Another Thanksgiving has come and gone, another day of eating until you’ve passed out and alternating between the sounds of parades, footballs, and thinly veiled criticisms from relatives. It’s one of my favorite times of the year not just for the food or the family or the fact that Christmas is almost a month away, but for the traditions. Not every family does things the same when it comes to the holidays. For the first time, my boyfriend joined me at my house this year instead of being with his family, which, to be honest, most of the family was surprisingly fine with (his grandmother, who normally does all the cooking, came down with pneumonia. They ended up having their dinner catered, so he didn’t miss much.)
In doing so I got to introduce him to some of the things we do at my house. My family alternates hosting the big dinner every other year with other members of our extremely extended family tree and it just so happened this was our turn. While prepping we put the Macy’s Parade on in the background (and darn if I still don’t get just a little excited to see Santa show up at the end). We bring out the best china and silverware that are only used for special occasions as well as salt and peppershakers and other things that have been passed down from my great-grandmother. And my boyfriend learned the hard way that in our house, the kids aren’t shooed from the kitchen so the adults can work– if you want to eat at the table, you gotta WORK for it! All things considered it was a very small affair this year since certain relations went to other dinners or were out of the country, but his presence certainly livened things up.
After all was said and done, the plates cleared, the last of the cousins shown the door, I decided to give him a little leeway and take part in his number one cannot-be-missed Thanksgiving tradition –
Watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Not Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which is all about getting home for Thanksgiving (and we would have watched that too if I had Netflix).
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
It might seem odd, but when you think about it, it’s perfectly fitting for a Thanksgiving as well as Christmas. Not only is it a great way to kick off the Christmas season (it IS one of the best Christmas comedies if not one of the best Christmas movies ever made), but it does involve a big messy family coming together for the holidays, just like what happens across America every end of November. Every moment gets a huge laugh out of me and it always puts me in the yuletide spirit.
But this is not the movie I’m about to discuss. I’m here to talk about what one Thanksgiving movie tradition in my family that has endured an unbelievable amount of time, one that goes back to when my father was a boy and maybe even before then.
I’m not entirely sure if the rest of the country is as lucky, but every year on Thanksgiving in my home state on Channel 11 they show a little black and white film that recently turned eighty years old. It’s one that by today’s standards may seem a bit cheesy and outdated but I’d be loath to miss it. It’s a fantastical adventure that served as my gateway drug to two of the most iconic comedians of all time. Most of all, it’s one of those movies I thought I outgrew as I got older and more cynical but unexpectedly found myself adoring it again just as much as when I was a child.
I am of course talking about the Laurel and Hardy classic, March of the Wooden Soldiers.
This is an adaptation of the operetta Babes in Toyland, and for my money, it’s the best version out there. I know some people immediately think of the Disney version from the 60’s with Annette Funicello and Ray Bolger as the best, but those people have clearly never watched this one. This isn’t nostalgia talking by the way; I’ve sat down and watched the Disney one, that trippy 80’s one with Keanu Reeves and the animated version done by Don Bluth’s brother and while they each have their strengths and weaknesses, they simply don’t compare. For starters, it set a precedent in how the magical world of Toyland should look – lots of familiar nursery rhyme characters running about, toy-shaped houses and so forth. The later editions have the upper edge on this by being shot in color while we have to make do with the colorized versions, but even then I don’t actually mind watching those
Second, and most importantly, it did something that no other version has done; something so surprisingly bold that if it were another film with another set of actors it wouldn’t work, yet here, it does. Brilliantly.
You see, most adaptations of Babes in Toyland have their leads be a pair of doe-eyed lovers who are just so darn happy to be in love and whose only concern is that the evil Barnaby will ensure that they will never be together…and they are all so BORING. Not even the loveable Annette Funicello, God rest her soul, could make her character the least bit compelling.
So here’s what March of the Wooden Soldiers did – the main characters are not the lovebirds (Tom-Tom and Bo Peep in this version). The main characters are the ones who would normally be the comedic side characters, in this case, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
And that is ingenious. The director not only knew that people would be willing to see them than they would just another mopey love triangle, but they had the right amount of talent and chemistry to carry a film like this. Because Stan and Ollie care about Tom and Bo ending up together, we end up tangentially caring about them as well (though to be fair this couple is probably the one with the most personality out of all of them). Also, they are at the top of their game when it comes to the comedy here. Every moment from the dialogue to the slapstick is hysterical (there’s one scene involving them at Barnaby’s wedding that I will not dare spoil but needless to say it has me in stitches every time). It’s hilarious to see them continuously goof up their plans to save the day, but that makes it even more triumphant in the end where they do manage to work together and actually kick some ass alongside the titular soldiers.
Oh, and did I mention that the soldiers are AWESOME? It’s a perfect blend of some really great stop-motion and live actors. Plus, they’re life-sized in this version so they can really do some damage. Their march leads to a great climax where they rescue the land from imminent doom. Even Barnaby takes one look and knows that he’s done for.
Speaking of, because our heroes are usually so dull in the other versions, I end up sort of rooting for Barnaby if only for the sheer fact that he has some semblance of personality. This is not the case in this one. This Barnaby is just a bastard. He’s never happy unless everyone around him is miserable, he goes out of his way to be a jerk to our heroes for the sheer satisfaction of it, and like Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, the longer he fails to get his bride, the more drastic he gets in trying to steal her. By the end he is borderline insane. Add the fact that he has an army of cave-dwelling monsters at his command and he is not someone you want to mess with.
All in all, this is a fun (and really funny) film that the whole family can sit down and enjoy together. If you’ve missed it, don’t worry, they show it again on Channel 11 on Christmas and you can watch it for free on Hulu in both black and white and in color. I should mention however that regarding the latter they’ve messed with the original opening credits in both versions AND the color one shown is from the recent edition that completely screwed up how it’s supposed to look.
(Even Drew “I’m Responsible For The Greatest Movie Posters In Existence” Struzan knew they were supposed to be in pink and green, jerkwads. Not red and blue, PINK AND GREEN.)
When other Thanksgiving traditions like Gulliver’s Travels have fallen by the wayside, it warms my heart to know that this still has an audience. I feel like I’m partaking in something special when I’m watching it. This is something that my love for was passed down to me by my family, and this is something I know I will share with my children. Whenever I view it, especially with my parents, we are all suspended in time for those seventy-five minutes. We’re neither grown-ups nor children, nor mother, father and daughter. We are all of that though the names hold no meaning here. We are in Toyland, united by the bonds of family and laughter.
I really want to say more about the movie, but I’m hoping to save the details and the jokes for a full review in the future. There are a few days left before I officially announce the movie review for December, so who knows…
Hope you all had a Happy Thanksgiving. Now let’s push November aside like yesterday’s leftovers and make way for Christmas!