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Thursday 25 February 2010

The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)

Director: Sam Newfield
Stars: Jed Buell's Midgets

I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

You knew this was going to turn up sooner or later, right? There's just no way I could resist adding to the ranks of Cinematic Hell something that the title card suggests is supposed to be 'a rollickin', rootin', tootin', shootin' drama of the great outdoors,' but patently isn't, at least not how you expect. It was produced in 1938 by Jed Buell who owned Jed Buell's Midgets (given that this was the golden age of the studio system, 'owned' probably had many meanings), who constitute the entire cast. Yes, folks, this is a musical western with an all midget cast, many of whom you'll recognise because they went on to play Munchkins the following year in The Wizard of Oz.

Originally produced as an independent feature, The Terror of Tiny Town was bought by Columbia and distributed with big studio money. The very concept is dubious, about as politically incorrect as is humanly possible, but it's the involvement of Columbia that gave it far more of a life than it should ever have had. It's their fault, folks. The catch is that nobody seems to know whether it's even supposed to be serious or not. The introduction, provided by the only full sized man in the picture, perhaps Jed Buell himself, appearing on stage in front of an invisible audience (ie us), suggests that it's 'a novelty picture' that we shouldn't take too seriously. However he's then interrupted by The Hero and The Villain of the picture, who both point out how serious it really is.

Buck Lawson, the Hero, says he going to become the biggest star in Hollywood, but Bat Haines, the Villain, doesn't even believe he's the biggest star of the film. When the audience hiss at him, he spits out in reply, 'I'm the toughest hombre that ever lived and I ain't afraid o' the biggest one o' you. I'm the Terror of Tiny Town, and that's the star part.' We haven't even got to the credits yet but this is already stunningly painful in a pantomime way. Picture your kid's school production but without any kids in it. Yeah, that's what it looks like we're in for and for a while it seems like that's precisely what we get.

Once it actually begins, we're thrown straight into a musical number at B Armstrong's, the local blacksmith's shop, where the voices of all those Munchkins, I mean the citizens of Tiny Town, chirp away behind the overdubbed voice of the singing star who patently isn't Billy Curtis, who plays Lawson. But then we get serious, or at least as serious as any of the singing cowboy movies John Wayne played in for Monogram back in the thirties, and it becomes instantly forgettable, inherently devoid of suspense. Something's wrong at North Fork Range and Buck Lawson discovers that it's cattle rustlers. I wonder who could be behind it all! Yeah, given that the villain has already introduced himself to us as The Villain, it doesn't exactly take much to work out that it's really Bat Haines. Whodathunkit.

He's trying to start a war between Pop Lawson on one side and Tex Preston on the other by leaving branding irons and malicious lies in convenient places. The pair fought each other to a standstill fifteen years earlier and haven't forgotten about it yet, so Haines has a pretty easy job on his hands. Frankly we really don't care and so spend our time watching midgets ride around on Shetland ponies and walk under saloon doors, while reaching up to make them swing, of course. While Tiny Town is populated only by tiny people, it wasn't built that way. It must have been a ghost town that was discovered by midgets who promptly moved in and couldn't be bothered to make furniture their own size. Maybe they couldn't find a digest version of the Sears catalogue, or something.

The sight gags are fun, at least for a while, but none of them are remotely as funny as Charles Becker, who plays Otto, Tex Preston's cook. He was the Mayor of Munchkinland a year later, which suggests that the studio folks recognised his talent too and he's an undeniable gem here, even when he's not walking inside full sized kitchen furniture. He wears a full sized chef hat, cunningly conceals an axe behind his back and for a long sequence stumbles after a goose called Fritz that backs away from his calls of 'Ducky! Ducky! I won't hurt you.' Fritz the goose should have ended up in a Buster Keaton movie, but of course he was about fifteen years too late, so got stuck with The Terror of Tiny Town instead. At least he never gets caught.

So much of this film is utterly ill advised. You really didn't need me to point that out, right? Apparently the idea sprung out of a comment Jed Buell overheard decrying the current state of the movie industry and remarking that 'if this economy doesn't turn around, we'll have to start making pictures with midgets.' Now unless he heard that a decade before he got round to making the film, the only thing more ludicrous than that comment is the fact that he acted on what he heard. This was released in 1938, right in the middle of the Golden Age of Hollywood, which was frickin' golden for a reason. People lived in movie theaters in 1938 and they watched whatever was showing, even this. But hey, if that's what it takes to spark truly unique gems of insanity, we really shouldn't complain.

But there's something to remember. These actors were only in the movie business because of their size not their talent, which is rather variable, there not being a whole heck of a lot of serious parts for midgets in the late thirties. Some, like Billy Platt, who plays the curmudgeonly Tex Preston, are pretty good actors as well as highly recognisable faces, making them great candidates for a real sizeable role, pun not intended. Others, like Billy Curtis, who plays the hero Buck Lawson, are capable too but a little less memorable, making them fairly comparable to a number of cowboy stars of the era, including the early John Wayne who was certainly a pretty poor actor when he started out. Most of the cast don't have much beyond their diminutive stature to go on though, which may be fine for odd character parts in regular movies but isn't for the lead roles in a film that doesn't have anything else to its name but its one novelty gimmick.

And so to the question we just can't ignore. How are we supposed to react to these folks? Are we supposed to play along and smile at the sight gags, which are plentiful. There's only so far you can go with gags like a couple of midget musicians teaming up to play a double bass or the customer in the barber shop who fills in the empty slot in the barbershop quartet, the whole joke being is that it obviously isn't his voice. Are we supposed to laugh uproariously at the whole freak show aspect of it? Hey look, a midget! Hey look, another one! That's pathetic and more than a little demeaning and for all that novelty talk during the introduction, this whole thing is played out pretty seriously with at least some actors who can act and at least some singers who can sing. Many of Jed Buell's Midgets also belonged to Singer's Midgets, who were a vaudeville outfit, and it's obvious which members of this cast sing their own material.

So should we take it seriously? That's actually not quite as far fetched as it might initially seem, especially as its attempt at a musical western ends up being rather close to that old chestnut, Romeo and Juliet, with Buck Lawson as Romeo and Nancy Preston as Juliet. She's Tex Preston's niece, who's coming in by stage to live with him as he's the only family she has left, but when Bat Haines shoots the driver and the Wells Fargo man it falls to Buck to save the day and rein in the horses. They fall in love on the spot and it's their love that finally puts paid to Haines's plans to start a range war and brings peace, love and happiness to Tiny Town. What happened to good old double suicides? Maybe that's reserved for couples watching this thing.

Far better are the scenes with Austro-Hungarian Nita Krebs, who is excellent as the dance hall girl who carries her name, the sort of role you'd expect Marlene Dietrich to play in a regular film. Yeah, 'dance hall girl' is obviously a euphemism, as is 'vampire', used in its old sense that was soon condensed to 'vamp'. She's obviously the town whore who has plenty of dirt on Haines and is just waiting for him to reject her one time too many in favour of wholesome Nancy Preston and she'll do something drastic. Krebs doesn't have anywhere near enough to do, especially as it was her scenes where I forgot I was watching an all midget western and got surprised all over again when a midget walked into the scene.

The catch to the serious aspect is that it's doomed to failure. Little Billy Rhodes plays Bat Haines like the epitome of a serial villain, so much so that we feel the need to hiss out loud at him and go save Penelope Pitstop from the railroad tracks. We can't remotely take him seriously, whether he's ordering the sheriff around or crying, 'From now on I'm playing a lone hand!' as he tries to manoeuvre himself out of a saloon window with the aid of a conveniently placed chair. It isn't the fact that this is an all midget western that makes it one of the worst films ever made, it's the fact that the filmmakers couldn't make up their mind what to do with it.

Maybe if the follow up had been made, an all midget version of the Paul Bunyan story with only the title character played by a normal sized actor, they'd have worked out an actual direction. Sadly we'll never know. Now, how about an all midget version of Rambo? Star Wars? Enter the Dragon? Anyone? Pretty please! Imagine if the only things big about Avatar were its budget and the price of 3D IMAX tickets. Oh never mind, they were. Nonetheless, this could be the new trend. Forget about Lego versions of classic movies, just remake them with midgets. At least we wouldn't have to watch Adam Sandler any more. How about an all midget version of The Godfather? Casablanca? I wouldn't dare suggest Big Trouble in Little China but c'mon! Little Trouble in Big China would be the most successful cult film ever just waiting to be made. And you read it here first, folks.


  1. it was her scenes where I forgot I was watching an all midget western

    You've sold me on this film. If it's possible to watch an all-midget western and still forget that detail, then it can't be entirely bad...

  2. It's possible. Just not for long... : )

  3. Hal,

    Thanks for your posts, bringing back many old memories...old pajamas

  4. Glad to oblige!

    I have a whole bunch more reviews coming this year in my run through the IMDb Top 250 that are listed amongst your favourite films in your profile. There'll be one next Wednesday for a start...