Thursday, July 08, 2010

Christmas in July: Babes in Toyland (1934)

Also known as March of the Wooden Soldiers (and remade by Disney in 1961), Babes in Toyland has become a perennial Christmas favorite all while having virtually nothing to do with Christmas. Based loosely on Victor Herbert's 1903 operetta, it's mainly a vehicle for this slapstick antics and wordplay of comedy team Laurel and Hardy, who play a pair of toymakers in a land populated by nursery-rhyme and fairy-tale characters. The main plot is about the evil Silas Barnaby trying to blackmail Little Bo Peep into marrying him by threatening to foreclose on the mortgage of her mother, who happens to be the old woman who lives in the shoe. So yes, this movie involves the foreclosure of a shoe.

What, you may wonder, does this have to do with Christmas? Well, Laurel and Hardy do work for the man who makes toys for Santa Claus (apparently instead of employing elves, he outsources his manufacturing), and Santa shows up briefly to inspect the wooden soldiers of the alternate title. He complains that Laurel and Hardy have built him 100 six-foot soldiers instead of 600 one-foot soldiers, and then storms off. Later the bumbling duo uses a fake Christmas present as a ruse to try to trick Barnaby, but the characters specifically note that it isn't Christmastime. The wooden soldiers play into the movie's climax, and they've become part of the iconography of the holiday season, but again, the actual action is unrelated to Christmas.

So this is a holiday classic more along the lines of The Nutcracker, merely because it evokes feelings of warmth and nostalgia. It has a certain simple charm to it, although the fantastical story is often more surreal than comforting. The costumes for the Three Little Pigs and the fiddle-playing cat make them look more horrific than cuddly, and the story has a madcap dreamlike quality (although Laurel and Hardy don't really modify their shtick for the setting). It combines elements of vaudeville, light opera and silent movies into something unique among Christmas perennials.

The True Meaning of Christmas: Don't foreclose on that shoe.

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