Villain Watch: Silas Barnaby (March of the Wooden Soldiers-1934)

March of the Wooden Soldiers is probably considered one of the best Laurel and Hardy features.  It’s got great songs, terrific characters, and of course Stan and Ollie at their finest.  As a film, it’s one of their strongest in terms of story, and for once in a Laurel and Hardy picture, you actually feel something for the romantic couple, Tom Piper (Felix Knight) and Bo Peep (Charlotte Henry).  But the one character that really makes this film amazing and stands out among the rest is the great villain, Silas Barnaby.

Barnaby is one of Laurel and Hardy’s greatest adversary’s.  The greedy black-hearted old man of ToyLand forces Bo Peep to marry him or have her mother (The old woman in the shoe) thrown out into the streets because he owns the mortgage on her house.  He schemes and plots to do everything in his power to get what he wants in order to ruin the happy couple.  But when Stan and Ollie thwart and humiliate him publicly, later in a scene meant to give children nightmares, Barnaby unleashes the Bogeymen on ToyLand, unleashing his wrath to create chaos and destruction for everyone involved.  He definitely proves in the long run that this is no man to trifle with.

Barnaby has several great moments in this film.  He hisses and cackles his way through his scenes.  It’s hard sharing the scenes I love most without giving it away to those who haven’t seen it.  But some of the more hilarious scenes include Barnaby the pignapper, the marriage of Barnaby and Bo Peep, and one of my favorite scenes, the fight near the end between Barnaby and Tom Piper, which is truly great and over the top.  I never saw this film when I was really young, but I’m pretty certain the Bogeymen unleashed on ToyLand would have given me nightmares.  There are scenes of the Bogeymen breaking into a children’s bedroom which is pretty scary even for a Laurel and Hardy comedy.  It shows how much things have changed from todays films where the studios would hesitate to make a movie too scary for children.

(Left to Right) Charlotte Henry, Felix Knight, with Stan and Ollie, and Henry Brandon as Barnaby

Barnaby was played by the great Henry Brandon who was 21 years old (yes, 21!) when he took on his first screen role in March of the Wooden Soldiers.  His great over the top performance really sells this character, who is not only funny but also becomes genuinely scary as the film goes on.  For me as an animator, he’s a great character to study as he makes sweeping over the top gestures.  His face is pliable as he delivers such great facial expressions, making every emotion work times 10.  His back is arched as he moves with his cane as a crotchety old man.  The performance is heightened and theatrical selling the humor and the menace.  And his line delivery just makes me giddy, as he talks like an oily snake waiting to strike.

Henry Brandon must of really had to have proven himself to compete with the already widely popular Laurel and Hardy.  But he does prove himself greatly to be just as engaging and memorable as the boys ever were.  We would never see another character like Barnaby’s today because studios today would probably think that audiences wouldn’t take such an exuberant over the top performance seriously.  Performances like Barnaby’s today would have that character type become satirized, or it would fall into parody so the filmmakers could wink and nudge at the audience that they’re not serious.  Which in some ways is kind of a shame, because it would be interesting to see if somebody could pull off someone like Barnaby today and make him just as memorable, and have him treated with respect to his character.

Already Henry Brandon would have given Jim Carrey a run for his money in terms of slick body exaggeration and facial expressions.  He has several great lines: “Big bait catches big rat!”  or in one of my favorite scenes, “A Christmas gift in the middle of July?”  Barnaby truly is one of the great movie villains.  He has many great moments of hilarity, but because of the situations he creates, he comes off as a serious threat to our heroes.  Even for a comedy, it counts just as much if you can wrack up the tension with a real menacing villain in the way.  It makes for a memorable story.  Barnaby is truly one of the greats, and if you’ve never seen March of the Wooden Soldiers, don’t wait till Christmas to check it out.  Watch it for Stan and Ollie, but check it out for Henry Brandon’s  amazing performance.

“We shall meet again my pretty little buttercup, and you will sing to a different tune!  BAH!”



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