Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Christmas 2018: December 5th

Babes in Toyland (1934)

In 2015, I reviewed the 1986 version of “Babes in Toyland,” which I watched constantly as a kid despite it being awful. The next year, I went back further in time and watched the Disney-produced 1961 version of the story. That was less awful but fairly mediocre in its own way. This December, I decide to go even further into the past and watch the 1934 version of “Babes in Toyland.” This particular adaptation of Victor Herbert's operetta was conceived as a vehicle for Laurel and Hardy. Stan and Ollie had been at this since 1927 and would continue to perform together into the 1950s. Though I am a fan of classic comedy teams, you may be surprised to learn this is the first Laurel and Hardy movie I've ever seen.

As in every version of Herbert's children's tale, the setting in the mythical Toyland. There, characters from fairy tales and nursery rhymes live. This version focuses in on Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, an idiot man-child and his grumpy caretaker, who co-habitat with the Old Woman Who Lives in a Shoe. Also living with them is Bo Peep, who is in love with Tom-Tom the Piper's Son. This union is threatened by Mr. Barnaby, a predatory credit lender. He threatens to evict the Old Woman if Bo Peep doesn't marry him. When this doesn't work, he frames Tom-Tom for trying to turn a Little Pig into sausage. That gets the boy exiled to Boogeyland, the caves populated with monsters. Once Barnaby turns the beasts on the village, it's up to Stan and Ollie – and the army of wooden soldiers they accidentally ordered for the Toymaker – to save the day.

As I said, I have no familiarity with Laurel and Hardy as a comedy team. I certainly recognize the iconography of the bowler hats and pencil mustaches. But when it comes to skinny guy/fat guy comedy teams, I guess I'm more of an Abbott and Costello guy. Having said that, I get the impression “Babes in Toyland” is not Stan and Ollie's best work. The slapstick is fairly pedestrian, such as when a rogue wooden solider brings a shelf down. I think the only times I laughed were small gags, like Stan getting whacked suddenly with a stick or a botched attempt to sneak into Barnaby's house. Otherwise, the antics seem to revolve around Laurel acting like an idiot and people screaming. A scene where Hardy is almost drowned is especially obnoxious.

Despite being made in the sound era, “Babes in Toyland” still partially feels like a silent movie. The actors are obviously wearing floury make-up common in earlier features. I'm not quite sure what to make of the film's production design in general. The sets are quite nice. The costumes, however, are frequently quite creepy. The Three Little Pigs wear inexpressive rubber masks. The Cat with the Fiddle is played by an actor in a vintage fursuit, which is about as unnerving as it sounds. The Cat is always accompanied by a monkey dressed as Mickey Mouse, which is at least a clever effect. (The producer was friends with Walt Disney, so this is an official Mickey sighting.) The somewhat creepy costumes ultimately work in the film's favors, when the Krampus-like boogeymen lay siege to the town at the end. Even then, the relentless wooden soldiers, who stomp on faces and march around headless, are a little scarier.

I imagine kids in 1934 were probably more forgiving of the stage show-like special effects. Kids were pretty clearly the target audience for the film. In that regard, “Babes in Toyland” is acceptable enough. It's neat seeing all these nursery rhyme characters together and I imagine 1934's little ones got a thrill out of that too. I'm not too sure those youngsters enjoyed the musical numbers though. A song devoted to finding Bo Peep's sheep goes on for far too long and doesn't advance the story. The film features an incredibly maudlin performance of “Castle in Spain.” “Go to Sleep” is similarly slow, stopping the show in the worst way. 

“Babes in Toyland” is also barely a Christmas movie. Santa shows up for one scene and there's some gift-giving but the story's actually set in July, apparently. When the film was reissued in the fifties as “March of the Wooden Soldiers,” it wasn't properly copyrighted, causing that cut to fall into the public domain. So the film is easily found, both online and in cheap DVDs. I hate to say it but I think the one with Drew Berrymore and Keanu Reeves is still my favorite version of “Babes in Toyland.” A cartoon was produced in 1997. I guess I'll watch that one next December? [5/10]

The Simpsons: Miracle on Evergreen Terrace

While “The Simpsons” have done a Halloween episode during every one of its thirty seasons, the iconic TV shows have touched on the Christmas season considerably less. (Though still nineteen times of this writing.) Of course, the show began with a Christmas special, meaning it will always have an association of sorts with the holiday. “Miracle on Evergreen Terrace” aired in the ninth season, near the end of the show's Golden Age. It concerns Bart sneaking down before everyone else on Christmas morning to open his gifts early. What he ends up doing instead is setting the plastic tree ablaze, burning all of the family's presents to ashes. Instead of owing up to his crimes, he fabricates a story about a burglar sneaking into the house and stealing everything. Springfield soon takes pity on the Simpsons, gifting them with tons of money, causing Bart's guilt over his actions to grow.

The Christmas season provides the perfect material for “The Simpsons” to skewer. “Miracle on Evergreen Terrace” takes aim at the callous consumerism of the holiday. At one point, after all, Bart announces that the “birth of Santa” is what they're celebrating. It begins with Homer parking in three handicap spots and basically stealing from customers at a toy store. Bart and everyone else shows an obsession with the presents under the trees. If the family's indifference to the true meaning of the season wasn't obvious, there's a scene where Bart runs over a miniature Nativity with his remote control firetruck. Even the secular signs of the celebration, such as the yule log, outdoor decorations, natural trees, or Christmas parties are mocked and deconstructed. While the residents attempt to show charity, by giving the Simpsons donations, their heart is ultimately in a selfish place. This is shown after the truth comes out, when they appear to steal possessions from the family as repatriation.

You can see examples of these callousness all throughout the episode. In the way Kent Brockman focuses on the individual gifts that were lost, such as “little Homer's Cajun sausage.” Or the salesman that sells Homer a car at a mark-up, Mr. Burns attempting to donate a button, Moe offering up the March of Dimes canister as a contribution, a pair of sickly orphans being scared away from a TV store, or Grandpa Simpson spending the holiday high on meds. Yet “Miracle on Evergreen Terrace” is also mocking sappy morals about family being the true meaning for the season. The family ignores Grandpa Simpsons when he appears in the cold. The conclusion, where they bond over a wash cloth, similarly goes wrong. Lisa points out that they family “would've had each other anyway,” even if they got the gifts. The episode points out that the heart of the modern Christmas celebration is pretty rotten, no matter the circumstances.

Aside from this, “Miracle on Evergreen Terrace” is full of wonderfully absurd gags. Such as Marge transforming Christmas cookies into bloody spearheads just for Bart. In order to wake up early, Bart drinks twelve glasses of water before bed, causing his full bladder to give him a surreally damp dream. Homer's childish and bereaved reaction to the missing gifts is hilarious. So is the family's attempt to impress the Flanders, who are naturally having an ideal Christmas. Further highlights include Marge's attempt to win money on “Jeopardy,” which ends on an especially caustic note. Or a surprising deployment of a pineapple. Once again, the Christmas traditions provide plenty of grist for comedy. Such as Homer's inability to sing “Here Comes Santa Claus” or a pitch-perfect spoof on an infamous moment from “It's a Wonderful Life.”

While not as funny as “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” or poignant as “Marge Be Not Proud,” “Miracle on Evergreen Terrace” is a pretty good Christmas edition of “The Simpsons.” There's lots of sharp one-liners, funny gags, and a decent commentary on how shitty the intentions behind the holiday actually are. [7/10]

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