March of the Wooden Soldiers: A New York Christmas TV Memory
by James H. Burns
On an arctic December night in Brooklyn when I was a tot, my family went to visit a local Christmas attraction. It was one of those "Christmas wonderland" houses, popular at the time, and people lined around the block to take in its colorful lights and seasonal set pieces.
Atop my mother's shoulder I caught my first glimpse of this candy-cane world and a couple of lifesize, papier mache soldiers, and asked:
"Do Laurel and Hardy live here?"
No adults laughed at me, but they may have smiled, because they all knew what I was talking about: Laurel and Hardy's March of the Wooden Soldiers (originally Babes in Toyland), which had already become part of New York's holiday traditions.
In 1933 Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were at the height of their success. Hardy, from Georgia, and Laurel, a Brit, were solo silent film performers when they were teamed by the Hal Roach Studio in the mid 1920s. After more than sixty shorts and seven features, they were among the few silent film stars to make the transition to talkies.
That autumn Roach decided that their next movie would be based on Babes in Toyland, the operetta by Victor Herbert with lyrics and book by Glen MacDonough, which -- thirty years previously -- had been a smash on Broadway.
Laurel, the creative lead in the duo, sequestered himself with the studio's writers, and they created a musical only loosely inspired by Herbert's and MacDonough's opus.
Laurel and Hardy would play Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, craftsmen in Toyland (home village to many of our favorite nursery rhyme characters). Aided by Bo Peep and Tom Tom (the Piper's Son), they ultimately confront the villainy of the aged miser, Silas Barnaby, and his legion of fierce "Bogeymen."
Barnaby, one of the great eccentric screen villains, was portrayed by Henry Brandon who, despite his apparently wizened status, was only twenty-two years old.
A scenario elegant in its simplicity ensued, and the Roach crew were painstaking in their efforts to bring the fantasy to life.
"Babes in Toyland's" most unusual aspect is rarely noted: Mickey Mouse appears throughout the film, in what's essentially his sole non-animated movie -- and certainly the only one in which he's portrayed by a costumed monkey. Walt Disney had given Roach permission to use Mickey in the film, though he might have thought better of it after he saw the freakish, simian Mickey in action.
Disney's association with Laurel and Hardy may have helped impact the world of pop culture in another way: According to some of his oldest friends, Disney had been thinking of ideas for a family amusement park as far back as the 1920s. Does it seem a stretch to imagine that the elaborate Toyland helped give the filmmaker some of ideas for Disneyland?
Distributed for Roach by MGM, Babes in Toyland was almost universally well-reviewed when it premiered just after Thanksgiving 1934, but never received a widespread national rerelease.
In 1948, Babes began to be sold to different distributors, which is when it was rechristened March of the Wooden Soldiers. March made its New York television debut nine years later. Usually broadcast on Thanksgiving or near Christmas -- sometimes both -- March soon became, for some of us, nearly as significant a seasonal icon as Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade or the tree at Rockefeller Center.
In the 1970s rumors began to circulate among film buffs that March of the Wooden Soldiers was missing extensive footage. But in New York, we had been seeing those allegedly missing scenes for years -- WPIX, without anyone realizing it, had somehow become the caretaker of the most complete print of March of the Wooden Soldiers in the country.
But in the late '70s Channel 11 lost the license to broadcast the film. And when WPIX's parent company, the Tribune Corpration, acquired all rights to March of the Wooden Soldiers a year or two later, they somehow wound up with the same cut version that was shown throughout the United States; the more complete version appeared to have been lost.
In 1989, a native New Yorker, came to the rescue. Ray Faiola, a CBS executive and film historian, received a phone call from CBS-Fox Home Video's Ken Horowitz, who asked him to find something to make their planned package of Laurel and Hardy comedies a little more special. (Faiola was also heavily involved with The Sons of the Desert, an international Laurel and Hardy appreciation society, which still meets monthly at Manhattans' Players Club.) Faiola began searching for a mint Babes in Toyland. He called the British Film Institute, an archive in Italy, and other likely venues, but no one knew where the missing footage might be.
Finally Richard May, an executive at Turner Broadcasting, suggested that Faiola call Eastman House, a film depository in Rochester that various organizations use to store their films. There he found a pristine copy of Babes in Toyland, from which new prints were struck.
In 1991, Tribune licensed the Samuel Goldwyn Company to produce a colorized version of March. Even most cinema purists didn't object, perhaps because everyone involved with Babes in Toyland who'd been heard from on the subject said they rued that the picture was shot in black and white instead of color.
March of the Wooden Soldiers is a fantasy, but it's not cloying. Laurel and Hardy were comic artists of the first rank, and when they finally made a movie aimed at children, they didn't talk down to their new audience.
Some of us who saw those WPIX showings long ago remember March of the Wooden Soldiers like the shimmer of a jingle bell, or with the warmth of the first light reflected off a snowflake. For us, it was part of childhood. And seeing it again after all these years is like a holiday in the heart.