Friday, December 19, 2014

Shirley Temple's Storybook Christmas (1960)

This review first appeared on the website Holiday Film Reviews as an exchange for guest blogging. I love guest blogging--especially for JA Morris and RigbyMel of Holiday Film Reviews who I first met on my book tour through the South in 2010.  What a fortunate meeting!  It's always nice to meet people with whom you share much in common!  Thanks for hosting me, JA and RigbyMel.


Yes--THAT Shirley Temple had a TV show!
 
Christmas is certainly a time of nostalgia.  Most of us reflect back to simpler times, especially to our childhoods, when Christmas was still filled with fantasy, magic, and life lived at a slower pace.  With this in mind, I'd like to share about an often overlooked Christmas episode of the TV anthology series Shirley Temple's Storybook.  The 1960 episode "Babes in Toyland" was created during the second season after the series had changed its name to The Shirley Temple Show--but it's the same series.  Most installments of the family-friendly series were a re-telling of popular fairy tales or children's literary classics. "Babes in Toyland" however is an hour-long adaptation of the 1903 operetta by Victor Herbert.


In this 1960 episode, a now grown Shirley Temple introduces and narrates the story accompanied by her own children.  Left to right: Charlie Black Jr., Lori, and Linda Susan.

The 1960 TV adaptation is a comedy version of Babes in Toyland and is loaded with music and dancing.  The story is a familiar one--youngsters Alan and Jane are being looked after by their mean and nasty Uncle Barnaby who wants to cash-in on the children's generous inheritance.  Barnaby decides he desires their money sooner, rather than later, and hires three cutthroat thieves to set the innocent children adrift in a leaky boat.


Uncle Barnaby (Jonathan Winters) is a greedy, nasty man.  However Winters' comedy style of mugging for the camera deflects a great deal of what potentially could be a frightening story.


The adventure story continues when the children survive the open seas and wash up on nearby shores.  Alan and Jane are discovered by the gypsy witch Floretta and find themselves among friends with the band of dancing gypsies. That is, until Floretta sells knowledge of the children's whereabouts to Uncle Barnaby.  Alan and Jane escape and run into the frightening Spider Forest, eventually entering Meantown.


Jane and Alan (foreground) arrive at the gypsy camp where there is much dancing and merry-making.


Jane and Alan are jailed in Meantown, accused of the crimes of smiling, niceness, and kindness!

The nasty residents of Meantown find a way to jail the youngsters in the center of town.  Once again, Alan and Jane escape just one step ahead of Floretta, Uncle Barnaby, and his three bumbling henchmen.  The next stop on Alan and Jane's flight is the kingdom of Toyland, where all the toys for Christmas are made.  The children feel happy and safe amongst the land of the dancing toys and ask the royal Master Toymaker if they can stay forever.


To avoid being recognized by Uncle Barnaby, the children hide in plain sight as a dancing ballerina and wooden toy soldier during the Toyland parade.

The king likes the children however Floretta, Uncle Barnaby, and his minions arrive in Toyland to take Alan and Jane back home.  In the end, the Master Toymaker and the gypsy witch stand up for the children and Uncle Barnaby's evil scheme is thwarted.

In the end, the cast gathers to sing "Toyland," the most recognizable and still popular song from the original operetta.

You may already be familiar with other filmed adaptations of the operetta Babes in Toyland.  The most noteworthy include the 1934 movie starring comedians Laurel & Hardy which has since been re-issued under the title March of the Wooden Soldiers. Walt Disney created his own version in 1961 starring Annette Funicello and Tommy Sands. Let's not forget the surreal 1986 TV movie version starring Drew Barrymore and Keanu Reeves. And, in 1997 an animated version was created featuring the voice talents of Jim Belushi, Lacey Chabert, Christopher Plummer, and Charles Nelson Reilly.  Most of the adaptations alter the story quite a bit from the original plot.  However, I think the best adaptations are the ones that feature the original music by Victor Herbert and Glen MacDonough.


While imprisoned in Meantown, Jane sings "Go to Sleep, Slumber Deep" to her brother Alan, another song from the original operetta.

Shirley Temple's "Babes in Toyland" features the best of the original Herbert compositions including "Toyland," "Go to Sleep, Slumber Deep," "I Can't Do the Sum," and "March of the Toys."  In addition to these familiar Babes in Toyland tunes, the 1960 episode features numerous shorter musical performances.  This is an asset in an hour long program which allows for more performances to be included while preventing slow, drawn out segments.  The program also squeezes in two major dance sequences--the gypsy camp scene and the Toyland parade at the end--which makes this Christmas TV variety program even more entertaining.


Can you recognize Shirley Temple under the fake nose and chin, gray wig and kerchief, and long pointy finger nails?  She's Floretta, the gypsy witch.

Recognize these comedic actors' faces? Left to right: Joe Besser, Jerry Colonna, Carl Ballantine.  Center is Jonathan Winters, of course.

Even if you're not already familiar with the music from Babes in Toyland, you will be impressed with the stellar ensemble cast in this 1960 musical comedy.  Not only does Hollywood icon Shirley Temple introduce and narrate this adventure story, but she also stars in it as Floretta, the fortune-telling gypsy witch.  The evil Uncle Barnaby is played by Jonathan Winters.  The three bumbling cutthroats--Gonzales, Gonzorgo, and Rodrigo--are played by Jerry Colonna, Carl Ballantine, and Joe Besser, respectively.  And, the children, Alan and Jane, are played by Michel Petit and Angela Cartwright.


Jane and Alan lost in the Spider Forest.  Jane is played by actress Angela Cartwright who was also on The Danny Thomas Show in 1960.  Later, she would appear in the TV series Lost in Space--and sing in the movie musical The Sound of Music.

An added bonus: keen viewers may be able to spot animatronic fantasy figures--just like the kind that used to fill department store window displays at Christmas time--in the background of the Toyland scenes.


In addition to the music, dancing, and amazing cast, I think 1960's Babes in Toyland has something else going for it. The production was staged live which means the camera captures the authentic performances as they occur--and a few unpredictable moments as well. For example, the boat scene includes Petit nearly knocking over the ship's mast to which he is bound.  You can also see the boom microphone above the actors' heads in several shots. Although the camera moves a bit more slowly than we are used to, and the sets are often flat backdrops, I'm still caught up in the fantasy and adventure of the storytelling and music.  I love the more simple production values of this 1960 TV episode.  The lack of CGI elements isn't a weakness but rather its strength--a reminder of simpler times when entertainment included the viewers' imagination.  At Christmas time when I want to feel nostalgic, it's comforting to watch a program that also makes me feel nostalgic for quality Christmas entertainment.


Yes--Babes in Toyland is available for viewing on DVD.

2 comments:

  1. Wonderful post and great memories. Thank you so much for sharing. Merry Christmas and warm greetings from Montreal, Canada. :)

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  2. OOooooh, was not aware of this one! Awesome.

    ReplyDelete