The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)

The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) movie poster

director Sam Newfield
viewed: 07/13/2014

We each have our own cultural Hajjs.  Mine of late has been to see or to re-see some of the worst films of all time, or at least films that have long held that reputation.  Though The Terror of Tiny Town isn’t actually on the current Wikipedia list, it did make the Michael Medved original list of 50 worst films of all time.  While a number of films on Medved’s list seem dubious for such a classification (Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976)?), they deed winnow out some of the true classics of bad.

The Terror of Tiny Town always fascinated some part of me, at least until I saw it as a young teen (or however old I was when I finally saw it).  It’s famous for being the one all-midget Western Musical.  In which the midget cast rides Shetland ponies and rope calves in an otherwise semi-straightforward Western yarn.

It’s the kind of Exploitation film that the Hays Code didn’t apparently have any issue with.

For whatever reason, this film has drifted further into obscurity.  It’s such a strange cultural artifact.  It’s made me think a little more about “dwarfsploitation”, frankly.  Whereas The Terror of Tiny Town is exactly what it sets out to be, comic in the framing of little people is the Western scenario, modern films that employ casts of little people seem to not be particularly evolved away from this.  I’m thinking presently of Willow (1988) when I write this.

I mentioned the film when I was watching Werner Herzog’s bizarre Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), which indeed would be an ideal pairing with this film in study of contrasts and strangenesses.  But I was also called to mind of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), much closer in time to this film.  And I was also brought to mind of the 1982 film Under the Rainbow, which doesn’t seem available presently.

I’m sure in the circles of the Little People of America, these topics and films are probably notorious and even possibly well-studied.  But for your average cinephile who maybe doesn’t spend much time considering the portrayal of “little people” through time, maybe such a study is more wanting.  Anyhow, it all came to mind.

For me, I had only seen the film once before.  As a tween or teen, the film didn’t exactly have the hysterical laughs that I was expecting from the likes of a Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).  In fact, I think I found it a bit dull.  Though it did fulfill my having seen the film, which, as I’ve suggested, is one that I rarely find anyone who has ever heard of the darn thing.

This time through, I had to appreciate some of the gags in the saloon.  The make-up on the extras and costuming was actually pretty good, meeting the popular conventions of the Western genre at the time.  It’s not a mean-spirited affair, though obviously demeaning in a plethora of jokes and its entire conception.  I mean, it’s the only all-midget Western Musical.  There were no sequels or attempted re-makes.

It’s part of the appeal of Exploitation cinema sort of crystallized.  Whether in modern terms, it’s “inappropriate” or offensive or politically incorrect, it’s utterly unique.  I think at the time, demonstrations of little people were still common to carnivals, expos, even the World’s Fair, so in some ways it was not as unique in its day.   But it is a vision of something completely strange, outside of an norms of cinema and pop culture, and yet a real significant artifact of American culture and perception of its time.

Strangely, it was sort of fulfilling to see it again, this far odd little film.  The more odd and outre the better.


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