Monday, November 7, 2011

The Terror of Tiny Town

First of all, a friendly warning. there is no polite, politically correct way to review this movie. To be fair, the words I use or don’t use really do not matter, because this flick is The Terror of Tiny Town (1938). Which, if you’re not already aware, is a western with an all midget cast. Oh, and it’s also a musical. And if that weren’t enough, you may remember most of the actors from The Wizard of Oz! Ding dong, the witch is certainly dead.

The plot is really your average 30s western. Nefarious rustler and all-around bad guy Bat Haines has managed to turn Pop Lawson and Tex Preston, two honest ranchers, against one another...while secretly stealing cattle from the both of them. This feud threatens to become a full-on range war, and is only intensified by the arrival of Preston’s niece Nancy. After a few scenes straight out of Romeo and Juliet, Nancy falls madly in love with young cowboy Buck, Pop Lawson’s son and the good guy of the picture.

What follows is a vaguely rollicking cavalcade of warring families, thievery, shoot ‘em ups, cold-blooded murder, saloon girls who really can’t sing, poorly choreographed fight scenes...and a single, unexplained shot of a penguin. I won’t be spoiling much to tell you that all turns out as expected. Bat’s dastardly schemes have a good run, and he gets Buck into a tight spot or two, but nothing can change the fact that he’s wearing the black hat in this flick. And that means no matter how cunning you are, you’re gonna get it somewhere in the last ten minutes. 

Now, I have yet to really address the reason any of you would ever even consider watching this film: the midget factor. Yes, the cast is entirely made up of them. And there’s no polite way to say it, but that turns Tiny Town from a dull western sporadically speckled with songs into a surreal nightmare. It’s the whole problem of scale. It changes wildly, from scene to scene. And frankly, it doesn’t make very much sense. The citizens of Tiny Town, have managed to set themselves up with a midget sized stagecoach, which can’t have been easy. And yet, they persist in using axes and rolling pins as long as their entire bodies. Wouldn’t it be easier to make small tools than an entire coach?

The houses are boggling as well. Huge on the outside, sporadically midget scaled on the inside. There’s always the occasional unreachable cabinet or two. Why do the people of Tiny Town uniformly live in houses that are too big for them, when they seem to have the capacity to construct smaller buildings? Perhaps this was originally a ghost town, and the midgets a horde of eager emigrants, fleeing the uncaring sideshows of the East to arrive in this new land full of hope and the desire to carve out a tiny corner of the West where they could finally be free.

Either way, they must have some contact with the outside world. In the opening (and supremely annoying) song of the film, a burly blacksmith is shown shoeing a horse; all the townspeople ride Shetland ponies. And none too well, I might add. Bat Haines in particular always looks about an inch away from eating dust. So, why these puzzling proportions? Why? Ok, ok, of course I know the answer. It’s a string of lousy sight gags cynically exploiting the unfortunate size of the actors. We’re supposed to get big laughs out of seeing a miniature gunslinger march underneath the swinging doors of a saloon. But I’m not laughing. I’m profoundly unnerved. What can I say, this one got to me.
I can’t help but ask myself, who was the intended audience for this movie? Children? Very simple adults? Is it some secret dadaist art project intended to cause waves of nausea and babbling in the streets? I don’t know. I can’t really recommend it to anyone except stoned people, to be honest. But don’t watch it lightly; 5 minutes in, and I could feel the drugs I hadn't even taken beginning to turn on me. The shrill voices raised in song, the childlike faces with ancient eyes peering out from under cowboy hats, all that walking right under fences and hitching posts...damn, I’m feeling those bad vibes all over again. Perhaps the film itself is a powerful narcotic. Midgets: the opiate of the masses. And now if you’ll excuse me, I think I require a drink...or twelve. 

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