Wednesday, December 26, 2012
MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947), BABES IN TOYLAND (1961)
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
In deference to the season, I feel I ought to chime in on the classic MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. As a perennial favorite, MIRACLE needs no championing. Like the famous 1897 essay on the same theme-- "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus"-- MIRACLE uses the ideal of Santa Claus to comment upon the tendency of adults to devalue what Jung called "the fantasy principle" in human culture, particularly as it bears on the raising of children.
Unlike dozens of overt fantasy-films that present all the mythology of Santa Claus as objectively real, the script by writer-director George Seaton allows the audience to disbelieve in the "miracle" for the majority of the film's running-time-- and then throws in a final punchline that validates the truth of the prized fantasy.
I need not reiterate the usual compliments on Edmund Gwenn's note-perfect rendition of Santa Claus, who's all the more believable for being more feisty than most other versions. John Payne and a gradeschool Natalie Wood turn in fine performances, as do a host of solid support-characters. Maureen O'Hara is the real surprise here, though. As Doris, the mother who tries to rear her child without the delusions of fantasy, O'Hara must represent the "reality principle" in a way that makes her credible and appealing even though she will be proven wrong. In most of her film-roles O'Hara, though a fine example of Classic Hollywood glamour, does not really distinguish herself as being to deliver more than standard characterizations. Here she impresses one as a fully fleshed-out human being.
Writer-director George Seaton's script is the real star, though. While the idea came from a prose short-story, Seaton provides a continuous sense of verisimilitude dealing with the mundane details regarding the way harried adults deal with real life pressures. Two adult methods for dealing with stress in the period-- booze and psychology-- are strongly referenced. Two minor characters get comically drunk, while the villain of the tale, the heartless Sawyer, entertains himself by preying on the gullible young clerk Alfred by manipulating the naive fellow with psuedo-psychological pronouncements. In a sense Sawyer is the negative image of Doris, a type of character oriented on trying to "save" others with her understanding of empirical psychology. Seaton is also extremely strong in terms of providing motivation and just enough backstory to keep the characters' action credible even in the plot's unusual situation.
In contrast, Disney's 1961 BABES IN TOYLAND is not likely to become a perennial anything, despite its incidental Xmas theme. Even a profoundly silly film like SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS-- which would be one of the overt Santa-films referenced above-- still sticks closer to the theme of Christmas.
The original source of Disney's tale was a 1903 operetta by Victor Herbet, concocted to compete with the contemporaneous success of a stage-play derived from L. Frank Baum's THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ. I've no acquaintance with any version of the operetta but those adapted to the cinema, but I noticed while watching the 1961 film that it had no concept of a unified fantasy-world. A city inhabited by characters out of Mother Goose poems exists on the periphery of a "forest of no return," which effectively keeps all of the "Goose-ites" from ever knowing about "Toyland" on the forest's other side. This resembles what little I know of Baum's approach to fantasy, where odd societies appear chock-a-block on top of one another, with little or no attention to their historical evolution.
The first half of Disney's BABES sticks close to the Mother Goose-town, where the only marvelous entity is Mother Goose's talking pet goose. Otherwise everything sticks close to the standard operetta-schtick of Young Man Protecting His Beloved from an Evil Old Rich Man-- in this case, "Tom Tom the Piper's Son" (Tommy Sands) protecting Mary Mary Quite Contrary (Annette Funicello) from the advances of the evil Barnaby (Ray Bolger)-- though to be sure, this version of Barnaby has no lustful interest in Mary herself; only in an inheritance to which she's entitled.
Barnaby pays two inept henchmen, Gonzorgo and Rodrigo, to get Tom out of the picture, but they bungle the job and Tom returns to his town and reclaims Mary. However, one of Barnaby's other schemes to undo Mary's fortunes succeeds, forcing Tom and Mary to go looking for their lost sheep in the Forest of No Return. After a rather tedious encounter with talking trees-- presumably derived from similar figures in the Baum story-- the heroes are conducted to the town of Toyland, ruled by a dotty old mayor, a sort of Santa Claus manqué called "the Toymaker." The Toymaker's apprentice Grumio concocts various bizarre inventions, one of which blows up all of the toys intended for children (though apparently not those outside Toyland, since none of the main characters know of the Toymaker's raison d'etre). Tom, Mary and some of their kid-followers offer to pitch in and make new toys, which is about all the Christmas theme this film can support.
The story quickly rushes back to the operetta-format, for Barnaby and his bumbling accomplices have followed Tom and Mary. Barnaby gets ahold of a shrinking-ray invented by Grumio and uses it to shrink Tom and the Toymaker. He forces the Toymaker to officiate a marriage between himself and Mary, but Tom foils him by leading a militia of toy soldiers against Barnaby. Mary finally makes herself useful by turning the shrink-ray on Barnaby, reducing him to Tom's side so that the two males can have a (nonfatal) duel in approved operetta tradition. Of course Mary could have just stepped on the miniaturized villain, but maybe that would have destroyed whatever alleged suspense one could derive from BABES.
Aside from Victor Herbert's famous song "I Can't Do the Sum," the music is forgettable, and Disney's dance-routines are no better. The romantic leads are typically simpering and uninteresting, leaving Bolger-- playing a comic villain much like Disney's version of Captain Hook-- as the only player who can get some fun out of his character. Bolger performs a few adroit dance-routines, though to be sure, none of them are a patch on his classic work for 1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ.
I've not had a chance to compare this version with the better regarded 1934 film, featuring Laurel and Hardy in the roles of the bungling henchmen. Oddly, the Disney film casts two actors to look much like the earlier actors, but omits one of the more interesting ideas of the earlier film, in which the toy soldiers are life-size, as I presume they were in the stage play.
[NOTE: I later researched the operetta somewhat, and see no indication that the original stageplay had anything comparable to the giant toy soldiers of the 1934 film, much less the shrink-ray of the Disney effort.]
Most of the comedy is unfunny, aside from one of the Toymaker's lines. When forced to utter the line to Mary, "Do you take this man to be your husband," he follows up her assent with the comment, "I took him to be your grandfather."