August 3, 2017
March of the Wooden Soldiers (a.k.a.Babes in Toyland) – US, 1934
My, how times have changed. There seems to be a cardinal rule nowadays that a musical must begin big, and by big, I mean with a grand, pulsing musical number that quickly has the heart racing and the toes tapping. Think about it. Chicago opens with “All That Jazz,” The Music Man begins with “Rock Island,” and Into the Woods launches its whimsical journey with “I Wish,” a number which perfectly establishes every characters’ motivations and is a pretty nice number to boot. In fact, rarely does a modern-day musical open with a slow song, the argument being perhaps that it wouldn’t resonate as well with the audience. Interestingly, this is not the case with March of the Wooden Soldiers. It starts with a number that moves at the speed of molasses and then throws two more equally glacial numbers in for good measure. (In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that these are practically the only musical numbers in the entire film.)
Fotunately, the film hits its stride rather rapidly, as if shifts to the bedroom of two brothers, Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, and entertains audiences with a simply scene involving the two asleep and a feather blowing between them. From there, the film gets to the point in almost no time. The two are the eldest children of the Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe, aka Widow Peep (Florence Roberts). The shoe is the property of Mr. Barnaby (Henry Barnaby), a Scrooge-like character who walks hunched over on a cane and talks in a slow, purposeful voice that just screams out villain. His mannerisms seem entirely plucked out of a handbook on silent film acting – not that I minded at all. Barnaby is interested in marrying Bo Peep (Charlotte Henry), the old woman’s eldest daughter, and he implies that if Bo Peep will not marry him willingly, he’ll resort to other means. Ah, but have no fear. Stannie and Ollie are on the case. In other words, the old woman is doomed – at least in the short term.
The film includes a collection of characters from classic fairy tales. There are the Three Little Pigs, Tom Thumb, the Cat and his fiddle, and Little Miss Muffet to name just a few, and part of the delight is seeing how many you can recognize. It is also fun to see Laurel and Hardy in a film with a clear narrative arc, which many of their more slapstick-filled films did not have much of. Of course, the drawback of that is that March of the Wooden Soldiers has less of what audiences likely went to the movie theater hoping to see. And it goes without saying that the legendary Stanley and Oliver mannerisms are a delight to behold – from Stanley’s problems with vocabulary to Oliver’s deadpan expressions whenever things just don’t go his way.
March of the Wooden Soldiers is likely remembered fondly for its final act, from which the film gets its title, and there is still something magical about it, even in the age of actors performing in front of realistic-looking computer-generated images. We have grown accustomed to absolutely lifelike images onscreen, yet the ending is a revelation because it actually reminds us of just how much work has gone into producing special effects over the last century. It’s the same reason that King Kong continues to impress despite not entirely appearing lifelike. We suspend disbelief. Today’s movies make it so we don’t have to.
Not all of what goes on in the March of the Wooden Soldiers stands up to scrutiny. If you think about it too much, it doesn’t make much sense that Tom is accused of pig-napping or that Bo Peep’s immediate reaction to discovering that she is lost in the absolutely last place you want to be lost in is to go to sleep. And perhaps only a cynic like me would point out that the soldiers do as much damage to Toyland as the bad guys do. In the end, though, none of it mattered. I watched the film with a smile on my face and a good feeling in my heart. It’s a film that kids will love and adults will chuckle at. However, you may have to remind them that the musical numbers are mercifully few. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
3 and a half stars