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.

The player will show in this paragraph

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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Stomping Midgets

Midget Mayhem
The Swamp Stomp,
Scottsdale, AZ
January 24th, 2004

Our ongoing role as unofficial patrons of pro-wrestling in Arizona has taken us to some unusual places: skating-rinks in Tucson, high-school gyms, and downtown Mexican dives where you ask if they have any aspirin, and are told, “The person that sells the pills isn’t here at the moment.” This is why Saturday night saw us at the Swamp Stomp, a bar on Scottsdale Road, for an evening of, and I quote, Midget Mayhem.

Immediately we heard of the event, we were all systems go, though our attempts to buy tickets in advance were prevented by the vampiric presence of another pimp-bastard-ticket-agency, with their “convenience fees”, “service charges” and rules preventing even the venue from selling direct. But I have ranted about this elsewhere, and anyway, nothing could spoil our anticipation at the prospect of watching little people hit each other over the head with trash-cans.

To enhance the experience, alcohol is essential, of course. We’ve seen this kind of thing sober – the “minis” are a staple of the Mexican lucha libre TV shows we watch, Chris frantically trying to provide a running translation for me – and it’s amusing. But those who say, “I don’t need to drink to enjoy myself,” clearly haven’t been to midget wrestling. So our teenage son ‘offered’ to drive us there and back – quotes used advisedly, since initially we had to use the “You do remember who’s paying for that car?” gambit as leverage.

We rolled up half-an-hour before the scheduled start, ready for the heaviest session since our post-wedding party in London. The first thing we discovered, to our (and particularly Chris’s) delight, was that the venue was non-smoking. A personal “Well done” to the management for this, which almost guarantees we’ll be back there, in preference to places which leave you feeling like Hurricane Higgins’ ashtray [the whizzing sound you hear is that metaphor hurtling above non-UK readers’ heads. Higgins was a professional snooker player, almost always seen with a cigarette in one hand – and often, another in his mouth…]

Almost immediately, we discovered a fellow midget aficionado, though in deference to his status as one of the veterans in Arizona’s best-known pro-wrestling federation, we’ll withhold his name here. We agreed that said federation needed to expand and include midgets, forthwith.

The Swamp Stomp is the kind of place where customers get up and dance on the bars, usually encouraged by the MC. Potentially, this could be enormously irritating and/or tacky (see Coyote Ugly – or rather, don’t), but there was such a good-humoured spirit present that you couldn’t avoid getting swept up in the carnival atmosphere. I even got bought a beer by a complete stranger, in apology for his having to squeeze past me to get to the bar. After a decade of London pubs, where surly aggressiveness is part of the culture (and that’s just the staff), this was a shock.

They were also handing out raffle-tickets for various challenges – first person to show them their belly-button piercing, or wearing brown shoes – and Chris acquired one, somehow managing to convince the MC she had some grey hairs. Well, we were probably a decade plus older than the average attendee, and had fewer tattoos and piercings. Chris got all motherly in the ladies’, helping one over-indulged customer sober up – with miraculous results, we spotted her five minutes later, squirting another syringe full of alcoholic jelly into her mouth. Like I say, it’s that kind of place.

 

Not many men have a photo of their wife,
on her knees, with two midgets… 🙂

The warm up was some Midget Limbo outside on the patio, in which they acted as the stands for the poles. We had, by this time, firmly established ourselves at the bar, and felt disinclined to lose our spot, so opted to sit that one out, and wait for the hardcore wrestling. It was hardly a chore, between the bartop dancing, the people-watching, and the steady consumption of alcohol. Chris seemed to think the vodka was watered down, but without going into details, it’s safe to say her position on that had changed by the end of the night. By about 90 degrees. 🙂

Finally, the moment we had all been waiting for arrived: Puppet and Mad Mex stepped onto the bar-top and began to brawl. Fortunately, it was wider than average, but even so, it wasn’t the kind of surface onto which I would like to be thrown. From there, they eventually headed off into the crowd, the fight continuing, and were lost from view – when you’re four feet tall, this tends to happen quite easily. We went back to our drinks, imagining the entertainment over.

But, lo! What was this? A good 20 minutes later – though concepts like “time” were becoming steadily hazier by now – back came the deadly duo back through the place, still going at it hammer-and-tongs. Up onto the bar in front of us once more, Puppet caught Mex across the head with a garbage can lid, then tossed him inside the bin itself and pounded away some more. Finally, Puppet got the three-count for the win, to the cheers of the crowd. We left soon after, having seen all we needed to see, despite the victor’s inquiry, “Who wants to get drunk with midgets?”

Let’s be clear about this: even in our (by now, fairly drunken) condition, we felt nothing but enormous admiration for Puppet and Mex. They have what society perceives as a “disability”, and could easily sit around, waiting for government handouts, demanding concessions like the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires cubicles for shower-dancers in strip-clubs to be wheelchair accessible. Some may call it demeaning, but their life lets them tour the country, brawl, get drunk, dance with women on bar-tops, and get paid for it.

What single man wouldn’t want to trade places with them?

[For more info, check out the Midget Mayhem website]