Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Great Villain Blogathon: Henry Brandon in Babes in Toyland (1934) and Our Gang Follies of 1938 (1937)


This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Great Villain Blogathon, currently underway from April 20-26 and sponsored by Ruth at Silver Screenings, Karen at shadowsandsatin, and Kristina at Speakeasy.  For a full list of participants and the bad guys discussed—click here.


Heinrich von Kleinbach was born in Berlin on June 8, 1912, and emigrated to the United States with his parents while still in his infancy.  Upon his graduation from Stanford University, the man we know better as Henry Brandon decided an actor’s life was for him by enrolling at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse.  Brandon would eventually become a respected character thesp and inarguably one of the most versatile; capable of playing anything from Indians to Germans to Arabs to Asians.  Even if the name doesn’t ring immediate recognition bells, you’ve certainly seen him before—one of his most famous roles was as the Comanche chieftain Scar, the nemesis of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in the 1956 Western classic The Searchers.

Henry’s feature film debut was in the 1932 Cecil B. DeMille film The Sign of the Cross—but his first official onscreen credit would be in the 1934 Hal Roach Studios production of the Victor Herbert operetta Babes in Toyland.  The rights to Toyland, a Broadway hit in 1903 (and composed by Herbert to cash in on the publishing success of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz), were obtained by the legendary comedy producer as a vehicle for his biggest stars, Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy.  Roach reworked much of the operetta to spotlight The Boys (though his initial version didn’t pass muster with the famously meticulous Stan, who with several staffers rewrote Roach’s first treatment until he was satisfied); the final product is widely different from the original source, including only four songs (featuring the standard Toyland, which old-time radio fans will recognize as the inspiration for Dream Girl, the Lustre Crème shampoo jingle) and the rest of the repertoire as background and/or incidental music.

In the kingdom of Toyland, the inhabitants are those featured in Mother Goose rhymes and fairy tales (Jack and Jill, Little Red Riding Hood, etc.)—Mother Goose herself even makes an appearance, played by Virginia Karns.  But the thrust of the story in Babes in Toyland centers on famed shepherdess Little Bo-Peep (Charlotte Henry), the daughter of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe (Florence Roberts).  Bo-Peep is a lovely and charming girl who has not escaped the attention of the diabolically wicked Silas Barnaby (Brandon), Toyland’s wealthiest resident.  Barnaby wants very much to marry Bo-Peep, but she spurns his advances—she has fallen for Tom-Tom (Felix Knight), the piper’s son.

Bo-Peep and Tom-Tom’s nuptials are threatened by the fact that the Widow Peep is in arrears to Barnaby; if she’s unable to pay what she owes on the mortgage, Silas will toss her shoe out into the street.  So the widow is relying on her two boarders, Ollie Dee (Hardy) and Stannie Dum (Laurel), to get what she owes from their employer, The Toy Maker (William Burress).  In typical Laurel & Hardy style, The Boys manage to cock that up—first by getting fired and then arrested when they attempt to break into Barnaby’s house and steal the mortgage.  But the duo have the last laugh: Bo-Peep has agreed to marry Barnaby so that her mother won’t be dispossessed…and Ollie has Stan don Bo-Peep’s wedding regalia, tricking Barnaby into marrying him instead.

Angered at being played for a fool, Barnaby frames Tom-Tom for kidnapping one of The Three Little Pigs; the evidence against him is overwhelming, and so Toyland ruler Old King Cole (Kewpie Morgan) banishes Tom-Tom to the neighboring kingdom of Bogeyland.  Ollie and Stan are able to prove Tom-Tom’s innocence, and help Bo-Peep rescue her beloved from the clutches of the fearsome inhabitants.  But Barnaby—that vichyssoise—assembles an army of the dread creatures and marches on Toyland, terrorizing its populace.  Fortunately, our heroes do some quick thinking and repel the Bogey hordes with toy weapons and an army of their own—one hundred six-foot soldiers (created as a mistake on Stan’s part; the original order was for six hundred one-foot soldiers)—as the proceedings come to a close.

At the time of its release, Babes in Toyland was a huge box office success—so much so that the film was re-released over the years under a number of different titles (most famously March of the Wooden Soldiers) in order to convince the public that they were seeing a different movie.  Some of its fans remember it from its multiple showings on television, as many local stations featured it over the years as a holiday staple (New York’s WPIX often offers it on both Thanksgiving and Christmas Day).  Toyland was also one of several movies to suffer the indignity of the odious process known as “colorization”; sadly, there are those who defend this form of cinematic bastardization by referencing a comment once made about the movie by co-star Laurel: “If only we could have made it in color.”

Babes in Toyland is a wonderful musical film, and it has an undeniable appeal for audiences of all ages—children enjoy the fantasy elements while adults can revel in the antics of the greatest movie comedy of all time.  Henry Brandon’s screen credit in Toyland reads “Henry Kleinbach” (he hadn’t transitioned to his better-known handle yet), and his role as Silas Barnaby was purportedly the most difficult to cast.  Hal Roach saw the actor in a stage production of The Drunkard, where Brandon was portraying an elderly sinister lawyer named Cribbs.  The producer got quite a jolt when the 6’4” Henry arrived for an audition—“You’re not the old son-of-a-bitch I saw the other night!” he exclaimed—but was impressed enough to offer him the part.  Brandon was twenty-one at the time he landed the important role…three years younger than the actor (Felix Knight) who played the juvenile Tom-Tom.

Silas Barnaby would become Henry Brandon’s ticket to movie villain immortality.  Granted, not all of Brandon’s film roles required him to be a rotter; he took on the occasional sympathetic assignment such as Black Legion (1937; as the tragic Joe Dombrowski) and Edge of Darkness (1943; as British undercover agent Major Ruck).  But if you needed a bad guy, you could do no worse than the thesp who especially excelled at wickedness in the world of the chapter play: in Jungle Jim (1937), Henry played the malevolent Cobra; in Secret Agent X-9 (1937), he was Blackstone, trusted lieutenant of the formidable (and mysterious) jewel thief Victor Brenda; and in Buck Rogers (1939), he was the chief henchman of villain Killer Kane (Anthony Warde), Captain Laska.  (Reportedly his agent got him this last part—when Brandon asked him why he didn’t lobby him for the role of Kane the agent explained: “The lead heavy works for one day, the henchman works three weeks.  Which part did you say you wanted again?”)  There was just something about Henry’s aristocratic bearing and his resonant, compelling speaking voice that spelled V-I-L-L-A-I-N; serial devotees remember him fondly as the titular menace in Republic’s Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), which many believe to be one of the greatest chapter plays ever produced.

In 1937, Brandon would reprise the role that garnered him much acclaim in a Hal Roach two-reeler, Our Gang Follies of 1938.  By 1936, the Roach “Lot of Fun” was weaning itself from the comedic two-reel shorts that had made the studio legendary, concentrating on feature films (many of which featured Laurel & Hardy) because that’s where the profits were and letting go of employees like Charley Chase, who migrated to Columbia in 1937 to continue in the field of short subjects.  Roach made an exception with the kid troupe known as Our Gang, continuing to churn out their comedies because they were extraordinarily popular with movie audiences (though the “Gang” would also strike out with a feature film attempt in 1936’s General Spanky)—though he whittled down the running time of their comedies to one reel.  Our Gang Follies of 1938 was the exception; a 2-reel tuneful extravaganza that spoofed MGM’s Broadway Melody of 1938 and other “let’s-put-on-a-show” musicals of that era.

In Follies, would-be impresario Spanky (George McFarland) has once again assembled the gang for one of his basement productions—the advertising outside of which touts (with a funny caricature) Alfalfa, the “King of Crooners.”  Inside the hall, Alf (Carl Switzer) steps out on stage and starts in with a rendition of The Barber of Seville, to the displeasure of the audience.  When Spanky asks his friend why he won’t croon, Alfalfa points out that his is a special voice, not to be sullied with that lowbrow form of popular singing.  Accompanied by sidekick Porky (Eugene Lee), Alfalfa visits the Cosmopolitan Opera House to present himself as being ready for an operatic career.

Alfalfa interrupts a rehearsal by the resident tenor (Gino Corrado!) to speak with the manager (Brandon)—who is not identified onscreen as “Barnaby,” though he is designated as such in the script.  Barnaby explains that Alf is a little too young to be a star right now, but with a wink to his secretary (Wilma Cox), has a contract prepared for the tyke with an option that he’ll exercise in twenty years.  Alfalfa then returns to Spanky, who is rebuffed once again with his request to Alf to croon, and settling into an easy chair, Alfalfa drifts off to dreamland.

In his dream, Alfalfa makes his operatic debut…and is jeered and pelted with vegetables by the crowd.  This makes no never mind to Barnaby; Alfalfa signed a contract, and he’s going to hold him to it—even if our hero must sing in the street with a tin cup.  And so Alfalfa does just that, until he’s distracted by a nightspot called “Club Spanky.”  He meets a tuxedo-clad Spanky outside, who invites him in to take a look at his successful venture…even though Alfalfa remains steadfast that he will not croon.

After a few musical numbers (including the jaunty The Love Bug Will Get You [If You Don’t Watch Out]) performed by Darla (Darla Hood), Buckwheat (Billie Thomas) and other talented kiddie thesps, Alfalfa relents—he’ll croon, and reap enormous financial benefits in the process.  But the evil Barnaby arrives on the scene to roadblock that avenue of pleasure, and Alfalfa wakes from his nightmare to the sound of the kid audience demanding he perform.  Alf tears up his “contract,” and warbles Learn to Croon in that endearing off-key way of his as the short ends with a big finish.

Our Gang Follies of 1938 would be the final two-reel comedy produced by Hal Roach…and certainly the last one in the Our Gang series, which had concentrated exclusively on the one-reel format beginning in 1936.  Its lavish production values (financed with a little more scratch than usual, courtesy of MGM) made it the most expensive Our Gang short ever made, and for some it’s one of the best comedies from the franchise.  It depends a lot on your tolerance for musical numbers performed by children, which would become a standard when the series was purchased from Roach by MGM in 1938.  The highlight of Follies is the entertaining dream sequence where Alfalfa learns to his dismay that he’s made a deal with The Devil (represented by Brandon’s Barnaby); it would have been more enjoyable if the actor had been given a bit more screen time but what is wonderful is that he offers a nice tribute to the part that put him on the movie map.

As for Henry Brandon, he continued his prolific career both on stage and in films—among the notable movies he graced include The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), The Garden of Allah (1936), Beau Geste (1939), The Son of Monte Cristo (1940), Canon City (1948), Wake of the Red Witch (1948), Joan of Arc (1948), The War of the Worlds (1953), Casanova’s Big Night (1954), Vera Cruz (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), Auntie Mame (1958), The Big Fisherman (1959), Two Rode Together (1961) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).  Brandon also boasted an extensive television resume—it would only be a small exaggeration to suggest that he made the rounds on nearly every boob tube oater (usually as an Indian).  His passing on February 15, 1990 at the age of 77 was greeted with sadness from movie fans, who knew that they could depend on him to ascend the heights of Mount Villainy and beyond.

10 comments:

Caftan Woman said...

Barnaby is even scarier than the Bogeymen!

"I wouldn't marry you if you were young, which you can't be, if you were honest, which you never were and if you were about to die tomorrow, which would be too much to hope for!"

Rich said...

Brandon was a fun villain in 'Toyland,' though when I wrote about that movie, I found I was more disturbed by some of those fairy tale characters. There's definitely something creepy about those costumes...

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

There's definitely something creepy about those costumes...

Yeah, the mouse (actually a Capuchin monkey) is definitely unsettling. Though it is sort of amusing that the Disney people had no problem with it looking like Mickey Mouse - quite a switch from the litigious organization we know today.

Silver Screenings said...

I'm so glad you included biographical info Henry Brandon. Whenever I see him on screen, I say, "Hey, it's that guy!" Now I know a bit more about him.

Thanks for including these two movies - and the talented Brandon - in the blogathon.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Whenever I see him on screen, I say, "Hey, it's that guy!"

I laughed out loud at this because I have a tendency to describe character actors and actresses as members of the "Hey - it's that guy/gal" fraternity/sorority.

portraitsbyjenni said...

Fun and interesting post about that baddie from Babes in Toyland. I watched it as a kid years ago, then watched it again on TCM this past December. Robert Osborn mentioned that the villain was only 21 yet managed to play an older guy with such skill. I have seen other films that Henry Brandon was in but didnt' recognize him...now I'm going to spend part of my evening looking at the characters he played in those movies and see if I remember him!

Karen said...

I really enjoyed your write-up, Ivan -- do you know I haven't seen either of these? In fact, I'm pretty sure I've never seen a Laurel and Hardy film. Babes in Toyland sounds like a lot of fun, though. I will have to look for it!

girlsdofilm said...

I've only seen Brandon in The Searchers so thanks for extending my knowledge! Babes in Toyland looks pretty creepy - a combination of the costumes and the subject matter - I know they're not meant to be but I've always found fairytale characters really sinister I guess it has a lot to do with their origins.

Along These Lines ... said...

There's nothing like a really good bad guy

Kristina Dijan said...

Brandon was a great bad, saw these movies when I was a wee one and that's the perfect time to be spooked by such a character. Definitely one of "those guys" who become so familiar... Thanks so much for being a part of the event :)