The International Writers Magazine: DVD Review
The Terror Of Tiny Town
The Terror Of Tiny Town is a 1938 dwarf B film (Black and white) that is often spoken of in the same terms as two other films with dwarves in them- Tod Browning’s 1931 film, Freaks, and Werner Herzog’s 1970 film Even Dwarfs Started Small, because it is, at its heart, an exploitation film- a typical 1930s B film Western, except that it boasts a cast of midgets (well, a few midgets, technically, and mostly dwarves.
(I shall differentiate the two different types of little people by appending an m or d after their names.) However, the film is far more lighthearted than Browning’s film (although both films open with a de facto introduction- a commonality for many classic cult films- ala Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space), and far less existential than Herzog’s. Along with being a Western, the film is also a musical, and while enjoyable, my gut feeling is that it could have been far more effective had it been a bit less conventional. Had it gone a darker, more nightmarish route, like Babes In Toyland.
The film was directed by B film staple, Sam Newfield, one of the most prolific schlockmeisters of the Poverty Row studios of the 1930s through 1950s, and quantitative (if not quite qualitative) rival to the equally prolific William ‘One Shot’ Beaudine. The cast is collectively referred to, in the credits, as Jed Buell’s midgets; although, as noted, only a few of the cast are technically midgets. As for the plot? Well, there are two families that are in a range war with each other because they think the other family is rustling from them. They are the Lawsons- headed by Pop (John T. Bambury- d), and whose son Buck (Billy Curtis- m, ), best known as the Head of Munchkin City in The Wizard Of Oz)) is the nominal good guy of the film. In case this is not apparent, he’s the fellow decked out in white duds. His yang, decked out in black, is Bat Haines (Billy Rhodes- d), a rustler whose gang is targeting the Lawsons, and their rivals, the Prestons, and hoping to move in on the spoils. The Prestons are headed by patriarch Tex (Billy Platt- m). He is awaiting the arrival of his niece, Nancy (Yvonne Moray- d), who, naturally, is the romantic interest for Buck, as the film plays out the Romeo and Juliet angle with no shame. The only other notable cast members (many of whom, like Curtis, went on to appear the A film, The Wizard Of Oz, the next year), are the corrupt town sheriff (Joseph Herbst)- who is blackmailed into submission by Bat, for his shady past in prison, Otto, the Preston’s Teutonic cook (Charlie Becker), and Nita (Nita Krebs), a local saloon singer who has the hots for Bat, but is repeatedly spurned by him.
There are the requisite gimmicks, such as the cowboys riding Shetland ponies, and walking under swinging saloon doors, and then there are the odd moments, such as Otto getting outwitted by a duck he seeks to cook, and the odd appearance of a live penguin in a barber shop, as a quartet sings. But all of this just serves to enhance the likable goofiness of the film. Naturally, a suspension of disbelief is required, for, why would a town (or world) full of dwarves build normal sized saloons? Why would they make the swinging doors so high?
Anyway, just as a war is about to boil, Buck talks Tex into pow-wowing with his dad, as both men reckon someone else is behind the cattle rustling, only to have Bat kill Tex as he rides away. He then reports on Tex’s murder to Nancy (whom he also likes) and accuses Buck, who is then arrested by the Sheriff. But, Bat won’t wait for a trial by jury, as he aims to get a lynch mob and hang Buck high (well, not so high!). This is the last straw for the sheriff, ho refuses to allow the lynching, and outs Bat as the man behind Tex’s murder and the rustling. When Pop Lawson arrives to handle Bat’s cohorts, Buck takes after Bat, and the two duke it out in a building rigged with dynamite lit by the spurned Nita, out to get vengeance on Bat after he slapped her around, and humiliated her at the saloon. Via stock footage, Bat goes boom, as Buck escapes, wins the girl, and gets a kiss, as the film ends.
The DVD, put out by Alpha Video (a company that specializes in public domain films), has no features, save a few trailers for more modern Alpha releases. None are impressive, in terms of either entertainment quality or technical quality. The film is only 61 minutes long, and shown in a full frame 1.37:1 aspect ratio. There are blemishes on the transfer, but this is not the sort of film one feels a need to restore to pristine condition. There are also a few obvious skips in the transfer reel.
The Terror Of Tiny Town is not a classic, nor even that good. The Shetland pony riding is rough, the singing (especially by Buck- it’s dubbed) is rougher, and the ‘small’ jokes roughest, but the film is enjoyable. It’s not a ‘so bad it’s good’ film, but it is a cute film that never takes itself seriously, and as anyone who has read my criticism before knows, pretense is the ultimate killer. The acting is not good, and the screenplay loaded with mediocre dialogue, but, on the positive side, there are a few moments when one is sucked into the film’s world; the best example being when Bat and his gang try to rob the stagecoach that brings Nancy to town. After Buck and his boys chase off the bad guys, Buck goes to stop the runaway stage (again, not exactly original), and there is some genuine serial-level excitement. Not bad for a gimmick film, and certainly something that lifts the film up beyond mere exploitation. Also, while most film fare at this level- think The Beast Of Yucca Flats or Santa Claus Conquers The Martians- are loaded with many moments a viewer says, ‘That makes no sense,’ from a logical standpoint. There are no such moments like that in the narrative, although there are throwaway bizarrenesses, like the appearance of the penguin, or Otto’s pursuit of the duck, or why a blacksmith’s horse, about to be shoed, is the only normal sized horse in the film, when others are Shetland ponies, and the odd breaks into song. That all said, it is amusing, it is guileless, it is sweet, and it is utterly unpretentious (from its opening ‘intro,’ to its cartoonish credits, to its almost Harold Lloydian ending. There are far better movies, and there are many worse films. The Terror Of Tiny Town, though, is a film that any fan of the medium should see, at least once, if for no other reason than its utter uniqueness in film history, especially contrasted against so many other western musicals of its day. It may not have many, but it does have charms.
© Dan Schneider April 2012
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