Severe Head Trauma in Midwestern Adolescent Girls and the Decline of the American Musical
December 17, 2010 7:17 AM   Subscribe

Early in 1903, the success of the New York production of the musical adaptation of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz got composer Victor Herbert and librettist Glen MacDonough thinking. They thought that it might be possible to duplicate that success by applying a Christmas theme to Baum's story and then sprinkling in a few Mother Goose characters. Later that year the resulting show, Babes in Toyland, was a rousing success. Thirty years later it was made into a movie starring two of the greatest motion picture actors of the era, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, produced by Hal Roach. But this post isn't about either of those productions; it's about the worst production.

On December 19, 1986, NBC aired a star-studded, made-for-TV movie based on the show. It featured an 11 year old, pot smoking, heavily drinking, Drew Barrymore in the lead as little Lisa Piper. Complicit with her was Richard Mulligan as Barnaby Barnicle, Eileen Brennan as the Widow Hubbard, Keanu Reeves as Jack-Be-Nimble, and Pat Morita as the Toy Master. The screenplay was by Paul Zindel, an excellent playwright, screenwriter and young adult author. Earlier that year he fared significantly better with the release of Runaway Train, another script he adapted, this time from a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa.

It's notable that this is not the only terrible production of this story, it was preceeded by the 1960 NBC television version, produced for The Shirley Temple Show (Formerly Shirley Temple's Storybook). It was not well received. Not long after this episode aired the show was cancelled, and Ms. Temple left show business, save for the occasional guest appearance.

Another disastrous production of this material might be the 1997 MGM animated film, which turns the march of the tin soldiers into a Dante-esque hell, complete with an army of laser-shooting, flying, tin Astroboys with water cannons for hands, driving away demonic goblins. Voices were provided by Charles Nelson Reilly, Christopher Plummer, James Belushi, and Bronson Pinchot.

A slightly more enjoyable production might be the radically rewritten Disney film version of 1961, with Ray Bolger as Barnaby and Annette Funicello as Mary Contrary.

Bonus material:

How bad did a musical number have to be to be deleted from the 1986 made-for-TV production?

Deleted song 1

Deleted song 2

Deleted song 3
posted by Toekneesan (21 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Keanu Reeves and Drew Barrymore. Does anything else need to be said?
posted by tommasz at 7:21 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is an awesome post. I look forward to exploring this later today.

Also, Runaway Train is a great, great film - and also funny in that the director of that film released this years allegedly atrocious The Nutracker 3D.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:25 AM on December 17, 2010

I grew up with the soundtrack album for the 1961 film, but had never seen it until just the past year or two. It was strange to finally actually see the movie for which I've known all the songs since grade school or earlier. The movie is kind of a mess on a few levels, but I could see where there is a gem of a musical buried in there someplace. Maybe someday someone will figure out how to produce one that really shines.

But then, the introduction of the FPP about the Wizard Of Oz reminds me that a whole slew of Oz movies are working their way through Hollywood.
posted by hippybear at 7:31 AM on December 17, 2010

Oh, and yes. Runaway Train is awesome. I obsessed on that movie when it was in theaters, dragging friend after friend to see it during the week or three it played in the local movie house. I must've seen that 5 or 6 times in pretty quick succession. Great stuff, highly recommended. (And the soundtrack is great too -- lots of interesting rock-style instrumentals by Trevor Jones, who did the non-Bowie parts of the Labyrinth score.)
posted by hippybear at 7:35 AM on December 17, 2010

Baum's own Christmas novel (we covered the Rankin-Bass adaptation of it last year) is getting a big screen treatment from the people responsible for Streetfighter: The Legend of Chun-Li.
posted by Iridic at 7:38 AM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

this years allegedly atrocious The Nutracker 3D.

I was reading Ebert's review of that and just boggling at what the filmmakers were thinking.
posted by kmz at 7:50 AM on December 17, 2010

Keanu Reeves and Drew Barrymore. Does anything else need to be said?

posted by schmod at 8:01 AM on December 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Great post. The Laurel & Hardy version was always a Christmas day highlight when I was growing up. Mostly for my father, but I got excited because he got excited. Damn, I miss that.
posted by HumanComplex at 8:01 AM on December 17, 2010

Shameless plug: another, more modest production, by fans of Herbert, where I made my stage debut as that one guy in the chorus.
posted by klarck at 8:37 AM on December 17, 2010

I am so happy you posted this today, Toekneesan. I'm from Cincinnati and my grandmother had a tape of this movie and I grew up watching it NOT EVEN REALIZING how purely barking insane it was. It's now a part of my Christmas traditions, along with Wee Sing Best Christmas Ever.

And guess what, suckers, now available to watch instantly on Netflix! Also, I would never tell children to do drugs but WATCH THIS MOVIE WHEN YOU ARE HIGH. The best part is the fully grown adult man who is dressed as Georgie Porgie and the whole time you can see him thinking, "How did I come to this, what am I DOING?" Watch it, you will die of joy.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 9:22 AM on December 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

The 86 version is one of those rare little nuggets that has your jaw dropping lower and lower, the more you watch the more it drops.
posted by nola at 9:30 AM on December 17, 2010

Waitwaitwait in the "Deleted Song 1" link, does that "in about three minutes" line… is he gesturing… is that a wink to… WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THAT THREE MINUTES RICHARD MULLIGAN
posted by droob at 9:45 AM on December 17, 2010

Googy Gress. I love that name. Need to pop for a sock puppet just to use Googy Gress.
posted by Splunge at 9:52 AM on December 17, 2010

While I very much look forward to watching the Deleted Songs at home, I'm really more stunned that I've never made the obvious "Wizard of Oz"/"Babes in Toyland" connection.

On that note, if there's an award for best thread title in December, I'm throwing my nominating weight behind "Severe Head Trauma in Midwestern Adolescent Girls and the Decline of the American Musical" for what it's worth which ain't much
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:07 AM on December 17, 2010

Man, I loooooooved that Annette Funicello version when I was a kid. That climactic battle with all the toy soldiers, I ate that up. And anything with Ed Wynn in it is an automatic must-see.
posted by cottoncandybeard at 11:16 AM on December 17, 2010

Oh crap. I just realized I forgot a link. In researching this post I also discovered this somewhat amusing parody trailer for LOTR created using scenes from the '86 made-for-TV version.
posted by Toekneesan at 11:22 AM on December 17, 2010

I can understand why so many think this is an execrable film. Why, hardly three minutes in, Barrymore is talking on the phone to her mother, played by Eileen Brennan, who claims to be delayed because she is in Midvale, having chains put on the car.

Everyone knows that snow chains were outlawed in Midvale in 1980. What were they thinking?
posted by beelzbubba at 11:39 AM on December 17, 2010

I'm not certain about the "Deleted Song 1" up there, but I'm positive the other two songs were included in the original airing. I distinctly remember hooting derisively at how obvious it was that little Drew wasn't doing her own singing.
posted by Gator at 3:16 PM on December 17, 2010

Also, Runaway Train is a great, great film - and also funny in that the director of that film released this years allegedly atrocious The Nutracker 3D .

And also funny that he co-scripted Andre Rublev.
posted by ovvl at 3:34 PM on December 17, 2010

I just realized that the embedded versions don't use the time cue I added to the urls. This post is probably better if you click on the text links and look at the videos at YouTube, where the cues work. The cues in the urls generally skip to the relevant part of the video.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:11 AM on December 18, 2010

pb fixed the embedded link issue, so the time cues should work now either way. Thanks, pb!
posted by Toekneesan at 11:43 AM on December 20, 2010

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