New Comedy and ‘Babes in Toyland’ – Iona Wright

Northrop Frye contends that a prominent theme in New Comedy is the ‘effort of a young man to outwit an opponent and possess the girl of his choice’. Frye also identifies a comic element which he describes as an Oedipus situation. A film that could possibly demonstrate this comic trope is Laurel and Hardy’s 1934 comedic musical ‘Babes in Toyland’. 

Frye describes the situation as the hero being in competition with the Father who represents the senex, both hoping to win the hand of the heroin. When the Father fails to acquire the girl but the son succeeds, the son is subsequently brought closer to his Mother. Comparisons can be drawn between aspects of the Babes in Toyland plot and this comic motif. In this fairy-tale world, Stan and Laurel play toymakers who live in a shoe alongside Mother Peep and Bo Peep. The mortgage on the shoe is becoming too expensive so Mother Peep tries to reason with Silas Barnaby- villain and owner of the shoe who could be viewed as the senex figure here. He tries to reason by offering to end the mortgage in return for her daughter Bo’s hand in marriage. Bo refuses as she is already in love with Tom-Tom. Whilst he can be viewed as the young hero, Stan and Laurel ultimately adopt the hero role as they try their best to earn the money required and secure Bo’s happiness.

They are also the ones to outwit Barnaby at the wedding that eventually takes place. Ollie leads the bride down the isle and rips up the mortgage mid ceremony. When Barnaby lifts the veil and it is revealed to be Stan in a wedding dress. Feud is heightened but Bo and Tom-Tom eventually get their revenge and can live happily together. This uniting gives the film its comic resolution with their partnership symbolising the ‘tonic chord on which it ends’. The real saviours or heroes are ironically however, Stan and Laurel who whilst representing the clowns, act as the moral compass who determine the surrender of the senex to the hero.

(The wedding scene begins at 43 mins)


Frye, Northrop ‘The Argument of Comedy‘ in English Institute Essays, New York (1949)

Roach, Hal ‘Babes in Toyland’ directed by Gus Meins and Charles Rogers, Hal Roach studios Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, United States (1934)

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