Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Terror of Tiny Town (Buell/Astor/Columbia, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Terror of Tiny Town, producer Jed Buell’s 1938 novelty Western with a cast of little people — as in “midgets.” All midgets. (There is supposedly a version in which you see a normal-sized human at the beginning just for purposes of comparison, but I’ve never seen it.) Buell put ads in entertainment newspapers all across the country advertising “Big Salaries for Little People” and reportedly spent $100,000 on this film — a modest budget even in 1938 but considerably more than most “B” Westerns cost. He also hired normal-sized hacks to direct and write it — Sam Newfield and Fred Myton, respectively, who later reunited for a lot of PRC’s early gangster and horror output — and used Edward Kilenyi to score the film, though I have no idea whether that’s Kilenyi, Sr. (who was one of George Gershwin’s music teachers) or Kilenyi, Jr. (a concert pianist who recorded the complete Chopin waltzes for Remington in the early 1950’s). It was shot in some of the familiar “B” Western locations, including the Lazy A Ranch in Santa Susana, California (later infamous as the hangout from which Charles Manson’s “Family” set out to commit the ritual murders he thought were going to start a race war) as well as Newhall and Placentia Canyons.

Buell actually recruited a fairly competent cast; Harry Earles, the genuinely talented midget actor who had appeared in both versions of The Unholy Three, had mostly retired from movies after Freaks in 1932 (his other career, with his sisters Daisy, Grace and Tiny, was as an act with the Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey circus, with which they performed until they retired in the mid-1950’s; Harry died in 1985), so he wasn’t available, but for the lead hero they got Billy Curtis, a competent actor who was still appearing in featured roles into the 1970’s; while the heroine, Yvonne Moray, is surprisingly charming and winsome and would probably have had a bigger career if there’d been more of a call for midget ingénues back then. The plot — Myton was truly stretching credibility when he took a credit for “original” story! — is your standard “B” Western intrigue dealing with villain Pat Haines (played by an actor identified only as “Little Billy”), who’s rustling cattle from the two rival ranches just outside Tiny Town, Lawson’s and Preston’s, and making it look as if each ranch is being rustled by the other.

Though the novelty casting of The Terror of Tiny Town makes it impossible to take it seriously — especially since some of the sets and props have been scaled down to fit the size of the actors (the “horses” they ride are ponies) while others haven’t been (they get into saloons by walking under the normal-sized swinging doors and likewise evade fences by walking under them, and the midget actor playing a blacksmith has to put a shoe on the movie’s one full-sized horse) — it’s very carefully not played for laughs, and surprisingly it’s at its most entertaining when it’s simply following the conventions of a “B” Western and we can ignore the odd casting.

There’s actually one great scene in the movie — Haines’ men attempt to ambush the stagecoach bringing the heroine to Tiny Town -— in which Newfield does some quite good suspense editing and cinematographer Mack Stengler (later a house man at Monogram) finds some unusual (at least for a “B”) camera angles — and there are also five songs (this was made at the height of the “singing cowboy” craze, after all), one of which is a genuinely charming novelty called “Mister Jack and Missus Jill,” which contemplates the wedding of the famous duo from the Mother Goose nursery rhyme. (That’s funny; for some reason I’d always thought of them as brother and sister, even though nothing in the original specifies their relationship.) Interestingly, the women in the cast — Moray and Nita Krebs (as “The Vampire,” Haines’ girlfriend, who does a number in the Tiny Town saloon that’s an obvious parody of Marlene Dietrich in Morocco) — do their own singing, while the men are dubbed by singers who don’t sound at all like them and were probably non-midgets.

The problem is that The Terror of Tiny Town is a one-joke movie, and the joke isn’t particularly funny — it’s not really offensive (there’s nothing in this movie that is making the midgets the butt of “sizist” ridicule); it’s just not amusing either. One quirky aspect is that in the opening credits the characters aren’t named, but just given “types” — thus we’re told that Billy Curtis plays “The Hero,” Yvonne Moray “The Heroine,” Pat Haines “The Villain,” Bill Platt “The Rich Uncle,” and so on — a device that got revived in the 1960’s by independent filmmakers who thought they were being oh so innovative by not giving their characters names. Though The Terror of Tiny Town was picked up for distribution by a (relatively) major studio, Columbia, it must have been a box-office disappointment because Buell didn’t get to follow through on his ideas for other films with all-midget casts — including one that sounds absolutely fascinating: Problem Child.

Apparently Buell had hooked up with the virtually forgotten (by 1938) Mack Sennett to make a comedy featuring some of the midgets from Tiny Town, and he had caught Stan Laurel while he was temporarily on the outs with both Oliver Hardy and Hal Roach and offered him the role of the son of a midget couple who unexpectedly grows up full-sized and has a hard time coping with the miniaturized world in which his parents live. Had Laurel been permitted to develop his own gags for this film, it might have been screamingly funny and oddly touching at the same time; instead it was never made, and he returned to Hardy for the independent production The Flying Deuces and then the two settled with Roach for the films A Chump at Oxford and Saps at Sea — while many of the little people who’d been recruited to Hollywood for The Terror of Tiny Town went on themselves to fill out the ranks of the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz: straight from one of the worst movies of all time to one of the best!