Babes in Toyland (1934)

This is the third version of Babes in Toyland we've looked at here, and - in my opinion - probably the best of the bunch. Note I didn't say it was good, only that it was better than the 1961 Disney musical or the 1986 made-for-TV movie starring Drew Barrymore and Keanu Reeves. This one stars Laurel and Hardy, and is easily the weirdest of the bunch.

Unlike the later adaptations (or the source material), the movie is almost entirely set in Toyland. Only the last act ventures outside its borders, and even then just barely. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The story is... uh... Well, that's kind of where things get complicated. The central conflict is built around Bo Peep and Tom-Tom planning to get married, but having to contend with Silas Barnaby, a cruel landowner threatening to evict Bo Peep's mother if Bo Peep doesn't agree to marry him.

But here the thing - none of them are really the main characters. Instead, the main characters are Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, played by Laurel and Hardy. They're Bo Peep's brothers (or her mother's lodgers? They live in the house but the relationship isn't clear), and they spend the movie engaged in shenanigan after shenanigan while they try to defeat Barnaby. Similar to early Disney movies, the comic relief are the main characters, while the fairy tale characters supply stakes and motivation.

Also similar to early Disney movies, Mickey Mouse is a supporting character. No, really: there's a monkey in a mouse outfit with overalls. This isn't the only Disney connection, either - they also borrow a song from a Disney short about the Three Little Pigs. For the record, Walt was friends with the producer, so all of this was sanctioned.

Let me back up and take another swing at the plot. After the movie establishes Barnaby's plan, Dum and Dee promise to get the money to pay off Mother Peep's mortgage from their boss at the toy factory. But before they can ask, Santa Claus shows up to pick up his order of six hundred one-foot-tall mechanical soldiers. Unfortunately, Dum screwed up the order, so their boss was instead stuck with one hundred six-foot-tall soldiers too big for Santa's purposes. Dum and Dee are fired on the spot.

They turn to burglary using a variation of the Trojan Horse gag with a giant Christmas present containing Dee. They screw this up and get busted, which in turn gets them sentenced to be dunked in water then banished. Barnaby offers to have the charges dropped and to forgive the mortgage in exchange for Bo Peep's hand, and she reluctantly agrees.

Dum and Dee then outsmart Barnaby at the wedding, and manage to trick Barnaby into marrying Dum instead of Bo Peep by keeping the bride's face covered. By the time Barnaby realizes he's been duped, he's already handed over the mortgage. I realize the wedding was a joke and part of the punchline is it obviously isn't legal, but I'd actually be curious to know if this was the first same-sex marriage on film.

At any rate, Barnaby isn't happy with how things are playing out, so he ups the stakes, kidnapping one of the Three Little Pigs and planting evidence to make it seem like Tom-Tom killed the pig and ground him into sausage. Tom-Tom is quickly convicted and banished to Bogeyland, a sort of nightmare underworld that's home to crocodiles and murderous bogeymen.

All of this is carried out absurdly quickly, so when Barnaby's plan unravels five minutes later, Tom-Tom is already gone. Horrified, Bo Peep heads to Bogeyland to try and find her love, while Dee and Dum chase after Barnaby. They follow the villain through a secret tunnel into Bogeyland, leading to a bizarre sequence of interactions and fights.

Bo Peep finds Tom-Tom, then Barnaby finds them both asleep (I'm glossing over a surreal sequence involving the Sandman, which is kind of neat but ultimately meaningless to the story). Barnaby tries to steal Bo Peep away, but Tom-Tom wakes up and kicks his ass. Enraged, Barnaby summons an army of bogeymen, who follow his command for some reason.

Tom-Tom and Bo Peep run into Dee and Dum, who lead them back the way they came. They're greeted as heroes, but the celebration is short-lived: Barnaby's army floods into Toyland and begins their assault.

Dee and Dum weaponize a bunch of darts and attempt to turn back the invasion with the help of Mickey Mouse and the pigs. When they run out of darts, they finally remember there's an army of robotic soldiers they should probably activate, which does the trick.

We don't get much of a resolution to the Bo Peep/Tom-Tom story, but presumably they live happily ever after. Dee accidentally shoots himself in the butt with a few hundred darts, and the movie ends.

So, like I said, weird.

I wasn't joking when I said this was the best of the three Babes in Toyland movies. Despite... everything... the fact it was all set in Toyland at least kept the movie's focus on the location. As convoluted as the story was, it felt more focused and logical than later adaptations.

It also helped this featured some impressive design and effects work, at least for the time. The sets were kind of amazing, even if they looked like an amusement park (anyone else from New England go to Storyland as a kid?). Bogeyland was also impressively large. Sure, it looked like a set, but it was a cool set. Throw in an impressive stop-motion soldier sequence, and there's a lot to appreciate.

Unfortunately, I can't say the jokes aged as well. The slapstick wasn't awful, but none of it really felt funny anymore. That's obviously unfair - Laurel and Hardy influenced generations of comedy, so the reason the humor doesn't hit is we've seen it done countless times since. Still doesn't change the fact the gags are mostly tedious now.

I don't really have much to say about the songs, either positive or negative. In fact, until now I didn't even mention this is a musical. The lip-syncing is blatant, but that's pretty common for this period.

I should probably say something about the tone. Overall, this is a kid's movie, but at times it skews a little dark. The nature of Barnaby's infatuation isn't entirely explicit, but it's pretty easy to infer his interest in Bo Peep is based in lust. He's pretty clear on that from the start - there's even a moment where it feels as though he's threatening to rape her (to be fair, the next scene walks that back, but still).

Likewise, the violence pushes things a little further than you'd expect from children's entertainment from the era. The bogeyman are fairly menacing, and the battle at the end goes in some dark directions. For me, the most surprising was when one of the toy soldiers steps on a fallen bogeyman's head and seemingly crushes it. I realize this was almost certainly a side effect of using rubber masks, but still.

Speaking of the bogeymen...

I don't want to harp on this, because I honestly don't know what the designs were based on. But... let's just say something about them felt evocative of indigenous tribes. Maybe that was accidental, or maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I wanted to mention it.

So, let's talk Christmas. Or, more accurately, Christmas in July, because that's when the movie is technically set. Granted, this is established through a joke in one scene to play up the absurdity of that whole "Trojan Horse Christmas Present" sequence, but it's still clear this takes place in the summer.

Despite that, this has historically been considered a Christmas movie. More importantly, it features Santa as a character, albeit briefly, and it's set in the fairytale world Christmas toys come from.

That's in line with other versions of Babes in Toyland: this franchise has never made much sense in the context of Christmas, but it always meets the bare minimum to qualify despite having little to say about the holidays. I always kind of felt like Babes in Toyland was forcing a Christmas connection to be more marketable, and this version's no exception.

So, is it good? Eh. The effects and sets are solid, and the sheer weirdness (particularly around a live-action Mickey Mouse being present in a non-Disney film) makes it strangely fascinating at times. But once you're past all that, it's more interesting as an artifact than as a movie. If you're unusually interested in this era or in early Hollywood fantasy, it might be worth a watch, but otherwise, I wouldn't bother.


  1. This is one they used to show on 16mm at my local library when I was a kid. I don't think I've seen it since then, but I recall liking it well enough; probably because of its strangeness, as you mentioned.


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