Incredibly Bad Film Show: The Terror of Tiny Town

Dir: Sam Newfield
Star:
Billy Curtis, Yvonne Moray, ‘Little Billy’ Rhodes, Bill Platt

Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages, we’re going to present for your approval a novelty picture with an all midget cast, the first of its kind ever to be produced. I’m told that it has everything. That is, everything that a western should have. It’s a soul stirring drama, a searing saga of the sagebrush, and it’s called “The Terror of Tiny Town.”

tinytown1

More than seventy years have now passed since this film forged a whole new genre: the all-midget Western. And when you’ll see it, you’ll understand why it’s a field of cinema that has remained dormant for seven decades, with so many aspects which are, from a 21st-century perspective, politically incorrect to a jaw-dropping degree. Not least would be the opening title which declares the film to star “Jed Buell’s Midgets.” And there was I, thinking that the ownership of other people had been abolished in America after the Civil War. Perhaps there’s a sign somewhere in Washington which says, “You must be THIS tall to have civil rights.”

tinytown2As the opening announcement quoted above says, apart from the short stature of the cast, it’s a 1930’s Western in just about every other way, with all that implies. The plot has Bat Haines (Rhodes) scheming to set two ranchers against each other in a range war, anticipating being able to clean up in the aftermath. It helps he has the sheriff in his pocket, but he reckons without the son of one, Buck Lawson (Curtis), falling for the niece of the other (Moray). But did I mention it’s also got some musical numbers? These vary from the somewhat cute to the downright creepy: I’m pretty sure the performer in the saloon is less little person, and more pre-pubescent young girl. As a result, seeing her making eyes at the miniature adult performers is probably up there with the wedding in Freaks, among the more grotesque sequence in pre-war cinema.

The acting is all over the place – you’d probably expect this, given that I imagine casting was almost entirely based on height, rather than actual talent. Some of the performances are not bad: Moray is decent enough as the heroine, and Nita Krebs vamps it up nicely as a dance-hall floozy. On the other hand, Joseph Herbst, playing the sheriff, delivers his lines with all the passion and intensity of someone on Valium reciting the phone book, and ‘Otto’ the comedic chef is little better. He gets upstaged by a duck walking backwards – even though the feat is obviously accomplished by running the film in reverse [this is especially apparent, as they use the same footage three times in the same scene].

Speaking of animals bring us to another essential aspect of any Western: the horses. On here, of necessity, Shetland ponies – except for the gargantuan beast shown at the blacksmith’s in the opening scene – and their little legs fair whizz along, particularly during the chase sequence. One trusts some undercranking was involved, or their already-short legs will have been worn down to bloody nubs by the end of shooting. Finally on the animal front, even though this is somewhere in the middle of the land-locked, dusty, bone-dry desert, the barber-shop has a penguin. Let me just repeat that, for fear you skimmed over it.

The barber-shop has a penguin.

This is for absolutely no reason. There is one shot of said flightless avian, and nobody mentions it, even in a “What the hell is that doing here?” kind of way. There is also a miniature barber-shop quartet, performing close harmony tunes [though I suspect lip-synching is involved], but it does at least make some sense for them to be in a barber-shop. A penguin: not so much. One also wonders who the heck built this town. Some aspects are sized to fit the inhabitants, but it’s clear the sets are just your average Hollywood back-lot. This is most apparent in that a lot of the actors have to reach up to open the saloon swing-door, and we were perpetually holding our breath for fear one would get smacked on the back of their little heads by the return swing. Similarly the curb from the main street reaches up, almost to the waist on certain performers, and requires from some of them a degree of exertion better suited to Ninja Warrior.

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It all builds to an exciting conclusion, where Lawson and Haines go at it in a cabin fist-fight, after the fuse is lit on a bundle of dynamite . It would probably be somewhat more tense if the fuse did not apparently only burn while the camera was turned on it. But as brawls go, it’s actually by no means bad – and we speak as connoisseurs of midget mayhem – with the two trading blows and rolling around the cabin with a lot of verve and energy. No particular surprise as to the ending, but the final five minutes are probably the best thing the movie has going for it.

Even with the opening [edited out in some TV screenings], it barely runs sixty minutes. So this will hardly tax the patience of even the shortest attention span, and it probably counts more as a short film than a feature, hohoho.  Originally an indie movie, the rights were bought and the film was re-released by Columbia, though I can’t find any information on whether or not it was successful. Jed Buell supposedly planned to use the same cast in a film version of the Paul Bunyan story, with a non-midget playing Bunyan, but nothing ever came of that. However, many of the cast would go on to much greater renown the following year, appearing as Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. One imagine Buell gave MGM some kind of package-deal… Hero Curtis lived to the age of 79 [Krebs lived even longer, reaching 85], and had a solid career, including a significant role in High Plains Drifter.

The odd thing is – and this is presumably entirely unintentional – is that in many ways, this is remarkably progressive. No-one even mentions the size of the protagonists after the introduction, and you cease to notice the size of the performers, except occasionally when forced on you, by things like the saloon doors. When everyone is the same height, no-one is a midget, and no-one is a giant – they’re all just people, and the result is, it’s a perfect demonstration of the wide spectrum of lives that the undersized can play. Good or bad, young or old, this is the ultimate expression of little people being depicted purely as human beings – nothing more, nothing less.

C+
[January 2009]

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In Praise of Narwhals

lolwhalI don’t normally hold much common ground with the ‘Intelligent Design’ crowd, but even I have to admit that evolution is hard-pushed to explain the existence of the narwhal – to me, it seems not just proof of the existence of god, but that he/she possesses a twisted sense of humour. It’s the kind of animal that could only have been invented at the tail-end of a long college party, when it seemed like a good idea to outfit a marine mammal with a corkscrew on its nose. Narwhals should consider themselves fortunate that their creator apparently fell asleep, before deciding to add a can-opener and a pair of scissors to their other end.

While initially merely amused by narwhals, the more I learned, the more I realized that they fall into the category of “unjustly overlooked.” Dolphins get all the cetacean press, but all they really have to offer is a smile like Lindsay Lohan leaving court after a ‘not guilty’ verdict. Narwhals are much, much cooler, truly equipped to be the ultimate party animals (far surpassing dolphins, and their bottle-noses). That horn can be over nine feet in length., and when Queen Elizabeth I was presented with one in 1588, by privateer Martin Frobisher, she placed on it a value of ten times the horn’s weight in gold. Suck on that, Flipper.

Actually, it’s not a ‘horn’ as such, but a tooth that grows through a hole in the narwhal’s upper lip. The narwhal has two; almost always, it’s the left-hand one that expands out, but occasionally, the right tooth won’t get that message, leading to a rare, bi-pronged narwhal. The British Museum reportedly has one – no word on whether this leads to some kind of tusk envy among others of its pod. [Hence the saying, “As happy as a narwhal with two horns.”] The actual purpose of it remains a mystery, which is part of the animal’s appeal: obvious uses like fighting or punching holes through the Arctic ice, just don’t seem to happen.

However, in 2005, scientists from Harvard and the National Institute of Standards and Technology took a look at it through an electron microscope. They discovered 10 million nerve endings going from the core outward, and believe the horn is basically a massive sensory organ, that can detect changes in temperature, pressure, etc. It’s almost like the tooth is built in reverse, with the nerves on the outside, causing The New York Times to call the appendage, “one of the planet’s most remarkable.” When the whales break the surface, waving their horns around, it may be the equivalent of us licking a finger to tell which way the wind’s blowing, to help predict the weather.

narwhal2Really, not much of a “Mystery” Whale, is it?

The name translates from Old Norse as “corpse-like whale,” describing the whale’s mottled black and white skin – those Old Norsemen were clearly not exactly observant, apparently managing, when naming the beast, to miss that whole F-sized tusk thing. The Inuits got it right, calling the narwhal Qilalugaq qernartaq – no, I didn’t just fall asleep on the keyboard – which translates to mean, “the one that points to the sky.” It’s generally thought that narwhals are involved in the unicorn myth. This is somewhat hard to swallow: I mean, if I was cruising the arctic seas and saw one, my first thought would hardly be, “Look! A horse with a horn on its head. We need a virgin to catch it.” However, these were the same sailors who apparently confused manatees with Darryl Hannah, when Rosie O’Donnell would have made more sense. So I suppose anything is possible.

One thing is certain. Narwhals combine style and function, mystery and grace, intelligence and strength, in a way that lesser species would kill for. They may, arguably, be quite the coolest animals on the planet.

whales_came_02When the Whales Came
Dir:
Clive Rees
Star: Max Rennie, Helen Pearce, Paul Scofield, Helen Mirren

Narwhal fans are not exactly well-served by the cinema. As in most of culture, it’s damn dolphins that get all the coverage, going back to the 1916 silent film, The Fate of the Dolphin. Since then, we’ve had Flipper, Day of the Dolphin and even Touched by a Bleedin’ Dolphin. In contrast, the most well-known cinematic moment for the poor narwhals, is a ten-second cameo in Elf. But this 1989 film, while less renowned, contains significantlyl more tusky goodness – though it takes its time getting there. We were drawn in by a two-line synopsis that mentioned two of our favourite things: narwhals, and mobs of villagers. However, that really only occupies a small part of the film, albeit the climactic moments.

It’s set around World War I on the Scilly Isles, off the coast of Cornwall, on an island where the inhabitants largely survive by scavenging from whatever the sea throws up on the beach. Two children, Daniel and Gracie (Rennie and Pearce), befriend a reclusive old man (Scofield), whom the rest of the local treat with a mix of fear, suspicion and derision, because of his trips to the cursed, now-deserted nearby islet of Samson. He’s known as “The Birdman”, because he carves exquisite birds out of driftwood. That’s what attracts Daniel, who wants to learn the art partly as an escape valve from his abusive father. Gracie has no father at all, since he went off to join the navy, so she’s being brought up by her struggling mother (Mirren).

An ill-fated fishing expedition by the kids lands them on Samson, where they find a narwhal tusk over the fireplace in one of the abandoned houses. Back on their own land, they find some locals suspect the Birdman of being a German spy, because of the beacon fires he sets, and set out to make him pay. However, he is more pre-occupied with a narwhal which has beached itself on the shore, and tells Gracie and Daniel it must be returned to the sea, before it brings the rest of its pod ashore behind it – an act that would bring doom to this island, as it did to Samson. Which is where the mob of villagers comes in…

whales_came_01In the interests of accuracy, it should be noted that, I believe, narwhals are very rarely stranded on the British coast [only four instances have been recorded since the days of Good Queen Bess], so the concept here is probably, ah, on thin ice, zoologically-speaking. Though the massacre of narwhals in large numbers, sadly, still goes on: late last year, up in Canada, at least 600 were killed by locals after getting hemmed in by ice. I’d be more inclined to take claims of this being a native tradition seriously, if snowmobiles and semi-automatic weapons weren’t apparently involved, and the media kept away. Happy to use the tools of modern civilization; not so willing to leave your questionable “harvests” behind, or face public opinion when the world sees what’s going on.

Back to the film. It’s an idea that works very nicely, both as a metaphor for the war – we note the prominence given to a narwhalesque spiked German helmet in the local school – and as a reverential acknowledgment that narwhals have a mystical quality, perhaps more so than any other aquatic mammal. The movie is certainly helped by a strong performance from Scofield, and very natural ones by the two children, against a marvelously scenic backdrop. The pace is relaxed, to say the least – those, like us, lured in with the promise of narwhals, will likely find themselves looking at their watches. But as an unhurried, Sunday morning kind of a film, it certainly has some charm.

B-
[January 2009]

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TC’s Ten Best Films of 2008

I think this year probably marked a new low-water mark for going to the cinema, perhaps since I moved to London in 1987 – largely for economic reasons, as well as the more traditional ones of sloth and the theatrical experience gradually being overtaken by the home one. There are a declining number of films which I feel need to be seen at the multiplex, when the alternative involves soft, fluffy, pillowy goodness, snacks of our choosing and no young people talking incessantly [well, only Robert, and he has spent most of 2008 watching the complete works of Stargate in the living-room]. Why bother going out, when we can wait for it to appear on cable and Tivo it for viewing at our convenience?

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Hence, there are probably a number of films which probably would have qualified, yet have yet to drift across our retinas. Much the same way as, say Shoot ‘Em Up and The Bourne Ultimatum would have been in the 2007 Top Ten, had we seen them when we were writing it, this list should be taken as reflecting only the situation at the present time. Quantum of Solace may make it in due course: Twilight and Beverly Hills Chihuahua should probably not be holding their breath though. On the other hand, for the first time in a while (2004 was the last year), I did actually see both the #1 and #2 at the box-office at the movies, though this may reflect their dominance as much as anything. This year, only three films passed $230 million, the smallest number since 2000 [when The Grinch was top, which gives you some idea what a cinematic feast was available there]. I was quite surprised to see Indiana Jones and the Overlong Title was one of them, though the others are likely no surprise.

The top two both made the Trash City top ten too, which is something of a shock, because popular taste and my taste rarely coincide. It’s the first time that’s happened for the #1+2 in takings, since the double-bill of Return of the King and Finding Nemo topped both box-office and TC charts, five years ago. Not quite as strong a correlation in 2008, admittedly, yet anything is better than nothing. So, bearing in mind the limitations of what I haven’t seen yet, here are my favorite ten films of 2008. Links go to the full review, either here or on GirlsWithGuns.org, as appropriate.

10. The Gingerdead Man 2: The Passion of the Crust
Certainly winner of the Title of the Year award, this entertaining B-movie had few pretensions, except for a desire to skewer the world of B-movies: talk about biting the hand. With a sharp, witty script, and a host of cameos from people who should probably know better, this was simply a lot of fun, taking advantages of the strengths that low-budget movies possess, and wisely not reaching beyond those goals.

darkheart9. Dark Heart (left)
Sometimes, the best films succeed on the simplest level: the viewer wants to know what happened next. This movie demonstrates this admirably, a taut piece of work, mostly taking place in a deserted house where an Iraqi veteran is taken, after unwisely shooting his mouth off in a bar about a stash of money. ‘Hilarity ensues,’ as they say. Ok: it doesn’t, but the script is crisp and taut, and that’s the most important thing.

8. Iron Man
I haven’t been too impressed with most films based on comics before this year, but we had a couple of crackers in 2008. This one was simply enormous fun, with Downey a perfect choice for the role, and thoroughly deserving the career resurrection which resulted. Expensive, loud and packed with well-shot action, it was a rare example of a film that really needed to be seen at the cinema to be enjoyed.

7. Chocolate
Though if you wanted your action flavoured with copious amounts of bone-crunching, then you needed to unwrap a bar of Chocolate. From the director who turned Tony Jaa into a star, this starred the catchily-named JeeJa Vismistananda as an autistic girl who learns martial arts off the TV. Long story short: contains probably the most painful large-scale fight scene since Jackie Chan’s heyday. And quite a few others too.

6. Diary of the Dead
After the somewhat disappointing Land of the Dead, Romero got back to form, by going back to basics: a small band of no-name actors, pitted against a large number of hungry zombies. George adopted some of the concepts from Blair Witch and Cloverfield, but reined in the worst excesses, and was more effective than both as a result. Skewering the flesh and the media with equal enthusiasm, nice to see Romero still has it in him.

5. Machine Girl
Trust the Japanese to go and one-up Romero when it comes to the splatter. I can’t do much better than repeat my GWG recap: “For those who thought the Black Knight scene in Holy Grail was just too restrained in its use of arterial spray.” Right from the opening scene, the film was awash in the old red stuff; I think it probably counts as the goriest film I’ve seen since the heyday of early Peter Jackson. Silly, over the top, cheap, lurid and wonderful.

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4. WALL-E
When the world seems to have turned against you, it’s occasionally comforting to curl up with a feel-good flick – and no-one does them better over the past decade or so, than Pixar. Be it insects, toys, monsters, fish or, as here, robots, the studio can take almost anything, giving it heart and making you care about it, in a way most human actors and directors would kill for. Great to see them back on form.

bankjob3. The Bank Job (right)
Jason Statham had a bit of a mixed year. Death Race was lame, and working with Uwe Boll is never a good sign, though even I haven’t had the guts to sit through the 127 minutes of In the Name of the King. However, the #1 British action hero reached a new career-high with The Bank Job, which deftly spun a tale of a largely-forgotten moment in our country’s history, and gave Statham a chance to do some acting, an aspect of his talent often ignored by all but Guy Ritchie.

2. The Dark Knight
Rarely are commercial success and artistic acclaim so well aligned as here; one does have to wonder, would it have been quite so popular in either, save the untimely death of Heath Ledger? Regardless: it is what it is, and what it is is probably the best comic-book adaptation ever [though I still love Batman Returns on a number of levels]. Ledger dominates the screen in a sweeping epic that has brains, heart and soul, overshadowing even Bale’s caped crusader. If someone had given Batman a throat lozenge, this would probably have been #1.

1. Sick Girl
Chris found the trailer for this, and we immediately had to have it for our Film Festival. When we got the DVD, we had some trepidation: surely it couldn’t live up to the trailer? It didn’t. It surpassed the trailer, thanks mostly to Leslie Andrews’ completely disconnected performance in the title role. It’s a film that’s probably highly offensive, simply for daring to make the viewer empathize with a character whose idea of fun includes torture of the most sadistic kind. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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TC’s Ten Best Films of 1999-2015

Click on the film names to go to the appropriate review. Clicking on the year may take you to an article about it. Or it may not. Depends entirely on whether I wrote one.

2015

  1. The Martian
  2. Spooks: The Greater Good
  3. Spy
  4. Mad Max: Fury Road
  5. Let Us Prey
  6. Cartel Land
  7. Lila & Eve
  8. Victoria
  9. Sicario
  10. Bone Tomahawk

2014

  1. Gravity
  2. Berkshire County
  3. Raze
  4. Mar Negro
  5. Maleficent
  6. Blood Runs Black
  7. Circus of the Dead
  8. 300: Rise of an Empire
  9. The Battered Bastards of Baseball
  10. Godzilla

2013

  1. Europa Report
  2. The Last Days
  3. Star Trek Into Darkness
  4. Escape (Flukt)
  5. The Attacks of 26/11
  6. The World’s End
  7. Maniac (2013)
  8. Violet & Daisy
  9. GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling
  10. Riddick

2012

  1. Skyfall
  2. ACAB – All Cops Are Bastards
  3. Kevin Smith: Burn in Hell
  4. The Raid: Redemption
  5. Inbred
  6. God Bless America
  7. The Holding
  8. Iron Sky
  9. The House With 100 Eyes
  10. The Cabin in the Woods

2011

  1. Four Lions
  2. Hobo With A Shotgun
  3. 36th Precinct
  4. Sucker Punch
  5. Eaters
  6. Darfur
  7. Sint
  8. Dossier K
  9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  10. We Are The Night

2010

  1. Shellter
  2. Bitch Slap
  3. You, the Living
  4. La Horde
  5. SexyKiller
  6. The Countess
  7. Mutant Girls Squad
  8. Inception
  9. Harry Brown
  10. The Shadow Within

2009

  1. Martyrs
  2. Princess
  3. District 9
  4. The Machine Girl
  5. Star Trek
  6. Zombieland
  7. The Hurt Locker
  8. Monsters vs. Aliens
  9. Ghost Image
  10. Raging Phoenix

2008

  1. Sick Girl
  2. The Dark Knight
  3. The Bank Job
  4. WALL-E
  5. Machine Girl
  6. Diary of the Dead
  7. Chocolate
  8. Iron Man
  9. Dark Heart
  10. The Gingerdead Man 2: The Passion of the Crust

2007

  1. No Country For Old Men
  2. Red Road
  3. Hot Fuzz
  4. Chasing October
  5. 11:59
  6. 300
  7. Cave of the Yellow Dog
  8. A Flock of Dodos
  9. Grindhouse
  10. The Chambermaid

2006

  1. Children of Men
  2. Borat
  3. The Booth
  4. The Descent
  5. Caregiver
  6. Archangel
  7. Death Becomes Them
  8. Nightmare Man
  9. Boxed
  10. Ultraviolet

2005

  1. Sin City
  2. Kung Fu Hustle
  3. King Kong
  4. Cypher
  5. Cup of my Blood
  6. Azumi 2: Death or Love
  7. Dead Men Walking
  8. The Kiss (Bechard)
  9. Never Been Thawed
  10. Shadow Hunters

2004

  1. Shaun of the Dead
  2. Bloody Mallory
  3. Aan: Men at Work
  4. Noon Blue Apples
  5. Aileen: The Life & Death of a Serial Killer
  6. The Incredibles
  7. Up for Grabs
  8. The Chronicles of Riddick
  9. Kill Bill, Volume 2
  10. House of Flying Daggers

2003

  1. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
  2. Finding Nemo
  3. The Animatrix
  4. The Returner
  5. Kill Bill, Volume One
  6. Guns & Talks
  7. The Princess Blade
  8. Synthetic Truth
  9. Pirates of the Caribbean
  10. Infernal Affairs

2002

  1. Nine Queens
  2. The Ring
  3. Dead Dogs Lie
  4. Spirited Away
  5. Minority Report
  6. Sum of all Fears
  7. Blade II
  8. Jane White is Sick and Twisted
  9. Signs [the first 90%!]
  10. Equilbrium

2001

  1. Ever Since the World Ended
  2. Monsters Inc.
  3. Versus
  4. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
  5. Boys From Madrid
  6. Memento
  7. Cradle of Fear
  8. Revolution #9
  9. 90 Miles
  10. Ginger Snaps

2000

  1. Run Lola Run
  2. Gladiator
  3. Dancer in the Dark
  4. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  5. Beyond the Mat
  6. O Brother, Where Art Thou
  7. Final Destination
  8. Charlie’s Angels
  9. American Psycho
  10. Boiler Room

1999

  1. Last Night
  2. Fight Club
  3. eXistenZ
  4. Who am I?
  5. Bride of Chucky
  6. Drop Dead Gorgeous
  7. Gemini
  8. The Lost Son
  9. Cruel Intentions
  10. The Matrix