BABES IN TOYLAND (Hal Roach/MGM, 1934), directed Gus Meins and Charles Rogers, is a musical fairy tale based on Victor Herbert's 1903 operetta that became tailor-made for the talents of comedy team Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in what's considered to be their very best and highly acclaimed adaptation taken from an operatic work, thanks to its fine script, comedy material and notable storybook characters brought to life on the screen. In spite of Stan and Ollie having to take time away from the screen in favor of plot development, musical interludes and romantic subplot, even appearing nearly ten minutes from the start of the story, the movie, overall, succeeds.
Set in the mythical land of Toyland, Widow Peep (Florence Roberts) is an old woman about to be evicted from her home by the evil Silas Barnaby (Henry Brandon) unless her mortgage is paid. Barnaby is willing to overlook the matter and offer her the deed in favor of being honored for having her daughter, Bo-Peep (Charlotte Henry) as his bride. Bo-Peep loves Tom Tom Piper (Felix Knight, dressed like Peter Pan), and will have nothing to do with him. Stanley Dumb (Stan Laurel) and Oliver Dee (Oliver Hardy), a couple of toy-makers who take up room and board in Widow Peep's home, attempt to help by asking their employer, the toy master (William Burress) for an advance in salary, but because Stanley confused Santa Claus's (Ferdinand Munier) order 600 toy soldiers at one foot high, thus giving him 100 toy soldiers at six foot high instead of 600 soldiers at 1 foot high, they both get fired, and must come up with another solution in rescuing Bo-Peep from the clutches of Barnaby.
A memorable score by Victor Herbert, only a few were selected for the screen, including: "Toyland" (sung by Virginia Karns); "Don't Cry, Bo-Peep, Don't Cry" (sung by Felix Knight); "The Castles in Spain," "Go to Sleep, Slumber Deep" and "The March of the Toys (Wooden Soldiers)." Some reissue prints retitled MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS eliminate Mother Goose's opening of "Toyland" as she opens the "Babes in Toyland" storybook and introduces it main characters in song: Little Bo Peep who lost her sheep; Tom Tom the Piper's Son; The Little Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe (Widow Peep); Silas Barnaby, "the meanest man in town"; Hi Diddle Diddle, The Cat and the Fiddle; Three Little Pigs: Elmer, Willie and Jiggs; and finally Stanley Dumb and Oliver Dee, "they love to sleep as you can see;" along with the "Go to Sleep" number, having recently been restored on both video and DVD distributions ranging from colorized to original black and white photography. The musical interludes are not overdone yet capture the mood of the story. In fact, more than half of Victor Herbert's original score has been cast aside in keeping the story to average length (79 minutes).
Charlotte Henry, who starred in Paramount's fantasy to Lewis Carroll's now forgotten screen adaptation of ALICE IN WONDERLAND (Paramount, 1933), is ideally cast as Bo-Peep. Had fate taken a different turn, one wonders if Henry would have succeeded playing Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ had the L. Frank Baum story been brought to the screen about this time instead of 1939? It so happens that TOYLAND and OZ are similar in nature. They are both set in a mythical land; Silas Barnaby and the Wicked Witch are evil individuals who bring fear to those around them; Barnaby is assisted by hideous Bogeymen while the Witch has her flying monkeys; Laurel and Hardy are do-gooders similar to the Tin Man and the Scarecrow; and finally Toyland citizens bursting into song. Unlike most fantasies of this sort, BABES IN TOYLAND is not one extended dream sequence from which the leading character awakens back to reality as did Dorothy at her farm in Kansas following her Technicolor experience in the land of OZ. This is Toyland from start to finish, with a touch of Disneyland as one of the citizens of Toyland looking very much like Mickey Mouse!
While as Dee and Dumb, Laurel and Hardy perform their roles in their usual traditional manner, but minus their trademark derbys. Their key scenes include having them sneaking into Barnaby's home to retrieve Widow Peep's deed only to get caught, thanks to Stanley, and being sentenced to public dunking in a pond of cold water (only Ollie gets the treatment) and thrown out of Toyland into Boogeyland forever (the same fate later set for Tom-Tom accused of pig-napping Elmer, thanks to Barnaby); their participation in Barnaby's wedding, as well as the grand finale where the toy soldiers are brought to life from the toy factory in their war against the bogeymen with Stan and Ollie's ammunition of darts fired from the cannon. Great march formation and still photography outdoes any computer technology today since more effort was put into this sequence alone. Cartoon violence is the essence here, especially when Ollie falls victim to it in the Wile E. Coyote tradition, but not to the extreme.
More Laurel and Hardy than Victor Herbert, BABES IN TOYLAND is geared for children and adults alike, especially adults who watched this annually on television during the Christmas when they were kids themselves since the 1950s. In recent years, TOYLAND aired on American Movie Classics (1994-1996) and finally Turner Classic Movies (TCM premiere: December 24, 2012, with original theatrical title intact). Remade theatrically in 1961 by Walt Disney Productions, then again as either television movies or new theatrical adaptations in later years, it's the 1934 original that appears to live on happily ever after. (***1/2)