Welcome to “This is a Thing,” a monthly feature where your humble film editor will examine a piece of popular culture — a film, an album, a television special, whatever — that I wouldn’t believe existed, had I not laid my own eyes upon it. This month: the stunningly ill-conceived 1938 Western, announced in its opening titles as “The Terror of Tiny Town, with an all-midget cast.”
The story goes that low-budget producer Jedd Buell was inspired to make his magnum opus by an offhand comment from a subordinate: “If this economy drive keeps on, we’ll be using midgets for actors.” And like that, The Terror of Tiny Town was born. Buell took out ads in newspapers around the nation, offering “Big Salaries for Little People.” He hired 60 actors (averaging 3’8”) to fill the roles of his $100,000 production.
There was one “full-sized” actor in the film, an emcee type, presumably on hand to provide contrast to the film’s hero and villain in its pre-title sequence. He promises “a novelty picture with an all-midget cast, the first of its type to ever be produced,” and introduces us to the hero, Buck Lawson (Billy Curtis) and the villain, Bat Haines (“Little Billy” Rhodes), who is apparently our title character.
And then roll the credits, promising “a rollickin’, rootin’, tootin, shootin’ saga of the great outdoors” starring “Jed Buell’s Midgets” (care to bet they didn’t pick that name themselves?). Producer Buell and director Sam Newfield — whose less-than-stellar filmography includes such MST3K favorites as I Accuse My Parents, Radar Secret Service, and Lost Continent — had previously made another “novelty Western,” the 1937 movie Harlem on the Prairie, and yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. For Tiny Town, the intrepid filmmakers combine the standard, tired Western with the singing cowboy picture, with a half-assed dash of Romeo and Juliet thrown in for good measure. Villainous Haines tries to pit two ranching families against each other to his own benefit, causing havoc in “Tiny Town” and nearly wrecking the romance of Buck and Nancy (Yvonne Moray) in the process.
But that’s merely plot, window dressing really — The Terror of Tiny Town exists to service one joke and one joke only, and that’s seeing little people in a seemingly incongruous Western setting. They ride Shetland ponies. They enter saloons by walking under the doors. They drink from beer steins the size of their heads. And the vamp sings a torch song in a little-girl voice that places the whole scene firmly in the realm of creepiness:
The Terror of Tiny Town is a dull, lifeless mess, running a mere 62 minutes, but all of them so agonizing that the film feels longer than Shoah. It’s filled with stock music cues, flat line readings, and clumsy direction, all in the service of the worst combination of bad-taste parade and hoary horse opera. The oater tropes deployed here were already old hat when Tiny Town was released in 1938, and they’re presumably played for laughs. But it’s not that the clichés are spoofed in any kind of a witty way; it’s merely that they’re enacted by people who are shorter than we’re used to seeing. In other words, it’s an hour or so of pointing and laughing. The idea of the film is so insane that the bad-movie connoisseur might think there are some smug laughs in there somewhere, that any movie that sounds this bad must be just a little bit good. No such luck; the experience is merely depressing, and the “joke” (such as it is) has been told by about the three-minute mark.
Surprisingly enough, The Terror of Tiny Town was a minor success in its initial release, reaping enough of a profit for Buell to plan further screen exploits. According to The Golden Turkey Awards (of which Terror is a recipient), Variety’s July 20, 1938 issue included a news item promising “a series of films,” with the “second picture to be started within thirty days… based in a lumber camp, with a grown-up heavy portraying mythical Paul Bunyan.” Somehow, this sure-fire hit never came to pass. But the following year, several members of Tiny Town’s cast — including its three leads — would appear as Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. We’ve all got skeletons in our closets, it seems.