poster from one of the re-released versions of the film.
As anyone who has grown up in North America knows, one of the
traditions of the Christmas season is watching a holiday film
on TV. Every year in the month or so between Thanksgiving and
Christmas, television stations reach into their vaults and pull
out some well-worn classics. Some have an obvious relationship
with the holiday, like White Christmas or Miracle
on 34th Street. Others, like, It's a Wonderful Life,
have a more tenuous connection only really being associated
with Christmas because of the many times they have been broadcast
during that season.
There is one film, however, that stands out from the rest because
of a longevity that most Christmas films can only hope for.
It is one of the oldest of these time-honored classics and,
in many fans' opinions, the best. It was produced during a turning
point in the film industry and stars two icons of American comedy.
Though originally released under the title Babes in Toyland,
it is probably known best as March of the Wooden Soldiers.
The story of this film starts with the famous American motion
picture producer and director, Harold Eugene Roach, Sr.. After
an adventurous youth, "Hal" Roach came to Hollywood in 1912
to work as an extra in the nascent film industry. An inheritance
allowed him to start making his own films in 1915 and with his
friend, famed comedian Harold Lloyd, Roach specialized in producing
"two reel" humorous shorts. A standard reel of film back then
was 1,000 feet and two of them together gave about 25 minutes
of screen time. In theaters, one or two of these short subjects
would be used before a feature length film.
Hal Roach (right) with his early star Harold Lloyd.
Roach's business grew and he worked with a number of early,
famous comedy stars including Lloyd, Will Rodgers, Charlie Chase
and others. He also created a series of comedy films involving
a group of children. The series, Our Gang, spawned 220
shorts and one feature-length film.
The most famous comics who worked with Roach, however, were
a short, thin man paired with a tall, heavyset man. Just their
silhouettes were enough to identify them to any of their fans.
They were to become perhaps the most well-known funny men of
the early screen: Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel.
Laurel and Hardy
Stan Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890 in Lancashire,
England. His father was a well-known actor, director and playwright.
As a young man, Arthur began his career on the stage at age
16 and worked his way up to be a featured comedian. In 1912
he emigrated to America and changed his name fearing that Stanley
Jefferson was too long to fit on theatrical posters. He made
his first film, Nuts, in May of 1917 and afterward appeared
in a number of shorts for different producers.
Oliver Hardy was born Norvell Hardy in 1892 in Georgia. After
his father's death, he added his father's first name to his
own becoming Oliver Norvell Hardy, though he was often referred
to by his friends as just "Ollie" or "Babe."
Hardy showed an early interest in film and by his late teens
operated his own movie house in Milledgeville, Georgia. He soon
got involved in the production end of the business working at
Lubin Motion Pictures in Jacksonville, Florida. Though he started
in the lighting department, he found his way on screen after
about a year, acting in the 1914 production of Outwitting
Dad. Over the next decade he made hundreds of short films
working as a hero, villain or second banana. In 1917 he moved
to California to join the growing film industry there, eventually
working for Hal Roach in his stock company of players.
Laurel (left) and Oliver Hardy (right) in costume for
Laurel and Hardy's first film together was the 1919 production
of The Lucky Dog from Sun-Lite Pictures. They did not
assume their familiar on-screen identities together, however,
until 1927 in a Roach film called The Second Hundred Years.
The pairing was so successful that it was made permanent.
Together their characters - two not too bright but eternally
optimistic, innocent and child-like men in an adult world, charmed
and amused audiences. They were soon Roach's most successful
stars. While many actors never made a successful transition
from silent pictures to sound when it appeared in the late 20's,
the addition of dialog to their act seemed to make the team
even more funny than before.
By the early 1930's the film business began to change. Not
only was there now sound along wih the picture, theaters were
putting two feature length movies together in a "double-bill"
and the demand for shorts was disappearing. Roach knew that
he had to start producing full-length films and started looking
around for material that could be made into movie scripts.
Three decades before in 1903 an operetta (a light form of opera)
entitled Babes in Toyland had opened in Chicago and toured
a number of US cities before settling on Broadway for 192 performances.
The show was composed by Victor Herbert in response to the tremendous
success of the stage version of L. Frank Baum's book The
Wizard of Oz. It used various characters from Mother Goose
nursery rhymes to create a musical extravaganza. The original
show was so successful that there were numerous national tours
and revivals. It also inspired a rash of other "fairy-tale"
themed productions over the next ten years.
toy soldier costume from the 1903 Operetta.
The story of the operetta differs significantly from the later
Roach film, though a few elements were retained. In it two orphans,
Alan and Jane, are menaced by their wicked Uncle Barnaby, who
wants to steal their inheritance. He attempts to kill them by
shipwrecking them and later leaving them in the Forest of No
Return. Barnaby also forces Alan's love, Mary Contrary, to marry
him before he suffers a well deserved death and the lovers are
Roach decided that the Herbert property was just what he needed
to create a full-length musical movie production with his two
most famous stars. He took the train to New York and successfully
purchased the rights. The original stage production, however,
was long on music but short on story. On the train back to California,
Roach rewrote it to fit the needs of a film.
Once back in California, Roach showed the script to Stan Laurel
who didn't like it. Laurel, unlike his onscreen persona, was
a perfectionist when it came to the duo's work. Concluding he
could do better, he sat down with some of the studio's writing
staff and hammered out a new version which, in turn, Roach didn't
like. Laurel apparently won this particular disagreement, however,
as it is his version which was finally put to film.
The plot of the movie involves Laurel and Hardy taking on the
storybook characters of "Ollie Dee" and "Stanley Dum." The two
are boarders in the home of the Widow Peep whose family lives
in an oversized shoe to which the wicked Silas Barnaby holds
the mortgage. Mrs. Peep's oldest daughter, Little Bo-Peep, is
in love with Tom-Tom, the piper's son, but her youthful beauty
has attracted the unholy attentions of the elderly Barnaby,
who threatens to foreclose on the shoe/house if the girl does
not marry him. Ollie and Stanley try to get a loan to cover
the mortgage from the Toymaker who owns the factory where they
work. Unfortunately, they fail to get the money when they fall
into the Toymaker's disfavor. Stanley has gotten an order from
Santa Claus wrong and produced one hundred operating, toy soldiers
six-foot tall instead of six-hundred soldiers one-foot tall.
a scene in the shoe house: Clockwise from top, Henry Brandon,
Florence Roberts (as the Widow Peep), Charlotte Henry,
Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
The pair finally manages to free Widow Peep from the mortgage
so that Bo-Peep can marry Tom-Tom, but Barnaby gets his revenge.
He gets hordes of shaggy "bogeymen" to attack Toyland. Stanley
is redeemed when he and Ollie activate the oversized toy soldiers
that drive the bogeymen back into the crocodile-infested swamp
where they come from, saving the day.
The final script plays to the comic pair's strengths with a
series of wonderful routines that complement the main story.
Of the twenty or so musical numbers usually featured in original
operetta, four survived intact, while others were translated
into instrumental form and became part of the background score.
Casting the Players
In addition to "Ollie Dee" and "Stanley Dum," several critical
parts needed to be cast for the picture. Nineteen year-old Charlotte
Henry was hired to play the innocent Bo-Peep. Despite her youth
she was already a Hollywood veteran having done her first film
in 1930 and starred just a year earlier in Alice in Wonderland,
a role she reportedly was given over a thousand other applicants.
Felix Knight got cast as the romantic male lead, Tom-Tom. Knight,
at 24, was a relative newcomer to film, but had experience on
the stage. He had an excellent voice and would eventually spend
several years with the Metropolitan Opera Company. Knight sang
many of the songs that were retained from the operetta.
Probably the most difficult part to cast was that of Silas
Barnaby, the wicked, old villain. During the period when he
was trying to find the right actor for the part, Roach happened
to attend a performance of the stage production The Drunkard.
One of the play's prominent characters was a lawyer named Cribbs.
Cribbs was played as a bent-over, cunning, sadistic, old man.
He had just the type of disposition needed for Barnaby, so Roach,
impressed by the way the part had been performed, had an interview
set up with the actor.
year old Henry Brandon (Henry Kleinbach) played the wicked,
The producer was surprised when into his office strode six-foot-five
inch, twenty-one-year-old Henry Brandon. Reportedly Roach exclaimed,
"You're not the old Son-of-a-Bitch that I saw the other night!"
Eventually, Roach was convinced that Brandon was indeed the
actor that played the part and he signed him for the film. Ironically
the evil, old suitor Bo-Peep feared so much was actually played
by a man three years younger than her love interest, Tom-Tom.
Brandon had been born Henry Kleinbach in Berlin, Germany in
1912. He emigrated to the United States with his parents soon
after his birth and had an early interest in acting. He studied
at the famed Pasadena Community Playhouse before starting a
career on the stage. After the Roach production, Brandon would
be a well-employed actor for the rest of his life, often playing
villains, but sometimes kindhearted characters as well. He continued
to have a penchant for playing people unlike himself and was
often cast as an American Indian or a character of middle-eastern
decent despite his German heritage.
The actual production of the film was the largest Roach had
undertaken up to that time. To house the town of Toyland, two
existing sound stages were combined to create a space 250 feet
wide and 500 feet long. The village consisted of a number of
fairy tale style buildings such as the home of the old lady
who lived in a shoe, a house made out of wooden blocks, the
homes of the three little pigs, a windmill, the Toyland school,
toy factory and warehouse.
One of the major problems was illuminating the set. In the
early years of motion pictures, film was relatively insensitive
to light. A huge amount of luminosity was needed to light up
the set properly so that it wouldn't show up too dark on the
film. The stereotypical image of a movie star wearing dark glasses
didn't originally come from the need for anonymity, but because
many of the early actors and actresses had their eyes damaged
by exposure to the intense lights of the movie stage. After
a while their eyes became very sensitive and they took to always
wearing dark glasses to protect them.
Typically, an area as large as the Toyland set in those early
days was filmed outside in the bright California sun. Since
the set was inside a sound stage, however, this meant that an
unprecedented amount of lighting equipment was needed. Roach
was a well-equipped studio, but it was necessary to rent arc-lights
from almost every vendor in Hollywood. Many generator trucks
also had to be leased to supply extra power to run the lamps.
According to the studio, almost three-million watts per hour
were needed to light the 812 lamps on the full set.
indoor town set that was so difficult to light.
One special effect remembered by almost anybody who has seen
the picture is the mouse. An oversized live-action rodent who
resembles the animated Mickey Mouse does several scenes with
an actor dressed as a cat. Many people puzzle over how this
was done as the mouse is clearly too small to even be a child
actor. The trick was pulled off by using a trained capuchin
monkey dressed in a costume. Capuchins are among the most intelligent
of monkeys and have often been used in films ever since.
It seems strange today that Disney Studios would allow the
use of their most prized character in another studio's film.
Disney not only allowed Roach to use the mouse, he also let
him utilize an instrumental version of "Who's Afraid of the
Big Bad Wolf" from the 1933 animated short Three Little Pigs.
Why? Maybe because in 1934 Disney was only involved in producing
animation and didn't see Roach as competition. Though popular,
Mickey had only been around six years at this point and not
reached heights of fame he would later achieve, and his cameo
in the live action film might have been thought a good way to
boost his visibility.
The monkey wasn't the only animal on set. In addition to mundane
creatures like Bo-Peep's recalcitrant sheep, there were live
crocodiles. To create the swamp scene, crocs ranging in length
from six to nine feet were brought in from a Hollywood reptile
farm. At the climax of the film a few of the ape-like bogeymen
are forced into the water with the crocs. According to the studio,
this stunt was done by expert swimmers with armed guards close
by in case any of the reptiles got a little too friendly.
By today's standards, the makeup and costumes for the bogeymen
look laughable, but to the less sophisticated audiences of the
30's they were fairly frightening. Two hundred of the furry
suits with rubber masks were made, in addition to the one hundred
period costumes needed for the villagers.
Hardy and one of the oversized toy soldiers.
While nobody was eaten by a crocodile, the production reportedly
had its share of accidents and injuries. Stan Laurel tore ligaments
in his right leg when he tumbled off a platform. The assistant
director slid off the top of the shoe house and injured his
left leg. Kewpie Morgan, who played Old King Cole, ruptured
stomach muscles from the continuous laughing the part required,
while Roach came down with an appendicitis. To cap it all off,
one night Henry Brandon was injured in a fight at the Brass
A Classic is Born
Despite these setbacks, the production wrapped successfully
after twelve weeks of filming. It was released on December 14,
1934 just in time for the Christmas season and it generally
received good reviews. Variety, which had a habit of
panning a lot of Laurel and Hardy efforts, praised the producer's
If Hal Roach aimed at the production of a purely juvenile
picture to which children might conceivably drag their elders,
he has succeeded in a measure beyond others who have sought
to enter this realm. He has made a film excellent for children.
It's packed with laughs and thrills and is endowed with that
glamour of mysticism which marks juvenile literature.
In particular, the reviewer thought that not filling the screen
constantly with the comic duo's antics was a wise choice:
All Mother Goose characters are woven into the plot, not
to mention the Three Little Pigs, but it's Laurel and Hardy's
picture. While they are on, the story zips along, but the mistake
has not been made of asking them to fill the stage continuously.
It is their absences which make their reappearances so effective.
Finally the review ends:
This picture may not be consistently big box office, but
it is the best juvenile product to date and deserves the long
life it will have.
In hindsight we see that the writer at Variety called
this one right. The film has had a very long life. It has been
a favorite with children, and children who have grown into adults.
Through releases, re-releases and various name changes, including
the now familiar March of the Wooden Soldiers, it remains
funny and touching. It has been computer colorized twice, but
it is one of the few films that doesn't seem to suffer by this
modification. Its magic is likely to remain a favorite for generations
to come, long after many other Christmas tradition films are
Lee Krystek 2010. All Rights Reserved.