Thursday, August 6, 2009

Little Folks, Big Screen: The Terror of Tiny Town

Little Folks, Big Screen

I'll admit, I've always been enamored with little people. I don't know where it began, perhaps when I saw Billy Barty in Foul Play and Under the Rainbow. I don't recall watching The Wizard of Oz fully until later in life, and I didn't hunt down Tod Browning's Freaks until I was a teenager who idolized the Ramones. I don't know where it came from, but I've followed the careers of Warwick Davis, Michael J. Anderson and Peter Dinklage closely, and thankfully they are talented. In fact, I think The Station Agent is probably one of the best films with a little person star. But I like the exploiters too, and they still make 'em- I recently saw and reviewed Midgets vs. Mascots at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it was hilarious. I have several running features lately; I'm still working on The Arnold Project and want to start a review of every film involving Vikings I can find, but when Turner Classic Movies played this bad movie classic, I had to watch it.
The Terror of Tiny Town has been infamous for a long time. In the early '80s, pop culture mavens rediscovered obscure old films to fill the late hours of cable television, and it was included in Harry Medved's book, The Fifty Worst Films of All Time and How They Got That Way. And let me tell you, this movie deserves to be in this book. It was essentially created on a whim by film maker Jed Buell, who worked for Mack Sennett as a publicist before making his own studio after the crash of '29 hurt Keystone pictures. Buell went for low budget exploitation westerns, making "singing cowboy" pictures with opera singer Fred Scott and some all black westerns starring big band singer Herb Jeffries. Someone joked about making pictures with all midgets, and Buell thought it was a brilliant idea; and it may be boring as hell, but it's what he's remembered for.
The story is basic- a peaceful town beset by a gang of evil gunmen, pitted against our hero, Buck Lawson. Played by Billy Curtis, who'd later have roles in everything from The Incredible Shrinking Man to High Plains Drifter, he was one of many little people stars in this film who'd appear in The Wizard of Oz, that pinnacle of little people pictures. If that's the pinnacle, this may be the nadir. The one thing it has going for it is that the cast is entirely little people, and there are no tallies to poke fun. Instead, it plays like we've found that myth of New Jersey urban legends, Midgetville, and this is the story of how it was settled. Everyone rides ponies, and the story plays out like any other western- we're introduced to the townies as the blacksmith works, the folks sing in church, and so on. The attraction is the novelty of the all-little people cast, and that's a tough sell for 62 minutes.
We occasionally get some visual gags like a short fellow playing a huge double bass, Nancy "the Girl" holding a big six shooter, or a mustachioed bar patron drinking huge goblets of beer like it's water. The script tries to be funny with repeated lines like "I'm gonna be the biggest man in this county!" I suppose it's better than the dubbing Weng Weng got in For Your Height Only (full review) the James Bond spoof from the Phillippines, where he's complaining about "running so much with these tiny little feet!" So while this is an exploiter, it could certainly be a lot worse in how it treats its subject.

So come to think of it, it gets a bad rap- I've watched worse westerns, and they didn't have the bonus of an all little people cast. The Hero, Billy Curtis, is the biggest name in the cast and this is one of his first movies. He'd go on to be the criminal mastermind in Little Cigars, the '70s flick about a gang of midget crooks. The rest of the cast has little acting talent except for Bill Platt as Tex Preston, who comes off as natural. The Dancing Hall girl played by Nita Krebs has a German accent, which makes her seem like an evil little Marlene Dietrich. The Hero and the Villain have a fistfight that looks like they're really slapping the hell out of each other, and I bet they are.
The version shown on Turner Classics is missing the introduction by an announcer, which sounds like it changes the tone of the film by having a big fella poke some fun. Still, this is an historic little people film, one of the few to have a cast entirely of them; but it hearkens back to the side show days, because the novelty of this film is to see so many of them at once. Now with shows like "Little People, Big World" and stars like Peter Dinklage getting screen time with standard parts- not just in dream sequences or with monster masks on- it's just not there. I'd rather watch The Day of the Locust or even Freaks, where their stature may be noted but they are allowed some dignity. Even Midgets vs. Mascots (full review) gave them plenty. This is a relic best saved for bad movie nights. Dig up a Weng Weng picture if you want laughs.

If you must:

3 comments:

Ed Howard said...

I'll admit, I've been perversely curious about this film ever since I first heard of it. From the sounds of it, though, it's more boring than anything. That's a shame.

I'm surprised, with all this mention of little people movies, and especially movies with all-little-people casts, that you didn't bring up Werner Herzog's dark, strange Even Dwarves Started Small, the pinnacle of movies with casts comprised entirely of little people (not that that's saying much, but still...).

Tommy Salami said...

Oh, that one is on the shelf and waiting for the next entry, unless I watch Under the Rainbow first!

Yeah this one's a snoozefest, really.

Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

I forgot about this 'gem' until you mentioned it. When the age of videos began there were all kinds of these weird pop cultural artifacts that would have remained lost if not for video. No true movie fan can miss this one which I put on the same drive-in bill as 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' or 'Santa Clause Conquers the Martians'. TLC seems to have gotten in on the fascination with little people and I rarely miss 'Little People Big World' or the Littlest Couple'.Great Post

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