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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

TO BREAK OR NOT TO BREAK PT. 2

In January 2013 I wrote this review of the 1934 Laurel and Hardy fantasy-comedy BABES IN TOYLAND, the first film to be based on the successful 1903 stage-operetta.  I had also reviewed the 1961 Disney version of the film in December, and I posted both reviews on this forum of the Classic Horror Film Board for response.

As I don't have permission to reprint anyone's comments from that board, I won't go into the specific objections raised to my review of the 1934 film, except to say that in part they come down to giving TOYLAND a pass because it was designed as a children's fantasy, which is essentially the same as the "it's only a movie" defense I covered in Part 1.

I re-viewed TOYLAND to examine its narrative structure more closely and see whether or not I felt it offered me any reasons to give the film a pass.

TOYLAND the film, as I noted in the first review, bears little resemblance to the Wikipedia summary of the stage-play, with which I have no familiarity otherwise.  The film's main indebtedness to the play is the central conflict.  In Toyland, a town populated by various Mother Goose or fairytale characters, evil old banker Silas Barnaby plots to force sweet young thing Little Bo Peep to marry him (Contrary Mary in the play and the Disney film).  Barnaby holds a mortgage on the house of Bo Peep's mother-- who happens to be the Old Woman Who Lives in the Shoe-- and threatens, in the long-lived tradition of operetta villains, to foreclose on the house if Bo Peep does not marry him. In the film as in the stage-play the heroine ends up marrying an age-appropriate protagonist, named "Alan" in the play and "Tom Tom the Piper's Son" in the 1934 film.  The play also contributes subplots in which (1) Alan is falsely accused of a crime and (2) two protagonists are abandoned in a hostile environment called "the Forest of No Return."

For roughly the first half, the script for BABES IN TOYLAND-- credited to Frank Butler and Nick Grinde-- stays on reliable operetta ground.  Because it's a Laurel and Hardy film, the script emphasizes two well-meaning bumblers-- Stannie Dum (Stan Laurel) and Ollie Dee (Oliver Hardy).  They work in the Toymaker's toy factory-- whose presence is the only explanation for the town's name.  At the factory Stannie and Ollie bungle an order from Santa Claus for tiny toy soldiers, producing instead a group of man-sized soldiers capable of marching around (hence the film's better-known title, MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS.)

For the rest of the film, Stannie and Ollie, who room with the Old Woman in the  Shoe, make it their business to protect Bo Peep against Barnaby and help her marry Tom Tom.  They bungle their first effort to steal the Old Woman's mortgage from Barnaby.  The banker catches them and has the city's ruler Old King Cole sentence the twosome to be ducked in water and then exiled to "Bogeyland"-- the first mention that there's some hostile place outside Toyland, more or less the equivalent of the play's "Forest of No Return."  Bo Peep promises to marry Barnaby if he'll drop all charges against the boys and give her mother the mortgage on her home.  Stannie and Ollie trick Barnaby into giving up the mortgage without marrying Bo Peep.

It's at this point that the script starts to go off the rails.  Barnaby decides to get even by framing Tom Tom for "pignapping," i.e., kidnapping Elmer, one of the Three Little Pigs, and turning him into sausage.  Inconsistencies immediately start to pile up:

(1) Barnaby, despite having a servant, performs the pignapping himself.  Repeating the Big Bad Wolf's routine in reverse, he tries to gain entrance to two pig-houses, gets clonked by both pigs, and then succeeds in capturing Elmer after blowing his house down.

(2) Thanks to Barnaby's servant planting evidence, most of the town immediately turns against Tom Tom, even though the Piper's Son appears to be a standup guy who's never caught doing anything more than sparking his girl.  No one gives the slightest heed to Bo Peep's testimony that Tom Tom was with her, and the two remaining pigs conveniently don't mention that Barnaby accosted them on the same night that Elmer disappeared.

(3) The evidence against Tom Tom includes a link of sausages that are supposedly Elmer's remains.  Elmer is actually alive and hidden away in Barnaby's house.  But this elicits the question: why doesn't Barnaby kill Elmer?  He might not want to make the little pig into sausages, but the longer he keeps Elmer alive, the greater the chance that his plan will be compromised-- which it is, when Stannie and Ollie infiltrate Barnaby's house and free the pig.

However, before Stannie and Ollie find him, the officials of the city transport Tom Tom by raft across a river and to "Bogeyland," a stalactitic cavern whose main inhabitants are the cannibalistic Bogeymen (though in one sequence also displays some etheral dwarves and a figure resembling the Sandman). After the officials leave Tom Tom and return to Toyland, Bo Peep steals a raft and joins her lover in Bogeyland.

When Stannie and Ollie expose Barnaby, he flees back to his dwelling and climbs down a ladder in a dry well behind his house.  He passes through a crevice in the well-- a crevice which he may or may not have created himself-- and enters a subterranean passage which leads into Bogeyland.  Stannie and Ollie alone see the banker descend into the well, but since they don't know about the passage, they initially try to wait Barnaby out.  Eventually they descend and find the passage.

Meanwhile Barnaby comes across Tom Tom and Bo Peep,  both asleep.  The villain tries to steal the girl.  Tom Tom waits and fights with Barnaby.  As I said in my original review:

" For absolutely no reason, Barnaby is suddenly able to enlist the aid of the cavern's monster-men inhabitants, "the Boogeymen," and the villain leads them in an assault on Toyland."



I left out the specific manner in which Barnaby calls the Bogeymen to his aid: after his fight with Tom Tom, Barnaby beats his cane against the stone walls of the cavern.  Tom Tom and Bo Peep flee the monsters and run across Stannie and Ollie, who manage to lead them to the well-exit.  It's not clear why Barnaby doesn't follow them up the well, which would put him and his army directly in the center of Toyland.  Instead, he somehow knows that Bo Peep has left a raft where he can find it easily, and commands his last-minute army to use it to make a frontal attack on Toyland.  Something like twenty or thirty beast-men-- far more than could fit on the raft that we see-- are seen pushing in the apparently unlocked gates of the city, their main motive being to turn the inhabitants into entrees.  (Lots of cannibalism in this children's film!) The only thing that saves Toyland is that Stannie and Ollie figure out how to activate the giant toy soldiers, who repel the Bogeymen and send them back to the river, which is full of crocodiles.  Barnaby is last seen getting clonked on the head by one of the Toyland-people, the young couple is united, and Ollie ends the film with one of the many comic humiliations in the career of Oliver Hardy.

The possibility was raised on the aforementioned forum that Barnaby has some previous connection with the Bogeymen.  The film certainly doesn't make any such connection explicit, but I would certainly concede that possibly Barnaby found that the well led to Bogeyland.  The villain's banging on the walls might be a call he had established earlier in order to call them for feedings-- though there's no evidence in the film that Barnaby ever nurtured any ambition beyond being a rich inhabitant of Toyland, with Bo Peep as his wife.  And if he had fed previous victims to the Bogeymen-- why didn't he get rid of Elmer by dumping him down the well behind his house, instead of keeping the pig *inside* his house?

As I said in Part 1, it should be obvious that I find nothing in the film justifies giving it a pass for its numerous inconsistencies.  I did give a pass to the trope of Batman's escapes, because they serve the purpose of putting the hero's cleverness on display.  But the erratic logic of the Butler-Grinde script serves no purpose but to allow the writers to leap over whatever story problems they may have encountered.

In conclusion, if the defense "it's only a movie"-- or even "it's only a kid's fantasy-movie"-- can ever be used as a defense, it ought to be reserved for a much better film than the 1934 BABES IN TOYLAND.


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