“Once you pass its borders you’ll ne’er return again.”
Back in 1954 when there was a popular live telecast, the network executives did something we today can only scratch our heads at: they re-staged it. That’s exactly what happened with Babes in Toyland (1954), based on Victor Herbert’s operetta. The live show was so popular it was re-staged the following year (on Christmas Eve no less, how very Scrooged of them!) and in this new DVD release both presentations are included.
Bookended by narration, the tale begins with a young girl, Joan (Ellen Barrie, Storm Over Jamaica), who waits with Santa (Dave Garroway, Today) in a department store for her mother to come pick her up. To pass the time the jolly old elf tells her a story. That story? “Babes in Toyland” of course.
Babes in Toyland (1954) is the tale of Jane Piper (Jo Sullivan, Cavalcade of Stars) who’s all set to marry Tommy Tucker (Dennis Day, The Jack Benny Program). But she has a spurned suitor in the form of Silas Barnaby (Jack E. Leonard, Journey Back to Oz) who owns more than half the town and is less than pleased to hear of the impending nuptials. In fact he’s so upset he decides to turn his toy factory into a war machine, insisting his assistant Grumio (Wally Cox, Mister Peepers) create a toy soldier who’s more soldier than toy, one who will destroy children. But when Grumio fails Barnaby decides to go ahead and enact his own plan…lure the children to the forest and leave them stranded. Which he does, but Tom and Jane come to their rescue. Unfortunately that leaves Jane and Tom wide open to seizure, but fear not, their capture allows Barnaby’s own creations to stage a coup, leading to the obligatory happy ending.
The main difference between the two presentations is in the casting of Jane. In 1955 Sullivan was replaced by Barbara Cook (Thumbelina), continuing the trend of casting a young Broadway ingénue for the role.
There’s a reason Babes in Toyland is an operetta as opposed to a full-fledged opera: because there’s not much narrative. Instead, the runtime is fleshed out by a lot of puppet work, courtesy of the Bil and Cora Baird marionettes, as well as dance sequences. The live nature of the staging means every little flub and line goof is caught, but those minor mistakes merely reinforce the humanity behind the production.
Babes in Toyland (1954) is an exercise in nostalgia. Truly the product of a bygone era, one needs to have an appreciation for early television to truly understand its charm, especially considering the presentations are in black and white. Those who favor later presentations of the same story will be pleased to see obvious echoes here. Others will find value in the presentation’s ties to early vaudeville shows, of which it is quite reminiscent. I personally could see why Disney would have watched this presentation and decided to adapt it into a musical movie starring Annette Funicello (Back to the Beach), the original Hannah Montana decades before there was such an invention.
As you might expect with something more than half a century old there are some issues with both the audio and video, but honestly both fare much better than their creation dates would indicate. This isn’t a remastered set. The 1.33:1 full frame picture has some fuzziness and actual technical issues with a bit of jumping and skipping but not enough to disrupt the presentation for more than a moment at a time. The Dolby 2.0 audio doesn’t have the clarity of a currently broadcasting show or film so those hoping for MP3 quality songs will be disappointed. Yet the songs and dialogue are clear enough to be understood and, outside of a remastering, this is the best we’ll get.
There are no bonus features.
The bottom line is, you’ll likely only be interested in this if you remember the original presentation or if you’re a fan of marionettes, live stage productions, the operetta, or the story. While I did find it charming and can appreciate the history and craftsmanship these presentations capture, I don’t expect novices to this to find much value. Simply too much advancement in technology has been made to allow this to be rendered anything but a product of a time long gone.