Director: Gus Meins, Charley Rogers
Cast: Laurel and Hardy, Henry Brandon, Felix Knight, Charlotte Henry
For decades it was a holiday tradition to find this delightful fantasy on television. It seemed that nearly every Thanksgiving and Christmas this would be making the rounds of the local TV stations, but unfortunately, it has appeared to disappear. Originally called Babes in Toyland, this was later re-titled, March of the Wooden Soldiers, and that's the title that I grew up knowing it as. I adore holiday movies and have always been fond of Laurel and Hardy, and this is one of the best holiday treats to be found.
March of the Wooden Soldiers deviates slightly from the original operetta, focusing on Laurel and Hardy as two toymakers who are trying to save The Old Lady in the shoe(Florence Roberts) from the villainous Barnaby(Henry Brandon) who wishes to foreclose her home, unless he can marry her daughter, Bo Beep(Charlotte Henry) who is already engaged to Tom-Tom(Felix Knight). The boys are able to trick the old skinflint, but complications ensue and soon Barnaby has the monstrous boogeymen unleashed upon Toyland! However, Laurel and Hardy come to the rescue by using an army of life-size wooden soldiers in an unforgettable climax that will be long-remembered.
Laurel and Hardy made quite a few musical comedies over the years and this is easily the best one. The boys fit nicely into the story, offering some hilarious and endearing bits of business. My favorite moments involve Stanley playing with his favorite toy, a "peewee" a wooden thing that he hits with a stick and send through the air. The antics in the toyshop are fun with some good slapstick and the wordplay is cute, particularly a scene involving pork sausage("Barnaby got a hand in that!") and Stan's fake marriage to Barnaby is pretty darn funny as well.
The rest of the cast perform admirably for this type of film, though the standout is 23-year old Henry Brandon as old Barnaby, the wonderful scenery chewing villain who really makes the film come to life. He's one of those great theatrical villains that works so beautifully in such simple melodrama and adds a spark to the production that works well.
The production design is lovely, completely evoking the fairy tales it hopes to emulate and is particularly memorable for imaginative children. This was one of those fantasies from the classic age that wasn't afraid to frighten it's young viewers and the climax with the boogeymen is genuinely frightening and exciting. When the wooden soldiers go and battle them, it makes for one of the coolest climaxes in any classic fantasy made. It's both funny, thrilling and charming. Macabre elements are intersped including a decapitated wooden soldier that keeps on charging towards a retreating boogeyman, though the overall impression is sweet as the soldiers protect the kids and even Mickey Mouse(!) commandeers a small zeppelin and drops tiny bombs on the boogeymen! This is just great fun.
The music is a mixed bag for today's audiences to be sure, but it is in keeping with the original operetta and is period appropiate, rather than focusing on trendy pop music, which is the norm today. I was raised on rock and heavy metal, but it's enjoyable and charming for what it is and if one keeps an open mind , i'm sure you'll think the same.
March of the Wooden Soldiers was a big success for Hal Roach, but the producer never enjoyed the picture, resentful over having his original script vetoed by Stan Laurel. The team were always proud of this film and considered it one of their best, which it is. Stan wanted the picture to originally be presented in color, given the imaginative landscape of the film. The film was finally colorized in the late 80s and unlike many of these colorization jobs, this one is actually fairly impressive and actually adds to the beauty of the picture.
If you haven't seen this one and you are a fan of classic comedy and fantasy, this film makes for a truly lovely escape when the holidays arrive. This is one of my personal favorites.