"BABES" IN TELEVISION LAND: NEIL SIMON, DIMPLES & DREW @ 1 January 2013 06:41 PM
Until this year, I had no idea there was a live musical spectacular based on Babes in Toyland on NBC in 1954 and 1955, but this year, it showed up on DVD from the same folks who gave us the treasure of The Stingiest Man In Town on DVD last year.



This production, produced and directed by Your Show of Shows' Max Leibman, was co-written by Neil Simon not long after the young scribe was in the Show of Shows writers room. It was likely to be a very big event for TV viewers in '54 and '55, as it starred the Today Show host Dave Garroway as a department store Santa who narrates the story, as well as Wally Cox as toymaker Grumio (a character from the original 1903 script). Cox was starring in Mr. Peepers at the time.

Dennis Day, best known as Jack Benny's confused tenor, is perfect as Tom (Tucker this time, not Piper). Ellen Barrie and the legendary Broadway/cabaret performer Barbara Cook play Joan, in the '54 and '55 broadcasts, respectively. Jack E. Leonard plays villainous Barnaby to the hilt in the most wisecracking, sardonic version of the character to date (likely benefitting from the comedy material supplied by Simon, William Friedberg and Fred Saidy (the latter the co-ilbrettist for Finian's Rainbow).

Musically, many of the Victor Herbert/Glen McDonough songs are intact, along with several instrumental melodies throughout, particularly during two lengthy clown performances that put one in the mind of "Circus Day" on the Mickey Mouse Club. Irwin Kostal did the orchestrations, with such landmarks as West Side Story, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music ahead of him.

It's cool to watch both years' broadcasts and compare them. There isn't a lot of difference overall, except the female leads and the ending, which contains a more overt plug for the "Rocket Engine Oldsmobile" in the second show. You'll notice changes in the technical quality and some improvements to the sets as well.

Because both shows are live (presented here in very good kinescopes), there are the occasional flubs. Most notable is Garroway's stumble over his lines about the meanness of Barnaby, getting ice cube trays and eggs scrambled up in the 1955 show (he does is perfectly in 1954).

Babes in Toyland showed up again on NBC in Living Color on the December 1960 Christmas episode of The Shirley Temple Show, hosted by Shirley Temple Black, former star of such movie hits as Dimples and Curly Top, now grown up with three kids of her own. About a dozen of these charming shows are available through her own website.



Originally called Shirley Temple Storybook, this weekly anthology series managed to do a full-fledged musical almost every week. Such an ambitious undertaking had mixed results, as the show was delightful but limited to the TV capabilities of the day. It was also NBC's competition to the Disneyland series on ABC. The following year, Disney would take over Temple's time slot on NBC as Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.

Unlike the Disney film of 1961, which retained the original score -- adding new lyrics to songs and melodies and keeping others intact -- the Temple version of Toyland is perhaps the first to replace most of the score with completely original songs. The remaining songs are "Toyland," "Floretta," "I Can't Do The Sum" and "March of the Toys."

Though it's difficult to assume because so many rewrites of Babes in Toyland took place between its major stage runs, touring companies and local shows, the concept of "Meantown" takes place, at least on the Temple show, for the first time on TV. Within a few years, a Pickwick children's record would also incorporate Meantown, which is exactly what the name implies: a town where everyone is cranky.

The cast appearing with Shirley Temple (who also plays Floretta the gypsy witch) is especially notable -- Jonathan Winters as Barnaby with Joe Besser, Carl Ballantine and Jerry Colonna as his bumbling crew; plus a very young Angela Cartwright as Jane. Even Temple's own children appear as she narrates.

Babes in Toyland didn't show up on TV in another version for decades. Meanwhile, the Disney film was broadcast twice on network TV since its theatrical release and the Roach/Laurel & Hardy movie became a staple of local programming throughout the '70s. At the dawn of the home video era, TV would take one last official trip to Toyland.

I couldn't wait for the night in 1986 when a new musical TV movie version of Babes in Toyland would premiere. How could it miss? New songs by Leslie Bricusse (Scrooge, Willy Wonka) conducted by Ian Fraser! Great character actors in the cast, like Eileen Brennan as Mother Goose and Richard Mulligan as Barnaby! Fresh from E.T., there was a slightly older Drew Barrymore as the star, with a young Canadian lead actor named Keanu Reeves. The whole was even filmed at the same Munich studio where Wonka was made.



Sadly, it was not to be. The entire production has an earthbound feel to it. The Toyland outdoor set looks like office bungalows that had porches and quick paint jobs and signs added. One of the climactic battle scenes took place on little go-karts. All but "Toyland" and "March of the Toys" were removed, yet apparently some of Bricusse's songs were cut, too, leaving a few that I am sure he doesn't like to think about.

If this were a low-budget schlock kiddie movie like Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, it might make sense. But considering the credits of almost everyone involved, it makes one wonder whether anyone really knew what they were getting into when they agreed to do it. This film did make it to VHS, even sold for one Christmas season at McDonald's (perhaps to cash in on Reeves later fame), but it never made it to DVD.

The last non-stage version of Babes in Toyland was the only animated version ever produced. MGM had intended it for theatrical release, but after the failure of All Dogs Go to Heaven 2, the project became direct-to-video (and I suspect the budget was cut). The resulting film was released to VHS and is now available on DVD.



MGM's animated Toyland has its head in the '90s, very much a product of the "second Golden Age" of Disney animated musicals and modern-day sensibilities. Virtually the entire storyline is new. Mary (who bears a resemblance to Disney's Belle from Beauty and the Beast, is now the modern concept of a strong, assertive woman who runs her late father's toy factory. Tom is her employee, a dreamer who resembles the hunky male lead in Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.  Mary says Human Resources phrases to Tom, like "I admire your enthusiasm." Both characters have those wedge haircuts that came and went in the '90s.

Gone is the Herbert score again, except the "big two." The new songs are quite wonderful, very much in the Howard Ashman/Alan Menken mold of the Disney films (and every studio's animated feature that tried to repeat their successes).

That may be a bit of nitpicking, because this Toyland is actually quite entertaining, especially for young children. It is animated very much like the high-grade TV animation of Animaniacs, with lots of action, though it does sag a bit (as do many direct to video features). Despite its 90's-ness, it holds up very well and is worlds better than the 1986 Barrymore TV movie.

One thing that this version seems to prove, though, it how it becomes more and more difficult to produce a filmed Babes in Toyland for a modern audience that incorporates any of the original Herbert/McDonough creations. The further we get away from the original in time, naturally the more our music, social mores, storytelling tools and mass tastes change. Many kids today don't know who Mother Goose is, much less her rhymes and characters.

However, it's awfully tempting to take such a fanciful story and melodic score and try something. One thing is for certain -- there are never enough remakes to suit the entertainment industry. Perhaps the law of averages will tilt in Toyland's favor and there will be a new vision. It may not be the best version, but, like the others, it sure will be fascinating.

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