The Toy Shop (1928)

This 9-minute film from 1928 represents something of a transition between silent film and talkies. Technically it's neither, as it includes a synchronized musical soundtrack but no spoken dialogue. In addition, it's shot in two-color Technicolor, similar to Mystery of the Wax Museum (though that movie features a much more technically advanced execution of the process). Between those features and an extremely intricate fantasy effect at the heart of the short, The Toy Shop must have amazed audiences ninety-five years ago. I still found myself surprised and intrigued today.

There's not a lot to the plot. The movie opens with a poor beggar girl (presumably an orphan) begging outside a toy shop on what I'm assuming is Christmas Eve (all we get from the title cards is that this is happening in France). Visually, we only get a couple hints at the season: there's a wreath on a door in the background, and later we'll see some garlands inside the shopkeeper's home. The real clue that it's Christmas comes from the aforementioned soundtrack, which is made up of holiday tunes.

One of those tunes is partially diegetic, thanks to passing carolers (we only hear their music, carefully aligned to an accompanied fiddler). The toy shop owner hears them and is moved. He looks down at a statue of the Virgin Mary and prays briefly before looking out his window to see the beggar being violently pushed away by a couple she's asked for help. The owner rushes out and yells at the couple before turning tenderly to the scared child. He brings her inside, helps her remove her wooden shoes, then gives her a pair of socks after seeing how cold her bare feet are. He steps away to prepare some food while she dozes in his shop.

Here's the visual effect I mentioned earlier. As she dreams, she's transported to a fantasy world where toys come alive and dance. The toys, of course, are simply performers - it's the composition of the shot that gave me pause. There's a massive painted city around and behind them, and to one side the oversized head of the resting child.

I've encountered similar shots from this era, of course, but there are a couple aspects here that make this stand out. The main one is that there's no clear transition between the girl's head and the stage the toys are on - it really looks like they're on the same plane. I believe the majority of this was done using a matte painting in which a realistic image of the child was included along with the extended surroundings. But there's a complication: while the child is still in virtually all of the composited shots, she can clearly be seen shifting her arm into place during the establishing shot.

My best guess is this was accomplished using forced perspective, probably with another performer's arm in a sheet placed in front of the still image of the girl. There's also a moving bell in a tower in the backdrop, which must have been moved during filming. Regardless of how it was all achieved, the precision is remarkable.

At any rate, the child eventually wakes up to find the toy seller has laid out dolls for her. He then brings her to the table, where he's laid out a feast. She gives him a kiss on the cheek, and it ends.

Essentially, the story boils down to a simplified version of Hans Christian Andersen's Little Match Girl set in a universe where someone isn't a total dick. As such, the themes are fairly similar, albeit toned down. This is a simple tale illustrating charity and compassion, with a bit of a found family motif tossed in for good measure (I'm pretty sure the old guy's adopting the kid, though there's no intertitle spelling it out).

The application of synchronized sound here gives us a little more insight into tone than we've had with earlier films. The moment of religious reflection when the toy seller prays and the simple playful jubilation of the music the toys dance to are of course self-explanatory. More interesting to me is the use of "Silent Night, Holy Night" to explore the girl's despair as she begs for help at Christmas. The moment, both as a sound cue and emotional beat, is a common one, but it occurs to me this may be the first time it was set on a film's soundtrack. That's not to say it was an original usage - prior to the widespread adoption of synchronized sound in 1927, it was common for sheet music or instructions to accompany the films themselves. This may give us a little insight as to what earlier silent movies actually sounded like, with the caveat the music would generally have been played live.

This is a neat one, and I'd love to tell you to head over to YouTube and watch... but at least at the time I'm writing this, that doesn't seem to be an option (though the section with the dancing toys accounting for about half the runtime is currently up, if you don't mind missing the beginning). Likewise, this doesn't appear to be streaming anywhere. I had to shell out sixteen bucks for an old DVD of the 1928 movie, The Garden of Eden, on which The Toy Shop is included as an extra feature.

This is really interesting, but - unless you're also obsessed with tracking down every early holiday movie in circulation - I don't think I'd recommend going that far.