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.
I’d have taglined this movie Sterling Hayden with a friggin’ HARPOON. This tasty taco of a B Western may lure you in with the fast food flavor of Hayden and harpoons, but it has serious nutritional value in the form of unforgettable performances by Victor Millan as farmer standing up for once in his life, and Nedrick Young as the force of evil he must confront.
This don’t mean Sterling Hayden’s ain’t no slouch here either. Ya, he plays Big Swede- coming home to his Papa’s farm, only to learn that someone done shot his Pa. We see the final confrontation first thing, Swede with his Pa’s harpoon, facing the gunman Johnny Crale all in black, in a near parody of the classic Western showdown. Crale, played by blacklisted screenwriter Nedrick Young, quietly goads him on: “Just five steps closer, Swede. Give yourself a fighting chance.” Swede backs down, and we learn what led to this…
Pa Hanson’s death begins the story with Johnny Crale once again facing the old man who has only his harpoon from his whaling days. He wants him to sign over his land, and when he doesn’t, he shoots him dead and empties his six shooter into the fallen corpse. Yeah, it’s a brutal story. Written by Dalton Trumbo through front Ben Perry, it is bleak and cynical. The town fat cat, played by Sebastian Cabot, has Crale and the town sheriff in his pocket, and wants the folks land for the crude he’s found beneath it. The only one who knows is Jose Mirada, a good man frightened because he and his son Pepe are the only witnesses to Hanson’s murder. And if Crale finds out, his family will surely be killed.
Sterling, that big expressive brute, comes to town unaware of the tragedy. He meets his father’s murderer first thing, but doesn’t know it. The town toughs play the big Swede for a dummy. The Sheriff tries to run him off with sly questions about his immigrant status and shaky standing as an heir. He won’t be moved, and once he finds the Miradas he realizes something is amiss in town and won’t budge. So the thugs taunt him until they can beat him up and throw him on the next train. But he staggers home along the tracks, collapsing at Jose’s feet. His stubborn perseverance begins to inspire Mirada, whose family has been threatened again by Crale.
Once Swede and Jose talk they figure out that fatcat McNeil wants the land for oil, and Swede wants to get all the farmers to church that day so they’ll stand together. So when McNeil sends Crale to force the Miradas out, Jose stands fast. It’s a tense and emotional scene, with the fear playing across the unarmed man’s face, as he confronts the stone cold killer. Victor Millan’s dignified portrayal singled this film out for Turner Classic Movies Latino Images in Film marathon, and it still holds today. He knows he’s dead whether he takes it standing or on his knees. He chooses to take it on his feet.
But his newfound courage shakes the killer to his core; Ned Young was better known as a screenwriter, but his performance here is somehow more chilling than Jack Palance’s famous turn in Shane. But he knew something about standing up. He was blacklisted for refusing to name names, and was blacklisted for it. Maybe he drew on the ruthlessness of power he saw in the men who tried to break him? He’d later win the Oscar for best screenplay for The Defiant Ones, and be well-remembered for others like Jailhouse Rock and Inherit the Wind. But here his acting is likely at its best, crafting the classic Western villain that we want to see more than dead- we want to see a harpoon hanging out of his chest!
The 80 minute script surely obliges, and fans of Sterling Hayden will not be disappointed by his simmering portrayal of the good man done wrong. This overlooked Western is fine viewing, and about the only time you’ll get to see sixguns face a whaling harpoon on the silver screen. But look past that to the roles of Jose Mirada and Johnny Crale, which defy our expectations of hackneyed cutouts and elevate a B movie to something special.
I made the mistake of avoiding this King of epic mini-series for many years. The title made me think romance, and I didn’t think a primetime TV mini-series could be that good. I also didn’t know how great a writer Larry McMurtry is. Lonesome Dove is every bit as worthy as the much-lauded Band of Brothers, and perhaps even paved the way for such violent epics of great scope. Originally written as a screenplay for John Wayne and Peter Bogdanovich by McMurtry, the Duke bowed out and the writer bought his script back, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and then Hollywood wanted it again. But instead of cutting it down to movie length, it was given the full spread of over 6 hours of primetime television- 8 hours with commercials. And it’s worth every minute.
American Movie Classics HD played it last weekend, restored to widescreen glory. In the age of “Deadwood” I was concerned that it would feel sanitized, and while it is safe for TV, it’s bloody and bawdy, befitting the Western mythos from which our country developed. The story revolves around two old retired Texas Rangers, the likeable, fun-loving and philosphical Augustus “Gus” McCrae (Robert Duvall), and his quiet old friend Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones). They’ve got a ranch on the border with Mexico, but Call has plans for cattle in Montana. The story takes its time setting up, letting us get acquainted with the characters. There are a lot of them, but Gus is the center.
We also meet Sheriff July Johnson (Chris Cooper) who’s henpecked by his sister-in-law into hunting down ex-Ranger Jake Spoon (Robert Urich), who killed his brother in an accident. Now Jake is riding with Call and McCrae, as they undertake one of the first big cattle drives across the now cinematically famous Red River. Their paths will cross many times. Jake falls in with the rather gorgeous town whore Lorena (Diane Lane) and she ends up on the drive with them. But Gus has a liking for her too; he knows Jake isn’t true and Gus has a habit of stealing women away from him. Danny Glover plays Joshua Deets, a driver and excellent tracker; Newt (Ricky Schroeder) is Call’s bastard son, but he doesn’t recognize him.
Simpletons are a staple of TV mini-series like “The Stand” and we get two of them here! Roscoe Brown is July’s dimwit deputy, and he’s played to endearing perfection by Barry Corbin. Best known to me as the General in Wargames who says “I’d piss on a spark plug if I thought it would do any good!” he was also in No Country for Old Men. He’s barely recognizable here and really gets into the part. As soon as his story arc ends we get Big Zwey, a more violent type who’s moon-eyed for July’s wandering wife Elmira. He smashes Steve Buscemi’s face in against a wagon wheel. Steve’s quite good in this, and it’s the first Western I’d seen him in.
The acting is some of the best you’ll see from these actors. Robert Urich of “Spenser” and The Ice Pirates, is a wonder as Jake Spoon, a flawed man who is a mere shade of a lawman when faced with Gus and McCrae. Ricky Schroeder . We’ve come to expect great things from Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall and they certainly deliver here. Jones plays the driven, ambitious tragic figure to a tee, while Duvall is the more human of the two. Both are capable of heroism, but Duvall’s McCrae is the one we’d want to have a drink with. He hunts down Blue Duck when he kidnaps Lorena; he smashes a disrespectful bartender’s face in when he talks down to them. Call is the man who does the impossible, at great detriment to his relationships around him; he’s larger than life, but McCrae is the one who lives it. His motto translates to “a grape is changed by living with other grapes.” He improves the vintage of those around him, while Call turns them bitter with neglect.
Diane Lane has never stood out to me, but perhaps that is her strength. She becomes the role, and doesn’t impose her personality on it. Her Lorena is effortlessly desirable, and Gus is the only one who sees her as a person. The other strong female role is Anjelica Huston’s Clara Allen, Gus’s old unrequited love, a strong woman who ends up delivering Elmira’s baby as she seeks her own old love.
Tommy Lee Jones is well known for evoking great emotion with a stone face and cold stare, but here he’s quite the physical actor on horseback. If he was any more comfortable riding, he’d be a centaur. He performed all his own stunts, even breaking a stallion; the actor has long bred horses and it makes him a perfect choice here. When two hands fight, he breaks it up by riding up within an inch of them, as naturally as if he’d turned around and grabbed them by the ears. When Newt is being whipped by an Army quartermaster who wants to requisition one of their horses, Tommy barrels his own steed into the man’s and unhorses him, one hell of a stunt. This also shows Call’s unspoken love for his son, as he nearly beats the man to death with a branding iron.
This is an epic mini-series, and the story is one you should watch yourself. Two of our best living Western actors, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall, should be all you need to know. This lives up to its stellar reputation, and stands by Band of Brothers as one of the best mini-series ever made. It is available on widescreen DVD and Blu-Ray. The HD presentation on AMC was stunning and the locations make the barrens of Texas and the wilds between it and Montana come alive. This is one of those stories that makes me think, “why the hell didn’t I watch this sooner?”
Blazing Saddles it ain’t! Also known as Cactus Jack, The Villain stars Kirk Douglas as the titular bad guy who can’t do anything right; Arnie plays the Handsome Stranger, with a seven-shot six-shooter, and Ann-Margret is Charming Jones. But they might as well be Wile E. Coyote, because that’s the kind of movie this is- a live action cartoon that just can’t get it right, despite the cast.
You know, the kind of movie where the Villain talks to his horse and it listens, sort of. Cactus Jack figures out what bad guys do by reading a pulp book, and everyone has a theme song. That worked in Cat Ballou but not so much here. The busty damsel Charming is tasked by her prospectin’ pappy to pick up a loan to expand his mine, Handsome is hired to protect her, and Cactus Jack is given a deal by Jack Elam’s crooked banker- make sure Charming doesn’t get home with the money.
Set in Monument Valley, we get a gorgeous backdrop for Kirk Douglas mugging and goofing around, trying his Acme tricks to catch Handsome and Charming. They even use classic Looney Tune sound effects for stuff like the boulder that lands on him. Handsome Stranger (yes, that’s his real name) is terminally naive, and it’s painful to watch after Arnie’s award-winning debut in Stay Hungry (full review). Sure, it’s a farce, but they aim really low in this one.
The best part are all the cameos, most notably Paul Lynde in his final role as Chief N-n-n-ervous Elk, and seeing Kirk Douglas in all sorts of ridiculous get-ups as he tries to trick Arnie and Ann-Margret. His shiftless horse “Whiskey” is pretty amusing too. The gags are really repetitive- usually involving Kirk Douglas being dragged by a rope and falling off a cliff- but some are inspired. It’s a bit disappointing from stuntman director Hal Needham, who gave us Smokey and the Bandit. Then again he also gave us Megaforce.
Overall, The Villain isn’t that bad, and you see Arnold really trying to play an oaf when he’d rather be ravishing Ann-Margret. The problem is that the movie goes halfway- Cactus Jack is a walking cartoon, who bounces around on the rooftops after Charming smooches him, but those scenes are few and far between. They even re-enact the classic Tex Avery “paint a tunnel in the mountain” gag, which doesn’t work when you can see the paint on the rocks. Though I give Douglas credit for walking face first into that wall so convincingly.
The most memorable part remained Paul Lynde’s final role as Chief Nervous Elk, which he dived into with relish. He’s the only guy who gets any barely risque jokes. This one’s more for Kirk Douglas fans than Arnie fans, but it’s still good viewing if you want a dose of ’70s nostalgia.
Unfairly maligned revisionist Western about a pair of gunmen who clean up Western towns- Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen. They’ve been working together so long that they;’re closer than fellow soldiers in a long war. They get hired to bring law to a frontier town where Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his men have had their way for too long. Ed’s damn quick with a gun, and Viggo lugs around an 8-gauge shotgun that looks like two lengths of sewer pipe over his shoulder, capable of peppering entire gangs with buckshot with one pull of the trigger.
Things get complicated when a Renee Zellweger, “a woman who ain’t married or a whore,” comes to town. Ed falls for her hard, and is quite innocent in the ways of women. And as a woman in the wild west, she has a way of “always landing on her feet.” It’s not as straightforward as 3:10 to Yuma, nor as contemplative as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but somewhere in-between. I enjoyed the characters and the story, and while the end seems a bit rushed, it works. If you’re expecting a simple shoot-out movie, you may be angry at Zellweger’s intrusion, but she’s much of the point of the tale- just listen when she’s dismissed from the “man talk” and performs scales on her piano. Passive-aggressive much? We also get a fine bit part by Lance Henriksen as another hired gun. If you like modern westerns, this is a good one, based on a Robert “Spenser” Parker novel.
8 out of 12 gauges
Now that’s a mouthful; Brad Pitt stars as the famous outlaw, and IMDb says his contract stipulated that the title not be changed. It was a good move, because the unwieldy moniker does not befit a traditional gunslinging picture, and this is most definitely not one. It’s a period piece, a character study, a biopic, and a meditation on fame and infamy. If you go in expecting 3:10 to Yuma, you’ll be sorely disappointed. This is The Thin Red Line, not Saving Private Ryan.
A bit overlong epic about the origins of infamous celebrity in America. It begins as a revisionist Western in the style of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, with Brad Pitt as Jesse in his later years, when putting together heists is often more trouble than its worth, and he seems to go through the motions of the planning, without every consummating the deed. Robert Ford’s obsession with him is explained, and Casey Affleck is fantastic in the role, as he was in Gone Baby Gone; he’s more talented, if less charismatic, than his brother. If you went in wanting 3:10 to Yuma you’ll be sorely disappointed; this wants to be The Thin Red Line to 3:10‘s Saving Private Ryan, and it succeeds somewhat. It has a documentary feel with the voiceovers that appear in the third act, and I found my mind drifting as it introduced us to everyone in the middle. Maybe the voice overs should have been used throughout, and less time given to Jesse. I’m not sure. It’s an enjoyable movie, but at nearly 3 hours (with the original cut topping 4) I’m not sure it’s somber mood is compelling enough. It says a lot about the nature of infamy and the desire for fame, and looks beautiful doing it. A fine epic from the director of Chopper.