Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Babes In Toyland

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Babes In Toyland

Music played an integral role at the Disney studio practically from its inception. From “Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?” to “Someday My Prince Will Come” to “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”, Disney films made (and continue to make) invaluable contributions to the Great American Songbook. But by 1961, even though the studio had been producing live-action features for over a decade, they still had not attempted a full-on, big-budget live-action musical. With Babes In Toyland, Walt made his first attempt at rectifying that oversight.

Not that there weren’t still plenty of original tunes flowing out of the Disney recording studio. Everything from Ten Who Dared to The Parent Trap had managed to shoehorn an original song or two. But these songs weren’t as seamlessly integrated into their productions as the songs in Disney’s animated classics. It’s impossible to imagine Snow White or Pinocchio without the songs. The only people who would miss “A Whale Of A Tale” if it had been cut from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea would be the theatre owners who probably enjoyed a boost in concession sales during the scene.

For a while, it appeared that Walt’s first live-action musical would be an adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. The rights to The Wizard Of Oz were tightly controlled by MGM. But in 1954, Walt was able to secure the rights to the other thirteen books in the series. He began developing a project called The Rainbow Road To Oz as a showcase for the Mickey Mouse Club’s Mouseketeers. Darlene Gillespie was to play Dorothy. Annette Funicello was Ozma. Walt originally thought of it as a television production but as work went on, he began to think it might work as a feature.

Eventually, Walt decided to abandon the Oz project. No one’s exactly sure why, although one can assume that the MGM movie cast a huge shadow. There’s no way that Walt would have gone ahead with Rainbow Road To Oz unless he was absolutely sure that it could live up to or surpass the gold standard set by Judy Garland and friends. Judging by the segments that aired on Disneyland’s fourth-anniversary show, Rainbow Road To Oz did not. Check it out for yourself. It’s pretty weird.

(The Disney studio did eventually return to Oz with Return To Oz in 1985, a genuinely bizarre film that proved deeply upsetting for an entire generation of young people. I love it with all of me and can’t wait to include it in this column.)

At around the same time that The Rainbow Road To Oz was falling apart, Walt announced his intentions to make an animated feature based on Victor Herbert’s 1903 operetta Babes In Toyland. Herbert’s show had also been filmed previously, most notably as a 1934 feature starring Laurel and Hardy. Walt put animator Ward Kimball in charge of the project and Kimball worked on the script with storyman Joe Rinaldi. Kimball and Rinaldi had a hard time cracking the project. They streamlined the complicated storyline as much as they could, turning it into a romantic triangle between fairytale lovebirds Tom Piper and Mary Contrary and the evil Barnaby, who wants to marry Mary for her inheritance.

By late 1959, Walt had reconceived Babes In Toyland as a live-action musical. Lowell S. Hawley, who had written for Zorro and Swiss Family Robinson, was brought on board to rewrite Kimball and Rinaldi’s script for live-action. Jack Donohue, a Broadway choreographer and TV director responsible for several variety shows featuring such stars as Frank Sinatra and Red Skelton, was hired to direct. Kimball, who’d had several disagreements with Walt over the scripts and casting, was sent back to the animation department.

Although she wouldn’t get a chance to rule Oz as Ozma, Annette Funicello still got her biggest movie showcase to date as Mary. Annette was a huge star on TV and had even had a few hit records. But so far, her only big-screen appearance had been a small supporting role in The Shaggy Dog. Walt believed she was ready for bigger things. At the time of Babes In Toyland, Annette was so famous that she didn’t even need to be credited under her full name. She’s simply “Annette”. Everybody already knew who she was.

The same probably couldn’t be said about her costar, teen idol Tommy Sands. Sands made a big splash right out of the gate, starring as an Elvis-like singing sensation in an episode of Kraft Television Theatre called, appropriately enough, The Singin’ Idol. His signature number on that show, “Teen-Age Crush”, made it all the way to #2 on the Billboard chart. 20th Century Fox produced a feature-film remake of The Singin’ Idol called Sing, Boy, Sing but while Sands received some praise for his performance, the movie was a flop.

Nevertheless, Sands continued plugging away at both his acting and recording careers (he also married Nancy Sinatra in 1960). It makes perfect sense why Walt would cast him in Babes In Toyland. He was popular enough to make it seem like the studio wasn’t completely out of touch with the kids but not so popular that he’d be too cool for a Disney movie. Walt certainly made the most of Sands’ short time on the lot, recruiting him to sing the title song to The Parent Trap with Annette.

The Oz connections continue with the casting of Ray Bolger as Barnaby. The former Scarecrow had kept busy on stage (winning a Tony Award for his performance in Where’s Charley?) and television, where his sitcom Where’s Raymond? was eventually retitled The Ray Bolger Show. His only Disney appearance offers him a rare chance to play the bad guy and he has fun with it, playing to the cheap seats with his stovepipe hat and purple-lined cape.

Most of the rest of the cast was filled out with members of the Disney Stock Players. Ed Wynn does his Ed Wynn thing as the zany Toymaker. Tommy Kirk, still stuck in the “what-the-hell-do-we-do-with-this-kid” phase of his Disney career, appears as Wynn’s apprentice. Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon, fresh off appearances in Zorro and Toby Tyler, are again teamed up as the bumbling crooks Gonzorgo and Roderigo. Kevin Corcoran shows up as Little Boy Blue. Perhaps hedging his bets against Moochie eventually hitting puberty, Walt also recruited Kevin’s brother, Brian Corcoran (who had appeared in a few episodes of Daniel Boone and Texas John Slaughter on TV), to add some additional precociousness as Willie Winkie.

The newest member of the Disney family was young Ann Jillian, who appears as Bo Peep. Jillian’s Disney tenure was relatively brief. She’d go on to appear in the TV production Sammy, The Way-Out Seal. But Jillian was one of the rare child stars who became much more famous as an adult, starring on the sitcom It’s A Living, as Mae West in a popular TV-movie, and as herself in the made-for-TV biopic The Ann Jillian Story. She’s still out there on the lecture circuit discussing her experiences as a breast cancer survivor, proof that not every child star’s career ends in tragedy.

Theatrical release poster for Babes In Toyland

Walt spared no expense on Babes In Toyland. He spent years developing the script. The production cost in excess of $3 million. George Bruns and Mel Leven, who had recently made a splash with their music for One Hundred And One Dalmatians, were brought on board to update Victor Herbert’s music for the swinging sixties. Cast and crew alike were stocked with top professionals from both inside and outside the studio.

So why is the movie itself so terrible?

The trouble starts right away as an inexpertly performed goose puppet named Sylvester is thrust through a velvet curtain to address the audience. This is no Jim Henson creation. It’s a cheap looking puppet whose beak movements don’t even sync up with the dialogue. Sylvester is held throughout by Mother Goose (played by musical theatre performer Mary McCarty). Mother Goose and Sylvester bring us up to speed, welcoming us to Mother Goose Village and inviting us to the wedding of Tom and Mary. The whole thing feels a bit like a play performed by an amateur children’s theatre group and the movie never manages to rise above that level.

The opening number foreshadows the table-setting theatrics of “Belle” from Beauty And The Beast, introducing all the characters and showing us around the elaborate but somehow still chintzy-looking sets. But “Mother Goose Village and Lemonade” has none of the charm and sweep of “Belle”. The fact that it morphs into an inexplicable tribute to lemonade for some reason should tell you all you need to know.

Babes In Toyland soundtrack album cover

Bruns and Leven were both responsible for some terrific songs but virtually none of them are in Babes In Toyland. Annette’s big number, “I Can’t Do The Sum”, is essentially all about how bad she is at math because she’s just a girl. It’s livened up by some neat visuals, including Annette dividing into four multicolored doppelgangers, but it’s still in service of a truly lousy song. Most of the other songs are just forgettable.

There is one good song in the batch, Ray Bolger’s “Castle In Spain”. I first encountered the song on the great Hal Willner-produced album Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films where it was performed by Buster Poindexter. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Babes In Toyland and had no idea what movie the song was from. I still prefer the Buster Poindexter cover but Ray Bolger’s version is fun, too.

(If you’re unfamiliar with Stay Awake, I highly recommend tracking it down. Other highlights include Tom Waits’ take on “Heigh Ho (The Dwarfs’ Marching Song)”, Los Lobos on “I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)” and The Replacements tearing through “Cruella De Vil”. Oddly enough, Buster Poindexter (a.k.a. David Johansen) will not be back in this column, despite the fact that his voice is ideally suited to animation. He did appear on an episode of The Magical World Of Disney, performing at the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park Grand Opening, but that’s the extent of his involvement with the studio.)

Babes In Toyland has a lot of problems: the mediocre music, the non-existent character development, the off-putting production design and visual effects. But the movie’s fatal flaw is that for the first time, a Walt Disney production feels like it’s talking down to its intended audience. Walt Disney was in the business of making family entertainment. At his best, he made films that are universal in their appeal. Babes In Toyland is specifically directed toward young children. Very young. Ann Jillian would have been around 10 or 11 at the time she appeared in this and she would have already aged out of the target audience. The whole movie feels forced and condescending in a way we don’t typically associate with Disney.

Released in time for Christmas 1961 (although I wouldn’t really call this a Christmas movie, it’s more Christmas-adjacent), Babes In Toyland wasn’t exactly a bomb but it certainly didn’t do as well as anyone had hoped. The movie did manage to snag a couple of Oscar nominations, for Bill Thomas’s costumes and Bruns’s score, but it lost both to a far more successful musical, West Side Story. Both Thomas and Bruns will be back in this column and both will again be Oscar nominees for their work on Disney films.

Even today, the Laurel and Hardy version is still the best film adaptation of Babes In Toyland. The source material continues to confound those brave enough to attempt to film it, resulting in some truly weird spectacles. In 1986, Drew Barrymore starred in a TV remake alongside Richard Mulligan as Barnaby, Pat Morita as the Toymaker and Keanu Frickin’ Reeves as Jack-Be-Nimble. It’s…um…it’s something, alright.

Never one to live in the past, Walt certainly didn’t linger on the failure of Babes In Toyland. As usual, he had already moved on to his next musical project. Earlier in 1961, he had finally been able to persuade author P.L. Travers to let him have the film rights to her Mary Poppins books. Walt would take a more hands-on approach with this one and the results would be a whole lot better.

VERDICT: You have to ask? Oh, it’s a big-time Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: One Hundred And One Dalmatians

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's One Hundred And One Dalmatians

By 1961, Walt Disney Animation Studios was a shadow of its former self. Their last feature, Sleeping Beauty, had been a costly failure at the box office. As a result, a wave of layoffs swept the organization. The short films, which had once been the studio’s bread and butter, had all but been eliminated. The shorts division had been shut down in 1956 and its work folded into the feature division. At its peak, the studio had been releasing more than a dozen shorts a year. Now they were lucky to release two or three. What little animation Disney was producing was mostly for TV.

Walt couldn’t have mounted another ambitious production like Sleeping Beauty even if he’d wanted to. Sadly, it was becoming increasingly evident that he really didn’t want to. The failure of Sleeping Beauty left him within a hair’s breadth of shutting the animation division down completely. Only a sense of loyalty to the medium he’d helped shape kept it afloat. That same sense of tradition would continue to keep animation alive at the studio in lean times to come. A Disney studio without cartoons would be like a McDonald’s without hamburgers.

For feature animation to continue to have a place at Disney, changes had to be made. The labor-intensive, impeccably detailed house style needed to be streamlined. Walt had seen more than a few animated features lose money, so the process had to be made more cost-effective. Even the sensibility that relied on fairy tales and timeless classics needed to be updated for the second half of the twentieth century. What the studio needed turned out to be puppies.

Theatrical re-release poster for One Hundred And One Dalmatians

British author and playwright Dodie Smith published her novel The Hundred And One Dalmatians in 1956. Walt read it not long after and fell in love with it. He bought the rights (much to the delight of Ms. Smith, who had kind of hoped Disney might make it into a movie) and immediately made it a priority. This decisiveness was somewhat unusual for Walt. It wasn’t unheard of for him to take years waffling back and forth on which project to tackle next. It was the first of many changes to come.

Previous animated features had employed teams of storymen, who would hash out every plot point and gag in minute detail. For Dalmatians, Walt assigned the writing job to just one man. Bill Peet had joined the studio in 1937 as an in-betweener, working on Donald Duck shorts and Snow White. He worked his way up to the story department, where he quickly earned a reputation as the best of the bunch. If anyone was capable of doing the job solo, it was Bill Peet.

Peet turned in his draft just two months later, making some significant changes to streamline Smith’s book. He eliminated the character of Cruella De Vil’s husband. He also combined two of the dogs, Missis and Perdita, into one. In the book, Missis is Pongo’s mate and the mother of the puppies. Perdita is a stray that the family adopts and acts as a nurse.

Walt thought Peet’s script was terrific and set him to work storyboarding the film. Again, this would be the first time that a single artist was responsible for storyboarding an entire feature by himself. But at the same time, they still had to solve the problem of animating all those unique, spotted dogs without spending a fortune.

Walt’s old partner Ub Iwerks, who had rejoined the studio in the visual effects department, came up with the solution. He had been experimenting with a Xerox camera to develop a way to transfer animators’ drawings directly onto cels, eliminating the need for hand inking. The process had been used successfully on the climactic sequence of Sleeping Beauty and on the short film Goliath II, also written by Bill Peet. Art director Ken Anderson proposed using Xerography on Dalmatians to Walt. Walt, who had lost interest in the nuts and bolts of animation by now, replied with a shruggy, “Yeah, you can fool around all you want to.”

The process worked, saving a fortune in production costs, but it had its limitations. By eliminating the inking stage, the finished animation looks rough and scratchy compared to the typical Disney style. Walt wasn’t a fan. He missed the smooth, perfect look of his previous films. The animators, on the other hand, loved it. They had long complained that the ink-and-paint department used a heavy hand on their work. For the first time, they were seeing exactly what they drew on the screen.

Bill Peet made another clever change to the book that would help cement One Hundred And One Dalmatians’ place in the Disney canon. In the book, Pongo’s pet (named Mr. Dearly) is basically a glorified accountant. He’s referred to as a “financial wizard” but his job doesn’t have much bearing on the story. In the film, Mr. Dearly becomes Roger Radcliffe, a struggling songwriter. This allows for some natural, unobtrusive ways to incorporate a few original songs by Mel Leven.

Leven was new to the studio but he’d already proven himself as a songwriter for Peggy Lee, the Andrews Sisters and other popular acts. He’d done some work at rival animation house UPA before landing at Disney. There are only three songs in One Hundred And One Dalmatians. Two of them, “Dalmatian Plantation” and the great “Kanine Krunchies Kommercial”, are so short that they barely register as musical numbers. But the third, “Cruella De Vil”, belongs on any shortlist of Disney’s all-time great original songs. It’s so good that you even buy the fact that it becomes a hit song in the movie itself, even though Roger would surely be opening himself up to a lawsuit. Cruella definitely seems like she would be litigious.

Theatrical re-release poster for One Hundred And One Dalmatians

The vocal cast was a mixed bag of newcomers and Disney veterans. Rod Taylor, who scored a big hit with George Pal’s The Time Machine in 1960, provided the voice of Pongo. Cate Bauer, a stage actress who made very few appearances in film or television, was cast as Perdita. The voices of their human pets, Roger and Anita, were provided by Ben Wright and Lisa Davis. There are really two love stories at the heart of the film and if either one of them didn’t work, the entire movie would suffer. But the vocal performances sell us on these relationships and they align beautifully with the naturalistic, easygoing animation. Of the four, only Ben Wright will be back in this column.

Betty Lou Gerson had been the narrator of Cinderella but she found her place in Disney history as Cruella De Vil. It’s a magnificent, flamboyant vocal performance, perfectly in sync with the marvelous character animation of Marc Davis. Davis had found a niche animating women, including Snow White, Cinderella, Tinker Bell, Aurora and Maleficent. Cruella would be Davis’s last major animation work for the studio. Afterwards, he transitioned into the Imagineering division where he worked on pretty much every iconic Disneyland attraction, including Pirates Of The Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion and It’s A Small World. He retired in 1978, was named a Disney Legend in 1989 and passed away in 2000 at the age of 86.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about One Hundred And One Dalmatians is the seeming ease and simplicity of the film. This is one of Disney’s most relaxed animated feature, unfolding at a leisurely but never boring pace. I’ve seen it countless times (this is my girlfriend’s favorite movie, so it’s on heavy rotation here) and it never fails to surprise me how quickly it all breezes past.

It’s a busy movie, making room for all manner of delightful supporting characters including Jasper and Horace, Nanny, the barnyard militia of The Colonel, Sgt. Tibbs and Captain the horse, Old Towser, and the individual puppies, particularly Lucky, Patch and Rolly. The character design is exceptional, down to the smallest walk-on part (including some quick cameos from our old friends from Lady And The Tramp). It even finds time for the genuinely funny TV spoofs What’s My Crime? and The Adventures Of Thunderbolt. And yet for all that, it never feels overstuffed. There is not a wasted moment in the film and not a single scene that overstays its welcome.

The film’s tone is best exemplified by the extraordinary sequence of the puppies being born. As Nanny provides a running tally, Roger and Pongo go through a hilarious mix of emotions, from pride to completely overwhelmed. Then comes the news that one of the puppies didn’t make it. The tone immediately changes. Roger has one idea, gently taking the puppy and massaging its chest. Pongo looks on hopefully, placing a tentative paw on Roger’s knee as the storm rages outside. The music drops out entirely and the action plays out in a single long-shot. It’s magical.

Critics and audiences agreed that Walt had tapped into something special with One Hundred And One Dalmatians. It premiered on January 25, 1961, and raked in over $6 million on its initial release, making it the 8th highest-grossing film of the year. 1961 would be a very good year for Walt Disney. Two of his live-action films did even better. We’ll see the first of those next time.

Theatrical re-release poster for One Hundred And One Dalmatians

One Hundred And One Dalmatians also become one of those rare films that did even better with each subsequent re-release. In 1969, it made $15 million. The numbers went up again in 1979 and 1985. During its 1991 release, it earned an extraordinary $60 million, making it the 17th highest-grossing film of the year, right behind Kindergarten Cop. By comparison, Beauty And The Beast only made about $7 million more than that.

The dalmatians will, of course, be back in this column. In 1996, Glenn Close helped pioneer the trend of live-action remakes of animated classics with her take on Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians. That film was popular enough to warrant a truly dire sequel, 102 Dalmatians, a short-lived animated series, and a direct-to-video animated sequel to the original, 101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure. Waiting in the wings is Cruella, presumably a prequel of sorts with Emma Stone taking on the furs and cigarette holder. That film’s release is currently pending thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One Hundred And One Dalmatians didn’t exactly represent a return to form for Disney animation. It’s too dissimilar from earlier films to be considered a return to anything. And there have unfortunately not been too many movies like it since. Dalmatians is an anomaly, a one-off experiment in loosening the rules that had governed Disney animation for years. The experiment worked. One Hundred And One Dalmatians remains an unqualified success and one of the studio’s very best animated features. But it wasn’t enough to prevent animation from sliding into decline. It’ll be a long time before this column sees another animated feature of this caliber.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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