The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)
Part of the Weird Cinema DVD Box Set.
There’s an early Robot Chicken sketch featuring the “B-Team,” a budget-friendly alternative to the high-end “A-Team” featuring Mr. T. and the gang. When the aghast shop owner inquires what a “C-Team” would look like, Hannibal (or in the case of the B-Team, Handy Ball. He got that cover in Hanoi) replies, “Ehhh, a buncha surly midgets.” Well, the “midgets” of The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) certainly don’t come off as surly. In fact, they burst into song at the drop of a ten-gallon hat, opening the film with a Lew Porter tune called “Laugh Your Troubles Away.” Apparently their favorite past time is to gather around the blacksmith and croon. One actor very unconvincingly is unable to lift a horse’s leg, prompting a seriously ripped blacksmith to pick it up for him. We’re also introduced to our hero Buck Lawson (film legend Billy Curtis), sitting astride a handsome pony, swathed in angelic white, and leading the energetic chorus. Of course, this isn’t technically the “first” scene, but I’m already getting ahead of myself.
Directed by Sam Newfield (whose I Accuse My Parents (1944) is a classic of bad cinema), The Terror of Tiny Town is practically the textbook definition of a film oddity, nee novelty film. The film opens, much like Frankenstein (1931), with an announcer. Unfortunately, the similarities end there. Instead of warning us of the terrors we’re about to experience, this announcer informs us what we’re about to see is a little different, but it’s very funny. "Nay nay" says our hero Buck, entering from camera left. It’s definitely serious. From camera right stomps our villain Bat(Bat?) Haines (Little Billy), insisting that he is the ‘terror of tiny town’ and therefore the star of the picture. It’s a bizarre fourth wall break before we even know what we’re about to see. I have a theory about this. It’s possible that some audience members might have been so shocked by the appearance of this many little people that they needed to be warned, lest they clutch their pearls or eat their fedora.
We’re treated to one of the most offensive title sequences ever. First, in big letters, JED BUELL’S MIDGETS, indicating that he is their master, I guess, in THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN. With an ALL MIDGET CAST, in case we didn’t get it the first time. It’s even more jarring that Columbia Pictures released this thing. I guess Harry Cohn was in the toilet when they were drawing up the paper work. Next, we get the cast list, which is a bit more subtle but just as insulting since each actor is only given an archetypal role and no real name, i.e. The Hero, The Villain, The Girl, and the two best credits, The Vampire (I realize this means Vamp, but still, they straight-up say Vampire) and Diamond Dolly, who I guess couldn’t be credited as “The” Diamond Dolly. Then there’s the song list. A lot of songs. Songs that will be sung by an all-little person cast (I’m not going to willy-nilly write the word ‘midget’). I like musicals and I acknowledge that there’s a difference between a musical and films with musical numbers that were commonplace in this era. I’m not a fan of the latter. It’s pointless filler and grinds any semblance of plot to a halt.
Poking fun at Jed Buell’s output is relatively low-hanging fruit (nothing to do with the Tiny Town cast) and his motto was clear: Find an angle and exploit it. This applies to a great deal of his “work” but mostly refers to Tiny Town and, of course, the first “all-colored” western Harlem on the Prairie (1937). You can probably guess what the cast of that movie looks like. I’m not the person to criticize the way things were done back then. It’s not possible to speak for the actors in these projects. Were they elated to be working or was there that constant, nagging feeling that they were merely a glorified freak show to be consumed and laughed at by the general public? Was Buell merely a provocateur or was he thinking progressively and giving opportunities to marginalized individuals? Based off an ad that read, “Big Salaries for Little People,” I’d say he wasn’t particularly concerned with their feelings.
Perhaps the most wildly ironic aspect of The Terror of Tiny Town is that the plot is nothing special. For the first few minutes, it’s certainly a strange watch, but then you accept it and come to find that it’s really just another run-of-the-mill Western. A bad guy wants to take over a couple of ranches so he pits the ranchers against each other by rustling cattle and letting them blame one another. The title itself could indicate that the ‘terror’ is some sort of monster, which sounds like a better movie, but the creature features of the atomic age were over ten years away. For now, it’s just standard cowboy business. Time magazine wrote in its review, “the trouble with The Terror of Tiny Town…was that without a few normal-sized folks for contrast, midgets appear much like other people.” In other words, if you’re not going to fully commit to the wacky high jinks we expect to see with little people performers and an exploitation concept, then there’s really nothing special going on here. The only entertainment value to be had from The Terror of Tiny Town is noticing the film gaffes that are also prevalent in hundreds of other cheapie Westerns and the little people sight gags, which are surprisingly few and far between. Dare I say it, the movie has moments of genuine respectability and restraint regarding it’s unique cast.
A whopping twelve members of the cast would eventually end up as munchkins in The Wizard of Oz (1939). It’s unfair to expect Oscar-worthy performances from actors who were often expected to do nothing more than stand-in for children, tumble around, or say a few lines of dialogue. It’s obvious why Billy Curtis was one of the most successful little person performers of all time. He’s got an easy, natural screen presence and he equips himself quite well as the hero of the film. The only problem with his obvious talent is that his good acting heightens the bad acting that goes on around him. Buell was reported to have gathered some sixty little people, fourteen of which came from Hawaii, and many of them had never acted before.
I’m not a great actor by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve worked enough to know what to do and what not to do on a set and how to get through a scene without embarrassing myself. On more than one occasion, I’ve acted in scenes where my scene partner has not exactly been Laurence Olivier. As they say, acting is reacting, so it’s extremely difficult to modulate your performance when someone is either not giving you anything or is giving you something that is absolutely wrong. For Curtis, he does his best with performers like Yvonne Moray (The Girl) and Joseph Herbst (The Sheriff). Moray has a sweetness about her but is devastatingly awkward. The moment where she realizes that her beau Buck is in danger is hilarious when her face essentially blanks for a few seconds, then she shouts out to no one in particular, “Buck! Buck!” Herbst has the flattest delivery I’ve heard in a long time. It’s actually an interesting role, too. He’s a crooked sheriff trying to maintain his dignity in a ruthless world.
Of course, no conversation about The Terror of Tiny Town could be complete without a mention of Charles Becker (the Italian (?) cook). His legacy will forever be linked to his great scene as the Mayor of Munchkin Land in Oz, but here he has a much larger role…as the comic relief. It’s…rough. There’s an interminable scene where he chases a duck to cook for dinner. The duck keeps backing away as the film obviously runs the footage in reverse to fake the duck walking backwards. Almost all of his bits fall flat, but I admit I did laugh when he leaves the kitchen and throws his chef’s hat into a boiling pot.
Frankly, most of the gags in the movie are tame and not very inventive. The most famous and jarring moment may be the scene in which the Rich Uncle (Billy Platt, a decent performer in his final role) steps into a tonsorial parlor (barber shop) and encounters a quintet of singers standing around the barber chair. This is pretty normal, although there’s an odd mix of the little people’s voices and then audio sweetening with professional singers. What sets this scene apart is when the uncle looks over and the film cuts away to an honest-to-goodness penguin! A fucking penguin?! It’s stunningly random and has baffled film historians for nearly a century. Will we ever find out why that penguin was there? Well, Jerry Maren died a while ago, so no, I think that mystery will remain forever unsolved.
During the song, a random member of the group, reading a paper, keeps interjecting his own contribution, dubbed by a baritone singer. This is the level of humor in Terror. An epic scene in the town saloon, set to the song “Mister Jack and Missus Jill,” involves most of the supporting cast doing various business, like drinking from oversized beer glasses, hiding under the bar taps, and very poorly playing a cello or some kind of large, upright instrument. This is still the most catchy song in a movie chock full of ballads. The main singer in this scene is The Vampire (Nita Krebs) who gives a helluva performance and is practically statuesque compared to the other performers. The Medved Brothers, authors of The Golden Turkey Awards, a book that rests comfortably on my shelf, are not my favorite people in the world but their description of Krebs’ accent as somewhere between Marlene Dietrich and Boris Karloff’s is pretty funny. Her abusive relationship with the movie’s villain leads to a satisfying conclusion in which she literally blows him to smithereens.
Speaking of the villain, ‘Little Billy’ Rhodes gives quite a performance as the big bad of the piece. Villains are always more fun than the heroes and Rhodes sinks his teeth into this part with relish. Once you get over the fact that he looks like a cross between Spanky from The Little Rascals and Gilbert Grape’s mom, there’s some genuine acting going on here. Of course, he’d already made a minor splash ten years earlier in The Sideshow (1928), a fascinating film and a rare lead role for a little person. Chewing on a huge cigar and with no scruples whatsoever, Bat Haines will shoot a fellow in the back, organize a lynch mob, and beat up women to get ahead. He’s a formidable antagonist in a movie desperate for any kind of emotional involvement.
The fact is, the movie is a straight-forward Western with a twist that becomes irrelevant after 5 minutes. Sure, the actors ride on ponies rather than horses, but so what? Do you want to watch child-sized performers try desperately to stay on a bucking bronco? Don’t answer that. Sadly, audiences in the 30’s would have. Hell, it was The Great Depression. Things were already sucky.
The movie made some cash, so you know what that means. On July 20, 1938, Weekly Variety ran this ad: PEE-WEES TO MAKE SERIES OF PICTURES. Sol Lesser has closed a deal with Jed Buell for series of films using midget cast utilized in Buell’s Terror of Tiny Town. Second picture to be started within thirty days will be based on lumber camp, with a grown-up heavy portraying mythical Paul Bunyan. Upon completion of this one Buell is leaving for Europe to round up additional midgets for future productions.
Was this film ever made? Apparently not. I’m glad I saw The Terror of Tiny Town, but if I’m going to see an “all-midget cast” film, I’ll stick with Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small (1970).