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Babes in Waltland : Part II

Babes in Waltland : Part II

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Picking up where we left off last week ….

The Walt Disney Studio was abuzz with activity as production ramped up on “Babes in Toyland .” Director Ward Kimball had been replaced by Jack Donohue, and shooting was finally about to begin.

Still rumors persisted as to why Kimball had been taken off of this picture. And I’ll confess that I have no secret inside information about his sudden departure. Some say it was the appearance of an announcement in the Hollywood trades that congratulated Ward on being hired to helm "Toyland." Ironically, Kimball had little or nothing to do with that ad being in the trade papers. In any case, some say that this is what ticked off Walt. Which is why Disney then had Kimball removed as director of this film.

That story may or may not be true. Since I was around at the time, I have a slightly different take on the whole affair. For those of you who never had the pleasure of working for Walt, I can tell you that he was a guy who wanted things done his way. So you can be sure most employees deferred to the boss whenever he had a suggestion or opinion. Not so with Kimball, who sometimes went out of his way to disagree with Disney. On occasion, I observed Walt dressing down Ward on the spot. However Kimball’s behavior never really changed.

Ward Kimball (R) shows Walt Disney & Bill Bosche (L) one of the models
that will be used in production of "Man in Space."
Copyright 1955 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Once “Babes in Toyland” moved toward production, Ward Kimball began running things much as he had on those “Man in Space” episodes that he created for the Disneyland TV show. Walt had pretty much given Ward a free hand on that quartet of episodes, but those days were over. Walt finally put his foot down. And this, they say, was a reminder from the boss that it was Disney’s name -- not Kimball’s – that was on the side of the building.

As for Ward’s replacement … Jack was a gregarious guy with all the flash & dazzle you'd expect from a Hollywood director. Having started his career as a dancer with the Ziegfeld Follies and then cutting his teeth directing TV variety shows in the 1950s, Donohue seemed to be a perfect choice to helm a production that would feature lots of big dance numbers.

And speaking of dancing: Who better to play "Babes" comic villain, Barnaby, than noted hoofer Ray Bolger? At that point, it had been almost 7 years since Bolger had last appeared in a motion picture. But Walt Disney was very good about putting aging performers back in front of the cameras. And Ray was only one of many Hollywood veterans that Walt pulled out of retirement and then put back to work.

Copyright 2009 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved

Of course, given Bolger’s memorable turn as the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz,” having him be a part of “Babes in Toyland” ‘s cast did much to validate this movie. But having a performer of Ray’s stature on the lot also had other benefits.

How so? Well, keep in mind that this was the Mouse Factory circa 1961. A place where movie stars & animators all grabbed a tray and then dined together in the Studio Commissary at noon. And one day as we all stood in line with Bolger, this hoofer decided to put on a show for the crowd assembled in the Commissary. So he actually did a little dance routine while waiting there in the lunch line.

Now this was more than two decades after Bolger had played the Scarecrow in that MGM classic. To be specific, the guy was 57-years old at this time. But Ray still moved with the grace & agility of a far younger man. And all us “Wizard of Oz” fans who worked at Disney back then were thrilled to get this private performance as a lunch-time treat.

Still in his Barnaby make-up, Ray Bolger performed for us right there in the
Disney Studio Commissary. That old Scarecrow was just as lively as ever

Unfortunately, as much as we may have wanted it to be, the Walt Disney Productions’ version of “Babes in Toyland” was no “Wizard of Oz.” What went wrong? To be honest, I don’t know. As I watched the film’s dance numbers being shot on that sound stage, they all appeared pretty dazzling to me. But when I saw these same numbers  up on the big screen, they just fell flat.

Of course, industry vets will tell you that – of all the movie genres – musicals are the most difficult projects to pull off. Each scene must be colorful, sweet and lighter than air. Almost like cotton candy. And you then have to maintain this tone all the way through your picture so that the audience can maintain their sense of disbelief. Otherwise they’re going to have trouble buying into the idea that your movie’s characters have to stop every now & then in order to burst into song.

Mind you, we did have people in the “Babes in Toyland” cast who had no trouble delivering a proper movie musical performance. Bolger for one. And Ed Wynn was also a complete pro. Casting “The Perfect Fool” as that wacky toy-maker was one of Walt’s master strokes on this movie. I used to love going down to the set and watching Wynn work.

Copyright 1961 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

But as good as Ed & Ray were, their young co-stars on “Babes in Toyland” were almost as wooden as those toy soldiers who come to life during this film’s comic battle sequence. And as talented as Jack Donahue was, there was little this director could do to bring their performances to life.

So was it a mistake for Disney Studios to try & produce a live-action full color version of “Babes in Toyland” as its first full-fledged movie musical? Hardly. I prefer to think of this film as a very valuable learning experience.

How so? I’ll let Leonard Maltin explain. Quoting now from the “Babes in Toyland” review that you’ll find in his excellent “The Disney Films” book:

Copyright 1961 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

“(Babes in Toyland”) was just a case of Disney trying to outdo himself, and channeling his energy in the wrong direction. It was his first live-action musical and he profited by the experience. A few years later he turned out a little something called ‘Mary Poppins.’ Remember?”

Leonard’s absolutely right. Every misstep that was made on “Babes in Toyland” then taught Walt & his team a valuable lesson about how you actually produce a movie musical. They then put all of this practical information to good use just two years later when the Studio began gearing up to make “Mary.”

To me, this seems to be consistent with Disney’s philosophy of never fearing failure. Walt knew that failing was not a negative as long as you actually learned from your mistakes. And all of the errors that had been made while making “Babes in Toyland” appeared to bring about a maturity & confidence in Disney's creative team. And this then allowed them to deliver a “Practically Perfect in Every Way” motion picture the next time around.

Copyright 1964 Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

With this lesson in mind, it’s clear (to my way of thinking, anyway) that “Babes in Toyland” shouldn't really be considered a failure.That film provided an opportunity to experiment with fanciful sets, special effects and animation mixed with songs & choreography. All of the elements that Walt’s wizards would then marshal on the Studio’s next live-action musical.

Okay. So Disney’s “Babes in Toyland” is probably doomed to forever be overshadowed by the version that Hal Roach produced back in 1934. Which – again quoting from Leonard Maltin’s write-up in “The Disney Films” …

“(The Laurel & Hardy version of "Babes in Toyland" hasn’t got) the color or special effects of the new version, but it is everything the Disney film should have been: charming, funny, frightening and truly memorable.”

Copyright 2008 Legend Films. All Rights Reserved

… but for those of us who were lucky enough to be on the “Babes” set back in 1961, it was still a delightful experience. Much to their credit, the cast & crew who worked on this motion picture really gave it their all.

Which – come to think of it – is all that Walt Disney really expected.

Did you enjoy today's column about "Babes of Toyland"? Well, this is just one of the entertaining & insightful tales that this Disney Legend has to share. Many of which you'll find collected in the three books Floyd currently has the market. Each of which take an affectionate look back at all the years that Mr. Norman has spent working in the entertainment industry.

These include Floyd's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" (which is available for sale over at John Cawley's cataroo) as well as two follow-ups to that book, "Son of Faster, Cheaper" & "How the Grinch Stole Disney." Which you can purchase by heading over to Afrokids.

And while you're at it, don't forget to check out Mr. Fun's Blog. Which is where Mr. Norman postings his musings when he's not writing for JHM.

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  • Hello Floyd, I just want to thank you for these two articles. Babes in Toyland is actually one of my favorite Disney films, though not particularly for the film itself. Long before video rentals, my parents used to rent Disney films for me and my siblings birthdays. I mean a 16mm print of three or more reels and a projector. We's put blanketts up over the dining room windows and put up the home movie screen and create our own little theater. It was great fun watching "Babes in Toyland"; "The Monkey's Uncle"; "Sammy the Way out Seal" and others this way.

    Speaking of "Sammy the Way out Seal", do you have any memories of this particular film? I had the great privledge of visiting the actual beach that's shown in the film. I even climbed on the same rocks that the two boys in the film are seen walking between at the beginning. Did you ever see the seal when it was on the set? I know the seal was actually female and was also featured in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."

  • Hiya Floyd!

    Was Bolger cast before Kimball was fired? I ask, because Barnaby bears an almost striking resemblance to Walt that sounds like the ultimate way of thumbing your nose at the boss, by casting him as a villain.

  • Hey there Nub, I must agree that Ray Bolger in costume as Barnaby does resemble a young Walt.

  • Timing is everything. This might have been a very successful film if it had been made 5 years earlier, where it would have fit in with other kiddie musicals like Geprge Pal's 'Tom Thumb'. The world was changing, Disneyland was modernizng, even the cartoon features had adopted a more 'contemperary' look. "Babes" was just a little too old fashioned for its own good.

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