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Thanksgiving Turkeys: The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)

This month Adam and Samantha discuss famous turkeys, notoriously bad films.

S: The Terror of Tiny Town is about a band of cattle rustlers who convince two families that they’re stealing from each other, creating a feud. 

A: It would be a run-of-the-mill western except for the fact that it has an "All Midget Cast."

S: There is some good acting (Billy Curtis, Charles Becker) and some really bad acting (John T. Bambury). For some reason there is a lot of repeated footage, like the duck walking in reverse or the people in the stagecoach jostling around or the bartender chugging a beer. 

A: The duck was backing away from hatchet-wielding Charles Becker as Otto, The Cook. His performance was like something out of a cartoon. He really gives his all to the song “Laugh Your Troubles Away” (one of several tunes composed by Lew Porter for this film) as he navigates the adult-scale kitchen. If you’re not paying close attention, when he rolls out the dough, he pulls out a bone and flings it to the side. This movie would have benefited from a bit more of this kind of comic absurdity. Unfortunately, Sam Newfield phones in the direction as was his wont. Anytime I see his name in the credits, I expect the worst.

S: The saloon girl played by Fern Formica is uncomfortably childlike, (She was 13 at the time) so hearing her sing “I’m going to make love to you” is unnerving. 

A: That’s not good! It’s hard to distinguish the age of the cast, I wouldn’t have guessed she was barely a teenager.

S: This movie is entertaining if you’re a fan of low budget westerns or serials, but there is nothing so bad about it as to make it noteworthy for the laugh-ability factor or so good as to make it stand out. The only thing it really has going for it is the novelty of only little people in the cast. 

A: I agree. I found the novelty wore off quickly and my mind wandered throughout. A two-reeler would have been sufficient.

S: It seems strange that in a town comprised solely of little people that the doors and furnishings aren’t built for people their size. Back then things weren’t as standardized as they are now, so there is no reason they couldn’t make these things to fit. I did get a kick out of Yvonne Moray’s running leap onto the piano stool though. 

A: The recurring joke—I guess it’s a joke—is the little people can almost walk into the saloon without touching the swinging doors. The six-shooters stand out like cannons, but the miniature horses are sized to fit. I have a feeling there wasn’t a lot of thought put into the world this movie inhabits. S: I wish more movies like this existed. Aside from The Wizard of Oz, little people have been relegated to novelty performances in movies and circuses. They were often demeaning parts, made to be the butt of the joke. In the 1980s, dwarf-tossing was a popular attraction in bars until it was outlawed. Even now, only a few little people actors are well-known (Peter Dinklage, Verne Troyer, Phil Fondacaro) because the roles are few. The majority of them make their living as doubles for movies like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. Of course there have been rare exceptions like Time Bandits and Willow. Films like those or Terror of Tiny Town give little people the opportunity to play well-rounded characters and to portray normal people without having to cover up with pounds of makeup or elaborate costumes.

A: It’s refreshing to see leads outside of the Hollywood mold. By all indications there should have been more such projects. The film was lucrative for producer Jed Buell and Principal Pictures’ Sol Lesser. After the release of The Terror of Tiny Town there were several notices that more all-midget movies were in the works to capitalize from its success. Boxoffice reported that Buell was travelling to Europe “to round up more half-pint Thespians.” The Film Daily noted that a full-grown “heavy” was in consideration for the next midget movies. The fan magazine Hollywood reported that further movies would parody the latest box-office triumphs.

This movie might be ground zero for my interest in unusual cinema. My dad recorded it off late night TV and that VHS tape became part my family’s small permanent collection, coveted like a rare artifact. I don’t think I watched the movie in its entirety more than once, but I took immense pleasure in knowing that something so odd existed. For that, the film holds some sentimental value.

S: I give this 3 turkeys.

A: I'm going with three birds. Could've used some gravy.

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