Nothing is scarier than a good children’s movie – for the simple reason that you tend to be a child when you first see it. And it is as a child you first witness fairy tale cuteness blended with pure malevolence. That which is warm and familiar may be simultaneously hostile and threatening. Exposure to such nightmares is probably very good for us in the long run. At any rate – certain classic children’s films scare us in a particular way that no adult horror movie will ever scare us. And they will scare us for longer.
Babes in Toyland aka March of the Wooden Soldiers is scarier than Wizard of Oz. It has fewer sets than Wizard of Oz making it feel like a version of stage pantomine. The film also incorporates operetta, and Tom Tom and Bo Peep spend a deal of time trilling at one another. It has a human/inhuman villain – Barnaby – who will throw a huge family out of that shoe house if Bo Peep does not agree to marry him. (Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee trick him into marrying Stannie instead). Barnaby is utterly remorseless and cruel – scarier by far than the bogeymen that surround Toyland. When Barnaby escapes to Toyland (after Ollie has exposed the fact that Barnaby tried to frame Tom Tom for the pignap and murder of one of the three little pigs), he is immediately acknowledged as leader of the Bogeymen. In many way, Toyland and its environs are cruel places.
The costumes are also very eerie. The three pigs dance awkwardly. There’s an oversized cat and mouse. There is also an actually baby in a tree top as well that ought to terrify everyone.
There was something about the ducking stool that shocked me in particular as a child. The spectacle of our unintelligent but supremely benign heroes being subjected to this kind of theatrical societal revenge was quite traumatic. The fact that (almost) everyone in town seems to find this ritual humiliation hilarious is quite chilling.
In all of this, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are central figures, but the film devotes comparatively little attention to their gags in isolation. There is very little that they do that does not have a bearing on the main plot here. In most Laurel and Hardy features, they are given time simply to develop a tangential sketch – but not here. Here they are actors in an actual story. Stan has a strange and useful facility with bat and missile stunts. Ollie is far sharper witted than he normally is.
It is well known that Stan Laurel and significant and bitter arguments with Hal Roach about the direction of this film. Their relationship never recovered, eventually leading Stan to belief that he and Ollie would be better off working at some other studio. Fatal.
At the end of the film, the wooden soldiers are finally unleashed and the bogeymen are repelled. Ollie (who has done more than anyone else to save the community) is accidentally shot at with a cannon and needs to have about a thousand darts removed from him. Everybody laughs.
I can’t judge this film as I would any other film with Stan and Ollie. I can’t do so because my recollections of seeing this film with a mixture of fascination and horror as a small child are too strong. I fear the return of the repressed.