A young girl becomes lost in a department store during the Christmas shopping rush. The frightened child is comforted by a department store Santa Claus who tells her a tale of storybook characters brought to life - of Tommy Tucker's love for the lovely Jane Piper and the cold-hearted villainy of evil Silas Barnaby. Through the girl's dreams, the viewer is transported to Toyland. Written by
The year is 1954. Oldsmobile has decided to sponsor a Yule-season special. The subject: Victor Herbert's saccharine musical, "Babes in Toyland". The production starred some very well-known names of the time names that today are largely (and undeservedly) unknown. TV in those days was of course all-live, no retakes.
The production starred the inimitable Dennis Day as Tommy Tucker. Day, the quintessential Irish tenor, was in the early part of his primary career (1950-1965) as one of Jack Benny's constant on-air foils. Playing a department store Santa Claus, who tells the story to a lost girl, is Dave Garroway. The iconic Garroway made a career as a successful night show host, panelist, special guest, and so on in other words, an actor who was primarily famous for playing himself. Wally Cox appears as Toymaker Grumio. Cox, mostly famous as "Mister Peepers" was a character actor credited with many appearances on TV although his range was limited by his short stature and fairly high voice. The also-iconic Jack E. Leonard appears as the villain, Silas Barnaby. Leonard was a comic whose insulting shtick was much more abrasive than that of Don Rickles (nowadays better known). Interestingly, his hallmark nastiness doesn't show through very much in his portrayal of Barnaby.
Don't expect to see much of Herbert's original musical here. Two main numbers remain: "Toyland" and "March of the Toy Soldiers". No production of "Babes" is without them. Also a little of Herbert's other music appears here and there. A very bare-bones version of the plot is used as a structural support for a number of very cutesy song-and/or-dance numbers. The result will be a real challenge to your gag reflex.
The greatest fun can be had in watching this somewhat silly effort by watching for mistakes and gaffes. Amazingly, detectable ones are rare.
On the whole this production is overly cute and overly precious, kitschy in the extreme. I can't imagine it went over that well, even in an era that was overall fairly kitschy (pink was then the "new black"). Even the notorious Leonard's performance was less villainous and more "oooooh! I'm soooo baaaad!" I'll wager even the iconically kitschy Sarah Palin would have trouble making it through this steady diet of treacle.
The print is clearer than one might expect, although the black-to-white contrast seems muted. It looks very much like a color film reduced to black/white. And sure enough, at the end of the production, there's an announcement that it's been made by a "color compatible" process. I grew up in that era, and if memory serves, that means that the color can be picked up by your non-color TV as black/white.
So maybe, somewhere, there's a color version of this production? I wonder how much pink would be in it.
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