Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn't impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.
Cultural infamy: Who hasn’t heard of The Terror Of Tiny Town, a musical Western billed as the “first all-midget show ever made”? Made as a novelty in 1938 on a $100,000 budget—which it handily made back—it was a hit at the time for the curiosity factor, but as filmmaking and Westerns both became more sophisticated, the public rapidly lost interest in it. These days, it’s largely a cultural footnote—one of those films everyone seems to have heard of, but few people have actually taken the time to watch.
Curiosity factor: At some point when I was a kid, some kind, deluded soul imparted upon me a history of The Terror Of Tiny Town: Supposedly when The Wizard Of Oz was being made, some bright soul at MGM looked around and noticed that the studio had gathered the largest group of little people ever assembled for a film, and thought it would be a good idea to capitalize on that by shooting a side project with the cast, on a nearby unused Western set. That story stuck with me for decades. I grew up with Wizard Of Oz as a family staple, and the idea that Tiny Town was out there as its shadow project fascinated me, much like the story of Barry Levinson making Wag The Dog with Dustin Hoffman during production holdups for their movie Sphere. So much effort and planning and struggle and money goes into studio features; I love the idea that people occasionally knock off a film just because what the hell, they had a cast, a set, and an idea. My fascination with that story drove my interest in Terror Of Tiny Town much more than what seems like the only reason most people watch it: to see little people singing, dancing, riding ponies around the range, and shooting each other.
Problem is, I can’t find any evidence that the above story is remotely true. Maybe there’s a grain of truth in it somewhere; it’s generally easier to prove something than to disprove it. But reading everything I could find about the two productions, I didn’t find any real link between them except the cast-member crossover, which only extends to about half the speaking cast. And most of the stars of Tiny Town had very minor, often uncredited roles in Wizard. Besides which, Tiny Town wasn’t an MGM production; it was an independent film financed largely by producer Jed Buell and bought by Columbia. And it was produced a year before Wizard Of Oz. And virtually every piece ever written about Tiny Town claims its genesis came from an apocryphal moment when Buell—known at the time for his other novelty Westerns, featuring all-black casts—overheard two production assistants complaining about dropping revenues in Hollywood, and saying “If this economy doesn’t turn around, we'll have to start making pictures with midgets.” (No one ever explains what that quote means, exactly. Were they talking about the novelty value, or the fact that the costumes, sets, and craft services needs would be smaller with smaller actors?)
Either way, it seems like my primary reason for seeing this movie was a rank lie, one of the many incorrect things I was told as a child. Oh well. I found out Santa Claus isn’t real either, and I survived that, too.
The viewing experience: Probably no one will be surprised to learn that The Terror Of Tiny Town is an odd film. But it’s odd primarily because it never really settles on a tone. It begins with a setup that highlights the problem, as an announcer comes out from behind a curtain and tells the audience that they’re about to see a novelty Western that they shouldn’t take too seriously. Then the stars, white-hat Billy Curtis and scowling black-hat Billy Rhodes (credited here as “Little Billy”), come out and bicker with the announcer and each other, proclaiming that the movie is serious business, and will make one of them the biggest (har har) star in Hollywood:
So right away, we’ve been told we’re going to see a comedy. Then told no, it’s a drama. Then given a bunch of comedic, clowning rivalry that implies that it really is a sort of comedy. Then the film itself turns out to be mostly a straight-faced, cut-and-dried, not particularly interesting Western. Except for a couple of comic interludes where a chef (Charles Becker, who played Wizard Of Oz’s Munchkin Mayor, the largest Wizard role boasted by anyone in Tiny Town’s cast) bumbles around his kitchen, or chases a duck that ultimately comes back to bite him in the ass, literally. Some critics have complained about Tiny Town’s insensitive exploitation factor, citing all the midget-puns—a reference to becoming a “big man,” another reference to “smallpox”—but honestly, the movie isn’t trying particularly hard to be funny, either at the expense of its cast or in general.
Even if it was trying, it likely wouldn’t work out very well. The cast is clumsy and amateurish, often delivering line readings with flat voices and silent-movie overemphasis. The dialogue is blunt and obvious. And the story is pretty dry.
Rhodes plays the supposed terror of Tiny Town, the black-hat Bat Haines, though a better name for him would be the shadowy master of Tiny Town, since no one’s actually afraid of him; he’s actually pretty personable, and people tend to believe him when, for instance, he blames his murders on other people. He isn’t the kind of bad guy who roars into town shooting people; he’s actually fairly clever. He’s been stealing cattle from two neighboring farms, and framing each farm for the other’s thefts, working both groups into a state of frustrated feud. Explaining his plot at length to the town’s sheriff—a reluctant patsy who’d like to go straight but is stuck under Rhodes’ thumb—he proclaims that he’ll eventually end up owning both farms.
Standing in his way? Mostly common sense, neighborly feelings, and the white-hatted Billy Curtis, a singing-cowboy scion of one of the farm owners, who happens to get emotionally involved with the niece of the other, in a vague stab at a Romeo-and-Juliet plot. (Curtis was in Wizard as the Munchkin city father; Richard Crouse’s Tiny Town entry in The 100 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen is brief and to the point, but has a lot of entertaining things to say about Curtis, who was apparently a drunken rabble-rouser who hit on Judy Garland, and held himself apart from the other little-people actors on set because of his previous vaudeville success. Garland later claimed he and his friends would get drunk every night, “and the police had to pick them up in butterfly nets.”) Here, he’s a blandly smiling hero who does what early Western heroes generally did: smile a little, face off with the bad guy, throw a few punches, and eventually get the girl. Even though he isn’t a much better actor than the rest of the cast, and he clearly can’t play guitar:
Dig that incredibly stilted dialogue between Curtis and love interest (or sandwich interest) Yvonne Moray, known as a “smaller version of Greta Garbo.” Or the equally stilted conversation between Curtis and his dad, John Bambury. And this is about as sophisticated as Tiny Town gets in terms of banter. Granted, that isn’t really the feature’s focus. Again like a lot of early Westerns, Tiny Town puts the majority of its time and energy into the action, which mostly consists of little-people actors racing around the range on Shetland ponies, chasing a runaway stagecoach, and occasionally breaking for some not-very-compelling songs. There’s no dancing or big choreographed Wizard-like musical numbers: The “Jack And Jill” song in the clip above is about as catchy as the songs get, and the filmmakers liked it enough to reprise it at length again, when the entire town breaks down into couples and sings it in the local tavern. This is an old-school musical; the songs aren’t integrated into the story, the story just stops for a while every now and then so the cast can present a barbershop number (including one unlikely bass voice poorly dubbed over a very small singer) or all break into a song around the local blacksmith’s shop.
Essentially, Tiny Town doesn’t have much going for it except the self-proclaimed “novelty” of seeing little people on film, which isn’t a novelty today any more than seeing African-Americans on film. There’s a certain squeamish factor in seeing how the actors were treated back then—the titles proclaim that the film stars “Jed Buell’s Midgets” as if he owned them, though that wasn’t far from the truth back in the studio-stable days. But it could have been much worse, much more egregious. There are a few minor sight gags involving short actors stepping under the bat-wing doors of a saloon rather than through them, or ducking under a desk rather than going around it, and the opening credits feature odd little cartoons of tiny cowboys staggering under giant hats and playing huge guitars, but overall, the film seems content to say “Here are some short people!” rather than “Let’s all laugh hysterically at the goofy short people!” Apart from the chef’s sequences with the duck, there’s no real slapstick, and the film takes its cast at face value as heroes and villains. I can’t help wondering whether Buell’s all-black Westerns were as relatively high-minded, which would put them above a lot of the minstrel-show-esque all-black comedies of today.
Eventually, Terror Of Tiny Town comes down to a pretty standard Western ending: Curtis exposes Rhodes as the dastardly schemer he is, and the two of them have a punch-up in a room featuring a piece of décor neither of them knows about—a bundle of dynamite with the fuse lit, courtesy of Rhodes’ angry, jilted tavern-brothel lover. Will they both die in a fiery explosion, or will the good guy miraculously get away while the bad guy pays for his many crimes? Even an all-little-person musical Western isn’t novel enough to stray from the core Western values on this plot point.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? The film itself just about put me to sleep. Then again, it’s only 62 minutes long, so it doesn’t require too much time-wasting. I put more time into researching the film than into the watching. But the novelty of learning more about the film was much more fun than the novelty of actually watching the film. Call it 10 percent enjoyment, plus a little bit of relief that Jed Buell didn’t ever go through with his next planned project—a feature version of the Paul Bunyan story, featuring one tall actor in the title role, and little people for the rest of the cast.