"BABES" IN MOVIELAND: ANNETTE & LAUREL & HARDY @ 21 December 2012 05:43 PM
By this time, Blu-rays have become so prevalent that pretty much every recent and classic movie has been released in the format. The real event releases are the ones that really show the brilliance and clarity of Blu-ray to its fullest.
That would be Walt Disney's Babes in Toyland. It's been over one hundred years since the Victor Herbert/Glen McDonough operetta premiered, yet there have only been two theatrical movies based on it. We'll get to the first one in a moment.
The second one came to theaters in 1961, when Walt Disney had just given the world Disneyland, three hit TV series and movies that were broadening from animation alone to live-action comedies and adventures as well. To understand and fully appreciate the significance of Babes in Toyland, it helps to put its release within that context and then see how it looks now.
Starting with the context: the Mickey Mouse Club had left ABC TV but was heading to syndication. Zorro was canceled, but still carried on in a few prime time episodes on the Disney Sunday night anthology show. They all overlapped, many of the performers appearing in numerous other productions for the studio.
For Toyland, we got Annette Funicello, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran, all of whom had been stalwarts of the Mickey Mouse Club. From Zorro, we have the underappreciated Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon, both of whom turn in superb comic performances in Toyland -- not mere Laurel & Hardy knock-offs, but genuinely unique on their own. (It's worth mentioning that their characters, Rodrigo and Gonzorgo, both existed in the 1903 Toyland stage show, long before the Laurel & Hardy version).
The Disney studio had only been making sporadic attempts at live action films for a relatively short time by 1961. Most of the earliest movies were British productions, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea being the first all-live action feature made domestically. And that was only 1954. Making a full-scale musical was a little ambitious at this point -- and the one Walt Disney wanted to make was called "The Rainbow Road to Oz."
Rainbow Road was to star Annette, Tommy Kirk and many of the other Mickey Mouse Club performers in an original musical that would even tie into a Disneyland attraction. Neither happened (though you can get a glimpse at Rainbow Road on the DVD set, "Your Host, Walt Disney').
When Walt turned to Toyland, he used many of the same creatives intended for Rainbow Road. At the same time, his animators and other artists had worked on Disneyland projects, blending the Disney movies, TV and theme park productions into a house style of its day.
That's exactly what you see when you watch Babes in Toyland today, especially in the bright light of Blu-ray, in which even the fabric textures are astonishingly defined -- as if you're looking through a magic window.
What you're admittedly not really seeing, though, is a movie in the strictest sense. Few critics have good things to say about Toyland, and though they certainly make valid points, I don't think a movie is what this production ultimately is. It's more a big show on screen -- and a theme park ride if you will.
Looking at Mary Contrary's garden is like seeing a floral display at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. The settings would not be out of place in Fantasyland (the sets, in fact, were displayed at Disneyland in 1961 for holiday Guests to explore).
And the stylistic design, very much out of any Big Disney Golden Book, have influenced the Theme Park parades and shows ever since 1961, especially the Toy Soldiers, who have become such a Disney fixture that many do not realize they were created for this film by X Atencio and Bill Justice (and also appeared briefly in Mary Poppins).
In essence, Walt Disney's Babes in Toyland was no Poppins, but it's an E-ticket in other ways. And it paved the way. Musical fantasy and high camp are both notoriously difficult to capture in movies (The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins being the only two such films to be embraced by critics and audiences upon their very first releases).
Toyland doesn't flinch from being as broad as a barn, just like the stage show upon which it is based, which has its roots in vaudeville and British Pantomime. When you approach it like that, suspending disbelief as you would for a whimsical children's stage show, suddenly it's one of most bold and brash of its kind.
Ray Bolger isn't so much playing a villain as having a blast and letting us all in on it. Annette Funicello is the very soul of sincerity. Tommy Sands is remarkably believable considering the silliness going on around him -- no easy feat -- and he gets a chance to jump into the "camp camp" with his unbridled Floretta performance, so totally different from the Tom character that one wonders if it's the same person.
And then there's Ed Wynn, who always plays "Ed Wynn" even when he's in a serious role, and what a joy he is to watch. After all, you're listening to Alice's Mad Hatter and seeing Mary Poppins' Uncle Arthur at the same time And that toy making machine -- couldn't you just see it in Willy Wonka's inventing room or at a candy shop in Downtown Disney?
By the way, the original vinyl "original cast" album of Disney's Toyland (a studio recording of the score with Annette, Wynn, Bolger, Ann Jillian and others) is downloadable on iTunes.
To many fans, Hal Roach's 1934 Babes in Toyland (retitled March of the Wooden Soldiers) is the superior film. But I love both versions for any number of reasons.
This Laurel & Hardy vehicle is one of the most quotable movies, at least in three generations of my family ("You're not scared now!" "I don't love him!" "Good night, Ollie!" "Why, that's neither pig nor pork! It's beef"" "Ollie, here's your watch!' "He and I are just-like-that." Tut-tut-tut-turrut!" "We shall seeeee." I could go on and on...)
This Toyland is closer in musical tone to the 1903 show, complete with a tenor (Felix Knight) and other trappings of the musical form of theater before Rodgers and Hammerstein. It also bears a musical resemblance to Disney's own Snow White, released only three years later. What is amazing is how The Wizard of Oz, which came only five years later, avoids the operetta sound and still sounds amazingly mainstream. But then, Snow White was less than ten years after Steamboat Willie -- how fast the advancements came!
Laurel & Hardy starred in several similar operetta-style films -- Swiss Miss, Fra Diavolo and The Bohemian Girl -- that had the elements of a young singing couple, evil villains and comic set pieces with Stan and Ollie. Several of the Marx Brothers films did this as well.
High-pitched operetta-style though it is, Roach's Toyland is more cinematic than Disney's version. They both begin with a Mother Goose introduction and a glorious reveal of the village, but Disney deliberately shows the polished wood stage while Roach's village seems more grounded.
Walt Disney and Hal Roach apparently also had a friendly relationship; according to Leonard Maltin's The Disney Films, Disney warmly agreed to Roach's use of the Three Little Pigs (with different names) and a monkey appears to be playing Mickey Mouse (riding in a blimp that gets a visual nod in the 1961 film's toy battle scene).
Another Laurel & Hardy historian, John McCabe, wrote that Stan Laurel was very fond of Toyland, but regretted it not being filmed in color. The film is very accessible on home video in both colorized and black-and-white editions (Warner released a very nice print on DVD in recent years).
Colorization is a pariah to many film buffs, but since Laurel himself wished Babes in Toyland was made that way, it's kind of fun to watch the colorized version (keeping a black and white copy on hand as well). Toyland is so unreal, the lack of true tones and tints in colorization actually works, even clarifying some of the darker, less defined scenes in the last reel. It's a question of taste, but in this case, it's worth seeing in color at least once.
So which is better? I'm not the person to ask, being like Archie having to chose between Betty and Veronica (or Charlotte Henry and Annette). Roach's is more of a "movie," Disney's is more of a very, very expensive TV special or Theme Park extravaganza. Why worry about it? They're both delectable holiday confections. Enjoy.
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