Sunday, January 4, 2015

Classic Movie Review from My Collection: March of the Wooden Soldiers

One of the great classics of my childhood is March of the Wooden Soldiers, the 1934 Laurel and Hardy comedy fantasy based on the musical Babes in Toyland. When I was growing up it was on TV every year either on Thanksgiving or sometime shortly thereafter. It marked the beginning of the Christmas season and I waited for and looked forward to it every year. It’s not a great movie. Heck, it’s not even a great comedy, not even by Laurel and Hardy standards. But there’s something so magical in the story that so easily captures the imaginations of children.

This year, probably as a way of drumming up personal nostalgia, I showed it to my four-year old son on Thanksgiving. The streaming rental was good for a week and he asked to watch it several more times. I bought him the DVD for Christmas and he’s already watched it a few times. The DVD has both the original black-and-white and the later colorized version. I made it clear that in my house there will be no viewing of colorized films. Some reviews claim the colorization is an improvement because children get to see the full vibrancy of the images and not the simplicity of grayscale. Sorry, but I have no memory of watching the film as a kid and thinking, “I love this movie, but where’s the color?” My son has never once even mentioned the film’s lack of color. The imagination fills it in. And even if it doesn’t, it’s the fantasy that captures the attention and tickles the mind, not just the images.

At some point my review should touch on the story, I suppose, and I should talk about how Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy play Stannie Dee and Ollie Dum, two children of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. Little Bo Peep is one of their sisters and they all live in Toyland, a strange place populated by Mother Goose nursery rhyme characters. Look around and you’ll spot a cat (but no fiddle), a mouse without a clock to run up, a baby in a crib in a treetop (a little creepy actually), and others. The villain is Silas Barnaby (Henry Brandon), a miser of a landlord who will toss mother and he children from the shoe if they can’t meet the next payment. Barnaby will accept as payment marriage to Bo Peep, who is already engaged to Tom Tom the Piper’s Son.

Barnaby frames Tom Tom for the murder of one of the three little pigs (there’s a little Disney crossover in that trio with the playing of the theme from the famous animated short) and Old King Cole banishes him to Bogeyland, a dark series of caves inhabited by the man-eating bogeymen. The big climax is where the film takes its title from as the bogeymen invade Toyland and Stannie and Ollie switch on their one hundred 6-foot tall wooden soldiers they made accidentally. The soldiers scare off the Bogeymen and Barnaby with them and everyone lives happily ever after.

Last year I thought the bogeymen would be too scary for my son, who was frightened by Monsters, Inc. before that. But he thought the whole thing was quite funny, including the bogeymen, whom I think look a little intimidating for a small child.

The movie is often considered a musical. It has a couple of songs all performed by classically trained singers who sound like operatic soloists. It was so nice to see swingers who employ effective technique and sound good. But the story isn’t guided by songs. It’s the fantasyland that is the star as well as the often hysterical antics of the great comedy duo. Directors Gus Meins and Charley Rogers worked primarily in short comedies at the time. Truthfully, March of the Wooden Soldiers is a bit uneven and slows down for song in a strange attempt, I suppose, to maintain its ties to the source material. It might have been better if screenwriters Nick Grinde and Frank Butler had focused more on the comedy duo and drummed up some of the laughs.

On  a technical level, March of the Wooden Soldiers is pretty basic. It’s pretty low-budget so the sets are minimal even by the standards of the 1930s. The sound quality was somewhat improved for the DVD restoration, but some of the song lyrics remain muddled and indiscernible. However, if we consider this as a nostalgia piece or something to enthrall the kids for ninety minutes, it perfectly nails it.

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