As a kid, I always looked forward to March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934), starring the classic comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. I must admit, however, that I did so with excited trepidation. To put it bluntly, that flick creeped me out! Much like The Wizard of Oz, March of the Wooden Soldiers (originally released as Babes in Toyland), featured many surreal looking characters and situations that fascinated as well as terrified this five year-old.
Based on a Victor Herbert operetta from 1903, the film was a fantasy extravaganza without the use of the yet to be invented CGI. Set entirely in Toyland, bizarre almost grotesque looking costumes adorned inhabitants such as the Cat and the Fiddle, the Three Little Pigs and even a Mickey Mouse (almost) look-alike. THEN there were the Boogeymen, Sasquatch wannabes who hooted and hollered while terrorizing Toyland. Santa Clause even makes an appearance though he looks as if he made a stop at the North Pole Bar and Grill on his way in (make it a double Blitzen). But of all these weird and wonderful eccentrics two ‘humans’ were creepiest of all and perhaps that’s because they were real people. First, Silas Barnaby, the meanest man in Toyland, was a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and the hated black clad villain in silent film melodramas. You know, the one who tied the virginal damsel in distress to the railroad? Henry Brandon, billed as his birth name Kleinbach here, would again play this Barnaby-like character in an Our Gang episode a few years down the road. Second, and perhaps most surprising was Mother Goose. I don’t know, when she walked out with her gray finger waved, Goldie locked hair set underneath that tall prick-a-finger-you-die pointy black witches hat, heavy framed glasses sloped down on her nose and Salem witch trial collar wrapped ‘round her neck, I just didn’t get a good vibe. On top of that, this was all heaped around a face that didn’t look a day over 25! Creepy…….
But these were mere window dressing for the deco grand guignol by producer Hal Roach. The film was really a vehicle for Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, whose massive popularity was catapulted further still by the release of this film in Fall 1934. As Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, L&H tumble and bumble in the most celebrated way while trying to help Widow Peep and her daughter Little Bo Peep battle the nasty Barnaby, who holds the mortgage on the shoe they all live in together (get it, the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe?). Bo Peep makes eyes at Tom-Tom, the Piper’s Son and he gets in on the action too.
Although Stan and Ollie were the stars of the film no holds barred, the other actors overplayed their parts to perfection. I mean this was Toyland in the midst of the Depression. Kids loved it and dragged parents in droves. Charlotte Henry, who was cast as Bo Peep, had just played another literary ingenue as the title character in the previous year’s Alice in Wonderland at Paramount. As the comely maiden, wearing a blond wig borrowed from Jethreen Bodine, she always reminded me very much of June Marlow, another Hal Roach player who immortalized Miss Crabtree in his Our Gang shorts. And speaking of resembling someone else in Tinseltown, if you have the opportunity to check out the movie sometime, see if you don’t agree that as Tom-Tom, tenor Felix Knight (pictured above) could be the kid brother of Robert Taylor.
Seems kind of odd that physical comedy giants Laurel and Hardy would be plunked down in the middle of a Herbert operetta but for celluloid whimsy it works and Stan and Ollie aren’t required to sing anyway (although Oliver Hardy did get his show business start singing). With the flood of television sets in the 1950s and '60s, March of the Wooden Soldiers, also like The Wizard of Oz, made annual appearances to generations of kiddies. Colorized at the end of the 20th century, the original black and white version is better, lending an even eerier feel to an already tantalizing funfest.