Another favorite Christmas movie of mine is Babes in Toyland, aka March of the Wooden Soldiers, starring Laurel & Hardy. Made in 1934, it seems like a peculiar relic when viewed today, filmed on an obvious set and full of corny fairy tale characters, but it remains one of the most entertaining Christmas films of all time. It’s still shown on television, and how many ’30s films do you see on TV, other than Turner Classics?
Set in Toyland, a fairy tale city precariously built next to the spooky land of the Bogeymen, it stars Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as two bungling toymakers working for a tinkerer who Santa contracts his work out to. They screw up Santa’s order for a bunch of marching six inch tall toys, and instead make them six feet tall. This gets them fired, but as you might tell from the film’s alternate title, the soldiers save the day in the end. The other subplot involves the nefarious Silas Barnaby and his fiendish plan to wed Little Bo Peep against her wishes. See, Old Mother Hubbard has been paying the mortgage on that shoe she lives in, and he’s going to foreclose on it unless Bo Peep “bails him out,” if you know what I mean.
My great uncles always called the comedic duo Fat & Skinny, and they do their best to save Ms. Peep from Barnaby’s clutches, but he frames them for the murder of one of the Three Little Pigs- by kidnapping the little porker and tucking a few pounds of sausage in their house. This leads to a hilarious medieval torture scene where Ollie is dunked in the town pond, while Stan looks on in a panic.
Luckily Peep & her beau Tom-Tom Piper find the missing pig, and save Stan & Ollie’s bacon (sometimes I just slay myself). Once Barnaby is fingered as the villain, he is ejected from town and releases an onslaught of Bogeymen to wreak his vengeance. And this is where the mystery comes in! Stan & Ollie fight off the boogermen by activating the soldiers, but they also use some really nasty looking darts.
Now, having grown up in the age when Lawn Darts were legal, I know a nasty toy when I see one. These look like toy rockets with spikes on the end, and how I lusted after these little destructive devices as a child. Stan uses a crooked stick to smack them on the end, which makes them flip in the air, and then slaps them toward his targets. It is really quite extraordinary, and boy did we want to launch rockets at each other’s butts using this clever method. I think the closest we got was throwing empty toilet paper rolls, and like Ralphie for his Red Ryder BB Gun with a thing in the stock that tells time, we pined for these deadly little objects.
But over at the Tom Swift Complete Home Page, they have figured out what these devices are. Apparently they are called a “catty.” Back when the stick was the toy of choice, a catty was a cigar-shaped missile launched with a crook of the right curvature. You would smack the end of it in a downward strike, causing it to flip up in the air, and then you’d slap it with the flat of your stick like a baseball, and send it flying at your playmates.
Since the stick was recently inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame, we should not mock what little scamps and whippersnappers of yesteryear made play with. Before such gadgetry as the Force FX lightsaber. us whelps of the ’70s had to make do with the lowly stick, and have the welts to prove it. The finale to March of the Wooden Soldiers is one of the classics of old comedy cinema, with little people dressed as the Three Little Pigs whacking the bogeymen with a balloon on a stick, and a monkey in a mouse costume dropping bombs from a little floating airship.
This remains my favorite Laurel & Hardy comedy- probably for nostalgia’s sake. Stuff like The Music Box is much more fun because they get to be really cruel to each other, but seeing them fight the legions of hairy boogeymen is etched into my brain from a young age. Look at the damn things, they’re still scary. Hell, scarier than the vampires in 30 Days of Night for sure. So this holiday season, scare the living bejeezus out of your children, nieces, nephews and cousins with this fine piece of Christmas movie fare. so that the circle may be unbroken, and they can torment another generation with it, ad infinitum.