Surely this novelty item was more impressive in 1928
Movie buffs who are interested in early experiments with color and sound may find this rather strange Christmas-themed short worth watching, but it's not likely to mean much to anyone else. The Toy Shop tells a simple tale of a pauper girl in a French village, alone and reduced to begging, who is rescued from the snowy streets and set before a warm fire by a kindly old toy maker. While playing with dolls in his shop she falls asleep and dreams of life-size wooden soldiers, a lady in a plumed hat, a Raggedy Ann-type mischief maker, and a tumbling clown. When she awakens she is treated to a Christmas meal by the old man.
Cinematographer Ray Rennahan utilized the two-strip Technicolor process for this film, but either surviving prints have faded or the color palette was limited in the first place, for generally we see only muddy reds, dim greens, and occasional splashes of blue. The film was shot silent and then dubbed with synchronized music consisting of seasonal tunes such as "Jingle Bells," "O Holy Night," and "March of the Wooden Soldiers." Of course these technical novelties must have impressed viewers in 1928, but similar experiments had been attempted by various filmmakers almost from the dawn of the cinema, and comparatively speaking the effects on display here don't hold up all that well alongside 'trick' films made by such pioneers as Georges Méliès and Ferdinand Zecca, some twenty years earlier. But the biggest problem is directorial, and comes down to tone. Clearly the producers of this short intended for it to be heart-warming, but their handling of the actors hurts the effect. Both of the lead players were apparently encouraged to over-act (for example, watch the girl's "surprise" take when she sees the Christmas meal), so that moments intended to tug your heart-strings may provoke chuckles instead. There's also an unfortunate moment when the old toy maker pulls off the girl's wooden shoes and reacts to the coldness of her toes: for a prolonged moment he caresses her bare feet with a pained expression, and I'm sorry, but to me the guy looks more lecherous than compassionate.
The dream sequence should have been the highlight, but instead stands as the film's biggest disappointment. It takes place on a stage set that is brightly painted and looks like the background art in some of the early Disney Silly Symphonies; the color is seen to best advantage here. But the dance of the soldiers, dolls, and tumbling clown is formless and ragged. The soldiers march back and forth while the dolls move stiffly like marionettes, and it appears that some sort of mini-narrative was intended, but I couldn't figure out what it was meant to be. The dancers do their best but they look like they weren't given much in the way of choreography to follow.
The old toy maker is played by Joseph Swickard, who appeared in several Keystone comedies of 1914 opposite Charlie Chaplin and is probably best remembered (by silent film buffs, anyway) as Rudolph Valentino's father in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Aside from cameraman Rennahan, Swickard is the only person connected with this project of any note; director Martin Justice apparently made no more films after this one. The Toy Shop isn't all that bad, and buffs with an interest in early color technology and Hollywood's silent-to-sound transition may find it worth a look, but I don't believe it'll rank very highly on anyone's list of beloved holiday classics.
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