ducking in their small lake, and every time we see him he is cheerily enforcing the law.
Toyland is also separated from Bogeyland by a small river, which people cross using a raft, and looks like a river Styx in miniature, complete with crocodiles. Bogeymen pour into Toyland from a well in the ground like disgorging demons, though I did wonder what was with the apparent grass skirts the bogeymen were wearing. Is this meant to be racist commentary? Some people have observed the apparent paradigm of good Germanic (very white) town persecuted by evil moneylender who wants to ravish the blonde woman and recruits apparently degenerate bogeymen to destroy Toyland. I can see where they are coming from, though I did not initially interpret Silas Barnaby as an anti-Semitic portrayal because I thought he looked like a Puritan. Is this reading too much into the story? It does make one uneasy. It’s certainly not the only paradigm at play in the film, which is such a unique confluence of influences from German Expressionism, fairy tales, Greek mythology even, Puritanism, comedy. But it’s hard not to think that this inherent racism is also present.
There are so many references to different nursery rhymes that it had me mentally running through all the rhymes I could remember. It’s a bit embarrassing how much I’ve forgotten and makes me want to go back and look them up and made me even more curious as to the source of these rhymes: “Rock-a-by Baby,” “Tom Thumb,” “Simple Simon,” “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.” Who thought of these?
The walking wooden soldiers were accomplished using stop motion animation, which was fun to see in action and interaction with the characters (they are also played by humans at times). Though there are not many of Victor Herbert’s songs in the film, his music is nearly constantly in the background and adds to the atmosphere. And even when people are not singing they talk in almost a sing-songy voice as though they are speaking rhymes, except Laurel and Hardy. It makes for a kind of poetic, unreal experience overall that is delightful.