The animation connections – including those personally approved by Walt Disney—are part of what makes the 1934 Laurel and Hardy version of the musical fantasy so unique.
LAUREL AND HARDY in Victor Herbert’s Operetta
BABES IN TOYLAND
Mark 56 Records #577 (12” 33 1/3 rpm / mono)
Released in 1974. Album Producer: George Garabedian. Film Producer: Hal Roach. Screenplay: Frank Butler, Nick Grinde. Directors: Gus Meins, Charles Rogers. Musical Direction: Harry Jackson, John W. Swallow. Running Time: 51 minutes.
Cast: Oliver Hardy (Ollie Dee); Stan Laurel (Stannie Dum); Charlotte Henry (Bo Peep); Henry Brandon (Silas Barnaby); Felix Knight (Tom-Tom); Florence Roberts (Mother Peep); William Burgess (Toymaker); Kewpie Morgan (Old King Cole); Ferdinand Munier (Santa Claus); John George (Barnaby’s Minion); Frank Austin (Justice of the Peace).
Songs: “Castle in Spain,” “Go to Sleep, Slumber Deep” by Victor Herbert, Glen MacDonough.
Instrumental Themes: “Ku Ku (Laurel & Hardy Theme)” by Marvin Hatley; “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” by Frank Churchill, Ann Ronell; “Toyland,” “Melodramatic,” “Birth of the Butterfly,” “I Can’t Do That Sum,” “Never Mind, Bo Peep,” “In the Toymaker’s Workshop,” “Country Dance,” “Jane,” “The Spider’s Den,” “March of the Toys” by Victor Herbert; “Ducking Scene” by Myrl Alderman.
Musical fantasy is notoriously difficult to bring to the movie screen. Mary Poppins was a breezy production, but many were bumpy rides. On first release, some enjoyed varying degrees of success (The Wizard of Oz, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) or were box office disappointments (Doctor Dolittle), but time has generally been kind to them and each has legions of devoted fans. Many have become so beloved that their initial reception has become obscured by their eventual status.
Both the Hal Roach and Walt Disney versions of Babes in Toyland (the latter of which we explored in this Spin) were bumpy productions. They are frequently compared for reasons of casting, tone and scope, but they actually share lesser-known aspects.
The first is the challenge of a cohesive story that would work in a feature film. The original stage operetta of Babes in Toyland premiered in 1903 in Chicago. It traveled to Broadway and became a perennial classic. The musical score was the main reason. Few focused on how it all fits together because shows of this kind—including Toyland’s successful “sister” stage show by the same creative team, The Wizard of Oz–were huge extravaganzas built around lavish musical set pieces, specialty acts and performers. The songs and the plot (such as it was) was written around all the elements).
Toyland’s basic premise involved children in Mother Goose Village and the adjoining Toyland, the scary Spider Forest and the villainous Barnaby. The original Toymaker turned out to be a sorcerer who, conspiring with Barnaby, infused evil spirits into life-size toys so that they could kill children on Christmas Day. (And Tim Burton wasn’t even born yet.)
When the show was revived in 1929, RKO announced the first movie version for the 1930 Christmas season starring Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, two of the biggest comics of the day, as well as Irene Dunne, Ned Sparks and Edna Mae Oliver. According to this fascinating, detailed website devoted to Babes in Toyland history, the Herbert organization changed its mind. There was more to it, according to longtime historian and preservationist Randy Skretvedt’s sumptuously illustrated and exhaustively researched book, Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies. RKO could not get a handle on the story and was ready to abandon the project.
Hal Roach Studios was known as the “Lot of Smiles,” a small, utopian world of great comedians making great silent and then sound short and feature comedies. Roach obtained the rights to Babes in Toyland as his most ambitious production for his biggest stars, Laurel and Hardy. Roach came up with his own storyline with the duo playing Simple Simon and the Pieman. Unfortunately, issues about Roach’s approach to the story ignited a painful series of conflicts between him and Stan Laurel, who was the de facto creative lead of the team (Hardy stayed out of the business and production details and spent a lot of his time on the golf course).
Actors were tested and/or in negotiations for Toyland roles. Charlotte Henry, who had just played the lead in Alice in Wonderland for Paramount, landed the role of Bo-Peep. One of the actors approached was tenor Donald Novis, who performed “Love is a Song” over Walt Disney’s Bambi titles and was one of the stars of Disneyland’s Golden Horseshoe Revue, but negotiations fell through.
The production ground to a halt in 1933 for several reasons, chiefly the divorce of Stan Laurel from his first wife, Lois. He seriously considered going back to England and the trade papers filled with stories of the great team breaking up. Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton might have replaced them in Babes in Toyland. Patsy Kelly, who later made a number of comedy shorts with Thelma Todd (and Disney fans will know from Disney’s 1977 Freaky Friday) was considered as a comic partner for Oliver Hardy.
“Roach stopped all work on the Toyland script in mid-February, reluctantly deciding to shelve the picture until Stan’s creative, financial and emotional ordeals could be sorted out,” wrote Randy Skretvedt in the aforementioned book. On the 19th, Laurel stated to the press, “I realize my value as a comedian lies in the fact that I am teamed with Hardy.” But within a few weeks, he wrote to a friend, “It is impossible to be funny with a broken heart.”
Hardy was having marital problems as well. Both situations eventually led to new relationships all of which are too convoluted for Animation Spin (but are in Skretvedt’s book). Babes in Toyland went back into production with a new script. The team would now take a page from Lewis Carroll and play Ollie Dee and Stannie Dum. “The plot that was eventually used bore little relation to either Victor Herbert’s 1903 production or to Roach’s idea,” wrote Skretvedt.
Animation and special effects figured heavily into Babes in Toyland. Many impressive effects and opticals had already been used in Laurel and Hardy films, from clever title changes and rear-screen sequences to more complex split screen and double-exposures, especially noticeable in such films as Brats, in which the two were seen both as adults and as children. This work fell to the ever-capable hands of Roy Seawright.
Seawright, who started at the Roach studio as an office boy, moved to the prop department and eventually headed special effects. Much overdue attention is afforded to Seawright on the spectacular new Blu-ray set, Laurel and Hardy: The Definitive Collection, which contains pristine selected shorts and features with one or two commentaries per film and many new extras.
“Roy Seawright was a man of many, many talents,” says Skredvedt on the Blu-ray. “He helped devise physical props and he was a talented artist and animator. He also created the matte shots and other optical effects work. For example, there’s a shot in County Hospital where Stan’s Model ‘T’ lifts up when it backfires. In the original shot, evidently you could see a crane lifting it. Film editor Richard Currier told me that he asked Roy, ‘Can you get that crane out of the shot?’ and somehow Roy was able to erase that.” This was almost one hundred years ago, folks.
While the animation in King Kong has earned its proper due as a landmark in stop-motion history the toy soldier sequence in Babes in Toyland, though much shorter and less elaborate, is nonetheless worth more attention in its early Hollywood context.
“In the production of Laurel and Hardy comedies, there was an awful lot of really serious thought given to the creation of these effects,” said Seawright (in a 1981 interview by Skretvedt on Super-8 film, which is on the Blu-ray) “On Babes in Toyland, when Stan and ‘Babe’ [Hardy’s childhood nickname] open up the door to the toy factory and you look up the alley into the toy factory and you see all the toy soldiers lined up—well, those toy soldiers were only ten inches high, and it was my job to make a traveling matte that, when they opened the doors on to a brick wall, you looked into a miniature set which we concocted on an old handball court. It was a court that we used to play squash and handball on that we converted for stop-motion and trick work.
“The soldiers were all made of ball-and-socket… there must have been eighty of them in the group… Every one of them had big lead feet and so forth and they had to be moved about a quarter of an inch to the frame… It took us two weeks to shoot the one scene from different camera angles—low shots looking up, cross angles, long shots and so forth of these wooden soldiers. They came out the door and walked right past the camera. Then they swung to the live-action, the actors with the costumes on them…
“To me, it was a big challenge. In those days, back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, we were working with the typical ‘spit and baling wire and cotton,’ you know, and tape. We didn’t have the stop-motion equipment or the technique or even the knowledge to do these effects.
In addition to the toy soldier sequence, the main title opening contains tabletop photography of alphabet blocks to spell out the title, followed by the entrance of Mother Goose to sing “Toyland” as she appears to turn the giant storybook pages. Each page is a cutaway viewing featuring various characters, ending on a composite of shots zooming inside the book to Toyland, which combines the gigantic set with a matte painting.
The Toyland stage was the most elaborate set ever constructed on the Roach lot. Despite the black and white photography, the art direction was in full color. All the costumes and set pieces were also rendered in color. According to the album notes by John McCabe, Laurel himself regretted that the production was not filmed in color. Therefore, a case can be made that this film is perhaps the only one to be colorized, based on the original intent and because the overall artificiality of the settings lends itself to the limits of digital coloring. There have been two colorized editions released several years apart and the 2006 Legend Films release benefits the most to date from the advances in the technology.
The other animation links in this journey through Toyland are fascinating and a bit strange to some viewers. Walt Disney was a good friend to Hal Roach and gave his personal approval for the appearances of Mickey Mouse and the Three Little Pigs (the hit Silly Symphony cartoon had only been in theaters for just a year and was at the peak of its phenomenon status).
In his book, Skretvedt quotes a letter from Walt Disney to Hal Roach from July 27th, 1934: “You may use any piece of the sound track, as well as any models of the characters. In other words, we are more than glad to cooperate with you in every way.”
Walt even offered the original voice actors for the pigs, but that was not deemed necessary. Their names were also changed for this film, but the megahit “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” plays several times in the film, the equivalent of adding a pop hit to a family film today. (It is also notable that frequent Roach studio player Billy Bletcher appeared in Babes in Toyland and was the voice of the Big Bad Wolf as well as Pete and other Disney characters.)
“Mickey” is first seen throwing a brick at The Cat and the Fiddle—a nod to Ignatz the mouse from the popular “Krazy Kat” comic strip (Skretvedt speculates that the monkey playing Mickey may have been a capuchin named Josephine, owned by Tony Campanaro, the Roach studio animal trainer). Mickey takes an active role during the final battle scene, when he boards a toy blimp, fills it with toy torpedoes and drops them on the horrible bogeymen. The 1961 Disney Toyland film also has a toy blimp in its soldier sequence, without Mickey or any torpedoes.
Roach never again produced a feature so extravagant. The film was fraught with difficulties, including injuries on the set (someone even fell off the shoe that the old woman lived in). There were off-screen hospital stays and much bickering between Laurel and Roach that affected their friendship. While Laurel and Hardy later expressed affection for Babes in Toyland, Roach did not. He was not pleased with the film, perhaps because of the experience, and insisted it was not a success. In reality, it opened to generally excellent reviews and strong box office. But the huge expense outweighed the profits, especially when compared to other Laurel and Hardy features.
False (and often malicious) information has circulated for years that Walt Disney forced the 1934 film’s title to change from Babes in Toyland to March of the Wooden Soldiers to prevent competition with his 1961 musical. As mentioned, he and Roach were good friends and Roach was still alive. The fact is that Roach only retained a ten-year distribution on his Toyland. The Victor Herbert estate did not allow the next distributor to use the title (the property was still very popular) or the “Toyland” song. The beginning section was removed and it was retitled March of the Wooden Soldiers in 1950 for television. At one time it was given the title Revenge is Sweet.
The constant TV airings under the revised title led many to believe that “March” was the correct title; the video releases also used “March” as the lead title and “Babes” as the subtitle because so many knew it from TV. However, the correct title seems to be returning, with the TCM doing its part by listing it as Babes in Toyland as the cable channel celebrates a month-long Laurel and Hardy salute. [It will be broadcast on TCM this Friday, Christmas day.)
While there were several recordings of the Babes in Toyland songs, including a few produced by Herbert’s own orchestra, there was no soundtrack album for the Laurel and Hardy feature. No soundtrack records were ever issued for their films during the original release dates. It wasn’t until the 1970’s when independent record companies began to license them in the U.S. and Europe. By then the separate mix elements were gone, so all that remains are finished film tracks with all the sound effects and dialogue.
Mark 56 Records was one of these small companies. “George Garabedian, whose real first name was evidently Marcus, started Mark 56 Records in November 1958,” Randy Skretvedt tells us for this article. “A lot of his first releases were vanity projects featuring himself as orchestra leader (and possibly singer). I became aware of the label as a kid in the early ’60s because it was based in Anaheim, which is right next door to my home town of Buena Park. Many of his early LPs were sponsored items, with a company getting a plug on the jacket artwork, presumably for having helped to finance the project. This practice continued into at least the ’70s, with Coca-Cola sponsoring an album of W.C. Fields radio excerpts, and Frigidaire prominently advertised on a Lum and Abner radio show LP.
“Garabedian made a deal with Richard Feiner to do a series of Laurel & Hardy soundtrack LPs in 1973, which is when the first album was issued. It was originally a picture disc, although a later pressing was on standard black vinyl.”
The albums were —
575 Laurel & Hardy Original Motion Picture Soundtracks
577 Babes in Toyland
579 Another Fine Mess
600 In Trouble Again!
601 No U Turn
688 Way Out West
689 Sons of the Desert.
The Mark 56 soundtrack album edits the entire 77-minute running time to 51 minutes. The main title is shortened, the songs “Toyland” and “Bo-Peep” are omitted and the visual portions of comedic scenes are trimmed. The dialogue and music that remains is an audio delight, working well as pure audio, even if the listener has never seen the film.
Listening draws attention to the musical entertainment timeline in which this film fits in relation to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). All were released within mere years of each other, yet they offer a notable transition from the operetta style of musical presentations to the eventual “book” form of musical theater later brought to the fore with Oklahoma!
In addition to Randy Skretvedt, the author gratefully thanks Richard W. Bann and Ray Faiola for their years of devoted Laurel and Hardy research work, which was indispensable in making this article possible. Bann is also featured on the special features of the Blu-ray, Laurel and Hardy: The Definitive Collection.
LAUREL AND HARDY in Victor Herbert’s Operetta
BABES IN TOYLAND
The Sound Track Factory SFCD-33546 (Compact Disc / Mono)
CD Reissue: Calle Mayor (Spain) ST-0027 (2017) (Toyland tracks only)
Released in 2000. Album Producer/Editor: J.G. Calvados. Running Times: 37 minutes (“Toyland” tracks) ; 28 minutes (additional tracks); 65 minutes (total).
Performers: Oliver Hardy (Ollie Dee); Stan Laurel (Stannie Dum); Virginia Karns (Mother Goose); Charlotte Henry (Bo Peep); Henry Brandon (Silas Barnaby); Felix Knight (Tom-Tom); Florence Roberts (Mother Peep); Billy Bletcher (Chief of Police); Alice Dahl (Little Miss Muffet); Sumner Getchell (Simple Simon); Fred Holmes (Balloon Man); William Burgess (Toymaker); Johnny Downs (Little Boy Blue), Jean Darling (Curly Locks); Ferdinand Munier (Santa Claus).
Babes in Toyland Songs:
“Toyland,” “Bo-Peep,” “Castle in Spain,” “Go to Sleep, Slumber Deep” by Victor Herbert, Glen MacDonough.
“Toyland” Instrumental Themes (with Dialogue): “Toyland,” “March of the Toys,” “Jane,” “Melodramatic,” “Birth of the Butterfly,” “I Can’t Do That Sum,” “Never Mind, Bo Peep,” “In the Toymaker’s Workshop,” “Country Dance,” “The Spider’s Den,” by Victor Herbert; “Dance of the Cuckoos” (Laurel and Hardy Theme) by Marvin Hatley; “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” by Frank Churchill, Ann Ronell; “Ducking Scene” by Myrl Alderman.
(CD dialogue tracks that include the above themes: “Good Morning Everybody,” “Good Morning Old Master,” “Jour de fête at Toyland,” “The Christmas Surprise,” “The Bogeymen attack Toyland.”)
Additional Laurel and Hardy Songs:
• “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” (Ballard MacDonald / Harry Carroll) from Way Out West – • The Avalon Boys, Oliver Hardy & Rosina Lawrence
• “At The Ball, That’s All” (J. Heubrie Hill) from Way Out West – The Avalon Boys
• “I Want To Be In Dixie” (Irving Berlin/Ted Snyder) from Way Out West – Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy & Rosina Lawrence
• “In The Good Old Summertime” (George Evans/Ren Shields) from Below Zero – Oliver Hardy
• “Lazy Moon” (J. Rosamond Johnson / Bob Cole) from Pardon Us – Oliver Hardy
• “Fresh Fish” (Oliver Hardy / Leroy Shield) from Towed in a Hole – Oliver Hardy
• “We Are the Sons of the Desert” / “Honolulu Baby” (Marvin Hatley) from Sons of the Desert – Ty Parvis
• “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” (Leo Friedman/Beth Slater Wilson) (and another theme) – Oliver Hardy
Additional Laurel and Hardy Instrumental Themes (with Dialogue):
• “The Cuckoo Song” (“The Dance of the Cuckoos” Laurel & Hardy Theme) (Marvin Hatley)
• “Stagecoach Manners” from Way Out West (Marvin Hatley) Dialogue with Score
• “When the Mice Are Away” from Helpmates (Themes by Hatley & Shield)
• Main Title from Sons of the Desert (Hatley)
• “Turn On the Radio (Smile When the Raindrops Fall)” (Alice K. Howlett) from Busy Bodies
• “Furniture Payment” (Themes by Hatley & Shield)
• “The Dance of the Cuckoos” (Marvin Hatley) Columbia Records, Arranged by Van Phillips, London, 1932
While not a complete dialogue and story album like the the Mark 56 soundtrack, this CD draws mostly the musical highlights from the same finished film track, but adds more musical material that the LP omitted for space, particularly (most of) the opening, “Toyland” and “Bo-Peep.”
To round out the program and make it play longer, the first issue of this disc also includes a “best of” program with many of the most memorable songs, musical cues and comedy bits from years of Laurel and Hardy films. The CD reissue does not include this extra material.
The Laurel and Hardy films are so rich in visuals—just their facial expressions alone—that sometimes the immense variety and quality of the other audio elements can be overlooked. Having a nice buffet table filled with these treats is a feast indeed.
Rainbow Puppet Productions Presents
With Mickey Rooney as The Master Toymaker
Original Cast Album
Rainbow Puppet Productions [no catalog number] (Compact Disc / Stereo).
Released in 2005. Album Producer/Engineer: Steve Scheffler. Adaptation: David Messick, from the Operetta by Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough. Album Producer/Editor: J.G. Calvados. Running Times: 49 minutes.
Performers: Mickey Rooney (The Master Toymaker); Jan Rooney (Mother Goose, Fairy Princess); Steve Scheffler (Barnaby); Jim Stesvaag (Tom/Floretta); Kara Dennison (Little Bo Peep); David Messick (Grumio); Cindy Kaye (Red Riding Hood); Don Bartlett (Big Bad Wolf); Tim Therrington (Jack); Lisa Ryan (Jill); Chris Bartlett (Woman Who Lives in a Shoe); Tiffany Hess (Miss Muffett); Craig T. Adams (Gonzorgo); Jason Wiedel (Rodrigo, Conductor); Beverley Slayton (The Cypress Tree); Tyler Ryan (Atmosphere).
Songs: “Here in Mother Goose Village,” “Don’t Cry, Bo Peep,” “I Won’t Be Happy (Till I Get It).” “Floretta the Gypsy,” “Go to Sleep,” “Here in Toyland,” “The Candy Song,” “Toyland,” “I Can’t Do the Sum,” by David Messick, adapted from Victor Herbert melodies and Glen MacDonough lyrics.
Instrumentals: “March of the Toys,” “The Spider Attack,” “The Russian Toys,” “The Dancing Bears,” “The Irish Dancers” by David Messick, adapted from Victor Herbert melodies.
Since Mickey Rooney was at the center of the Rankin/Bass classic Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, which we discussed in this recent Spin, it seemed fitting to mention the time he ventured into Toyland.
Based in Virginia, Rainbow Puppet Productions was established in 1977 by David Messick. A non-profit entertainment and educational organization, the troupe performs in theaters and schools in several original musicals, many featuring the voices of legendary stars including Carol Channing and Mickey Rooney, who with his last wife Jan was heard in several of their shows.
For Toyland! Rooney voices a benevolent Toymaker in a story that uses some of the original tunes but adds new lyrics to other Herbert melodies. It was introduced in 2003 to celebrate the Centennial of the premiere of the original stage operetta. Many of the Rainbow Puppet Productions shows were recorded on CDs and for downloads and are currently available on Amazon and other platforms. More information about is on their website.
Because the story is so loose, there is no end to the ways Babes in Toyland can be adapted for almost any entertainment medium. There was a live stage musical presented at Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park, an excellent LP from Golden Records narrated by character actor George Voskovec; a musical story version with the Herbert songs on MGM children’s records; another story record from Pickwick featuring some original songs James Dukas (Count Chocula) as Barnaby; and even a kooky disco version in the mid-seventies called “The Babes in Toyland” that had a Krofft vibe. The Chicago Theater of the Air musical radio dramatization can be heard here.