The 1934 classic film starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.


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Revisiting Silas Barnaby

By Bill Cassara

Midnight Patrol Tent (Oasis #57)

(This article was first published in the Brushwood Gulch Gazette in 1990)


As the holidays approach us, there comes a sobering reality that this is the first Christmas that Henry Brandon won't be with us. Henry, of course, created a memorable character for the role of evil Silas Barnaby in Babes in Toyland. This feature film for Laurel and Hardy is rich in holiday spirit, fantasy and the pursuit of good over evil. Old man Barnaby was the perfect foil for Laurel and Hardy.

When Hal Roach cast Henry Brandon for the part of Barnaby, he wanted an evil character "larger than life" for the film. Roach discovered Henry performing on stage as Lawyer Cribbs in the famous melodramatic play; "The Drunkard." Henry gave a convincing portrayal of a cunning, slightly sadistic, old villain in his lead part.

A very young Henry Brandon was summoned to Hal Roach's office to be interviewed about the role of Silas Barnaby for the soon to be produced Babes in Toyland. Roach was surprised to see a 21 year old virile, well postured young man enter his office. "You're not the old Son-of-a-Bitch that I saw the other night," said Roach. Amazed at Henry's character portrayal, he was signed to a contract to perform the part that would forever typecast him as one of the screens best villains.

In later years, Henry would often entertain members of the Sons of the Desert about the making of "Babes" and his interactions with Stan and Ollie while on the set. He was always in demand for Son's functions, especially around the holidays when "Babes" was feature entertainment for tent meetings.

For the next 56 years after its original release, Henry Brandon must have viewed "Babes" hundreds of times in varying lengths. Even though this was his first film,, by mere repetition, his enthusiasm for watching his image appeared to be very trying for him. Or was it?

To get Henry to sit through "Babes" or even a few clips, could be an ordeal in itself. Henry would usually protest loudly, "OH NO! YOU'RE NOT GOING TO SHOW THAT AGAIN, ARE YOU?" How could he be surprised? The showing of "Babes" was almost as big a holiday tradition to Son's as Santa Claus is. Despite his verbal protest and seeming disinterest, Henry extended himself every year to many tents during their showing of Babes in Toyland.

What would it be like to sit with and ask questions of Henry during a screening? I had that pleasure once in a 1988 Way Out West-Christmas theme tent meeting. Traveling some 400 miles from the Monterey/Carmel area to the meeting place of the Mayflower Club, Henry invited me to have an English beer. As we sat down to talk, the film started. We were surrounded by tent members, but Henry and I were the only ones at that particular table.

Henry sensed the 150 people (or so) in attendance watching him to see his reactions during the screening of "Babes." Henry didn't disappoint them, he pretended to fall asleep while facing the opposite direction of the screen. While all of us were caught up with the Barnaby character and his manipulative dealings, he started snoring. A stage snoring to show an indifference to the entertainment.

I knew he was pretending to be asleep, because every now and then, he would repeat a word or a line that Ollie would be saying in the appropriate Georgian accent. He seemed to key in on Ollie's diction and was amused by it.

Every time Barnaby's image appeared (preceded by his signature theme music), the crowd would hiss and boo in proper melodramatic fashion. Henry ignored reacting to this, except for demonstrating a perpetual scowl of villainy on his face.

When the climax of the movie unfolded; the assault of the wooden soldiers upon Barnaby's Bogey Men, the audience got caught up in the triumph over evil, and applauded the retaking of Toyland. Henry was now stirring in his seat. The tension of the battle built until the Three Little Pigs took direct action against Barnaby. On each end, they held a rope tautly to trip and conquer retreating Bogey Men. The tent members burst into a spontaneous cheer when Barnaby fell over the hand held rope and was subdued with a violent bonk on the brain by a balloon.

Because of the crowd's ovation to Barnaby's demise, Henry bolted up to his feet and in character, snarled and yelled, "BAAH!" to the audience, much to their delight. He then walked over to the bar to get another beer. No one walked near him.

Over the years the Barnaby character has proven to be more than a one dimensional melodramatic villain. Henry's acting ability shaped the Barnaby character into something that has us asking questions: Why was Barnaby such a bitter old man? How did he acquire his wealth? How did he become in league with the Bogey Men?

The Barnaby character at three different times in the film, displayed tender, humble, and appreciative qualities. When Barnaby intends to court Little Bo-Peep, he brings with him a bouquet of flowers to "Show my deep devotion." In watching Barnaby propose to Bo-Peep, one can sense humble sincerity when asking her to be his wife. His darker side rebelled when he was rejected.

When Stan and Ollie brought a Christmas gift to Barnaby, he was genuinely touched by their thoughtfulness. He was not suspicious at all, despite the fact that the present was delivered in July. Barnaby showed great enthusiasm for the gift, especially because Stanley explained that it was because "Ollie and I are sorry for what happened..." (In a prior scene). Again, it was only because he was duped, and trusted someone, that he reacted in anger.

Barnaby again was outwitted by Stan and Ollie during the wedding scene. Barnaby was very proud of his soon to be new stature. So much so that he sought out the friendship of Stan and Ollie by saying, "From now on,.we are going to be 'veddy' good friends." Barnaby said that sentence so sincerely, one might be led to believe that perhaps he would have been a changed man. Of course, he was again foiled and made a fool of by the boys. Proving there is no fury like a spurned Barnaby, he declared war on Toyland for the purposes of kidnapping the young girl he was infatuated with.

Barnaby is not to be pitied. He pursued what he wanted no matter who he hurt or got in his way. For this he got what he deserved, a one way ticket out of Toyland and into the crocodile infested moat.

During that evening, I had the chance to point out to Henry Brandon my observations into the complexity of the Barnaby character and the richness of the role. He listened to me running down the many facets and insights of Silas Barnaby, and then I asked for his opinion. Henry thought for a moment and summed up the character succinctly, "AAH, HE WAS JUST AN OLD FART."

We should feel fortunate that we can still enjoy Barnaby's interactions each year with Laurel and Hardy. It is hoped that their images are forever preserved on celluloid. Love and hisses Henry.

Bill Cassara is the former Grand Sheik and current Sheik-of-Police of
the Midnight Patrol Tent (Oasis #57, Monterey, CA).


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