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:

Tribeca Film Festival: Midgets vs. Mascots

I like to attribute the success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie not to Johnny Depp’s inspired performance, but to the fact it contained monkeys, midgets AND pirates. This trifecta of awesome made it impossible not to fail. The sequels forgot the midget and the monkey were important, and that’s why they suck. So when Firecracker and I were sitting at an outdoor table at the Village Pourhouse, and a gal handed us tickets to see Midgets vs. Mascots (official site), we had to go. There was no other course to take.
Why? Because little people rock. Jordan Prentice, from In Bruges (“they’re filmin’ midgets!” full review) stars in this Tribeca film festival audience favorite, and he was fantastic in that comedy from last year. So is Gary Coleman- “the Shaquille O’Neal of little people” and a host of less-known but very funny people. The mascots are a bunch of pathetic slobs, but real enough that you believe them. Bunny, the fragile furry freak and Gator, the sweaty slob whose belly is hanging out of his costume.

The premise is that a famous Texas little person mascot named Big Red dies and wants to give $10 million to one of his two heirs, so he has them gather 5 little people and 5 mascots each, to perform a bunch of crazy challenges. It’s somewhere between Scavenger Hunt and Jackass– taking the tried and true “inheritance challenge” formula and throwing as much offensive humor as they can into it. Sometimes it tries a little too hard to be offensive, like when the little people argue that “midget” is as bad as the n-word in a crowded restaurant, but most of the time the low-brow humor hits the mark.
It has loads of gratuitous nudity, Jackass-level stunts such as alligator wrestling, and plenty of character-based humor from the mascots- who range from loser slobs and furries to a gut-bustingly funny silent bobblehead- and the “midgets,” including Gary Coleman, playing a delightful parody of himself, Jordan Prentice being crude and sarcastic, and relative newcomer Terra Jole getting clobbered left and right. That poor girl. The movie plays at being a documentary, so everyone plays “themselves,” and you really feel bad for her sometimes.
The ending is a tad weak, but it delivers on comedy most of the time. Nice to see Jordan Prentice again- he was hilariously depraved. I hope it gets wide release, but this is the kind of movie that will explode on DVD or cable.

80s Trash of the Week: Willow

It was nice that after making Warwick Davis suffer the indignity of performing in an Ewok costume, George Lucas came up with the lighthearted fairy-tale fantasy of Willow to give a starring role with some real face time. Mr. Davis is quite talented, but unlike little people Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent, Find Me Guilty, Death at a Funeral) and Jordan Prentice (In Bruges) he has been saddled with make-up, sort of like Ron Perlman. Such is often the lot of the little actor. Warwick played the diminuitive Irish imp in all the Leprechaun movies, Marvin the Robot in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Filius in the Harry Potter movies; it’s rare that he see his face unlatexed, but most recently he and Peter Dinklage both had parts in the second Narnia movie, Prince Caspian.

Ride of the Valkilmers!

But Willow is where he shines; it’s a big role with lots of character, and he fills it perfectly. The whole movie has a lighthearted tone plucked from The Princess Bride and a story taken from the Brothers Grimm, and while hardly original it still entertains. The story is a bit dark at times, just enough to get kids scared and really interested. In the late 80’s I rarely saw my young cousins not planted in front of a TV with Willow on. The story is simple- a child is born with a birthmark, fulfilling a prophecy portending the doom of Evil Queen Bavmorda’s reign. Ol’ EQB (Jean Marsh, looking like a killer nun) has people looking out for crumb-snatchers being born with goofy marks, and the child is to be put to death. Luckily the midwife takes the kid on the lam, pursued by shaggy wolfdogs and soldiers, feeding the brat on Enfamil infant formula for all we know.

Maleficent or Mother Superior?

When she knows her fate is sealed, she pulls a Moses and sticks the bambino basket in a floating mat of bulrushes, sending it downstream, and into the life of Willow Ufgood, who is a hobbit Nelwynn– a group of short-statured folk who live far from the lands of men. Willow’s kids find the baby and want to keep it, but times are tough- a grumpy fat farmer lent Willow money that he is yet to repay, and wants to send him to debtor’s prison. Willow is a magician, and performs at a local fair, and mucks up his disappearing piglet act in front of everybody. And just then, the soldiers arrive with their mutant dogs, and Willow knows that he can’t keep the baby. It’s too dangerous.

Gimme my bottle or I’ll break my stick off in yo ass, Peck!

After listening to wizard Aldwin (played perfectly by the justly ubiqutious Billy Barty), Willow and a few other hobbits Nelwynns decide to go on a quest to bring the baby back to the land of men. Shortly thereafter (no pun intended) they find a skeevy scoundrel hanging in a cage at an abandoned post. This is Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), who claims to be a great swordsman, and is sort of like a less charming, more Real Genius kind of Han Solo dude. He eventually cajoles them into releasing him, but not before a parade of soldiers off to war pass by- one of whom conveniently knows him, and mentions that he’s untrustworthy. Willow doesn’t have much choice, as his fellow hobbits Nelwynns flat-leave him out in the wilderness, satisfied that dumping the baby with some soldiers is quest enough.

Real Genius with braids

Madmartigan plays the lovable rogue with loyalties flicking about like a compass in an iron mine. They resume The Quest, only to be set upon by brownies- even smaller folk than the hobbits Nelwynns- who look like tribesman action figures come to life, capable of hijacking barn owls for aerial assaults, and shooting you with sleeping darts to perform Lilliputian indignities upon your dormant body. They have appropriately high-pitched voices and somehow manage to not get stepped on, despite all my wishes. When your Ewoks doff their costumes, you need something even cuter and smaller to fill their place, apparently. Thankfully they are not that bad.

Oh yeah this is how he gets out…

Madmartigan and Willow eventually find the good witch Fin Raziel, who has been turned into a possum by Bavmorda and is thus unable to help much. She gives Willow her wand and tries to teach him magic, so he can turn her back. Where there’s a willow, there’s a way (a line wisely not used in the film) and he manages to turn her into all sorts of other animals as the film goes on. As Bavmorda’s troops approach- led by the treacherous General Kael (named after film critic Pauline Kael, har har) and the queen’s hot daughter Sorsha (sorceress + Porsche, I guess) we remember Lucas’s penchant for fucking stupid names. Madmartigan likes Sorsha’s boobs, and this being a fairy tale, they of course betray their sides out of instant love for one another. Kilmer’s performance saves it, keeping everything on a ridiculous level. Madmartigan may not have Han’s charm, but he definitely has the early Kilmer manic energy.

Toothwang the dragon

Though it made no sense, I liked when a critter turned into a huge two-headed dragon called an Ebersisk, of course named after Siskel & Ebert. You know a movie isn’t going to be great when it insults critics as some sort of joke, like Mayor Ebert in Roland Emmerich’s shitfest Godzilla. Lucas and Howard should know better. But who cares, it’s a fire-breathing dragon! That looks more like a two-headed turd. The desgn is different, for sure, but not scary or interesting. The effects looked good for ’88, though. The rest of the adventure to save the baby from Bavmorda plays out predictably, and that’s the movie’s real weakness; it feels like something Lucas hashed out on cocktail napkins, and the memorable characters- Willow and Madmartigan- ride solely on the charisma of the actors alone. Even the score by James Horner leans heavily on Mozart’s Requiem, and everything else feels just as derivative.

“I am contractually obligated to show my chest to the 13-18yr female demographic.”

It’s a fine film for kids of the right age- some scares and blood, but nothing gory or too terrifying. And plenty of fun. They’ll be calling each other “peck” (the slur for hobbits Nelwynns) all day. Warwick Davis shows his chops, and hopefully will get to show them again next year, when he’ll be starring in a heist movie about 5 little people robbing diamonds. Named ShortFellas, it promises to be entertaining. It’s a damn shame that Peter Jackson didn’t use him (or many little people, if any) in the Lord of the Rings movies. Sure we needed big names for Dildo and Frito, but the smaller parts could have gone to folks sans CG enhancement.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 1
Could it be remade today? Certainly
Quotability Rating: minor
Cheese Factor: Mad-havarti-gan
High Points: Funny Kilmer, Warwick as always
Low Point: Brownies
Gratuitous Boobies: just Val’s