The Terror of Tiny Town (1938): United States – directed by Sam Newfield
Not rated by the MPAA – contains some violence, not-so-good songs, and little people
The exploitation film didn’t really get underway under the sixties, at least in the mainstream. Sure, there were niche pictures before then, but toward the end of the 1960’s and then throughout the 1970’s a wide variety of films were created interested in simply one thing: selling themselves by virtue of certain content, actors, or settings. The world now has blaxploitation, sexploitation, nunsploitation, Ozploitation, Nazisploitation and a slew of just plain exploitation films, usually involving blood, gore, violence, and nudity. But it all got started many years ago with something much smaller: midgetsploitation.
The Terror of Tiny Town was released only a half-dozen years after Tod Browning’s Freaks, a film that featured a cast of misshapen and deformed individuals. But Freaks is an intelligent and creepy movie, and deals maturely with its differently-shaped subjects. As such, it rarely feels that Browning wished to mock or use his actors and actresses. Not so with The Terror of Tiny Town, a film built and sold on the fact that the entire cast is comprised of little people. Indeed, an opening title screen proclaims that the film features “Jed Buell’s Midgets in…The Terror of Tiny Town with an all midget cast.” The film has no raison d‘être other than its diminutive cast. The story goes to great lengths to provide challenges to the small actors that would be easy for normal-sized persons, and these seem to be the most humorous moments of the film.
There is a plot, of sorts, and it is generally a rehashing of Romeo and Juliet. The titular “terror” is Bat Haines (“Little Billy” Rhodes, who would go on to appear in The Wizard of Oz [review here] and The Court Jester). Bat is an evil little man, mad at the world and the successful ranchers and farmers in it. He spends much of his time setting two families off against each other: one is Buck Lawson’s (Billy Curtis, who would later appear in The Wizard of Oz, Hellzapoppin’, and The Court Jester) upstanding family, and the other is Jim Preston’s (Billy Platt) well-to-do rancher family.
The two families are generally good friends, and Jim’s niece, Nancy (Yvonne Moray, who also appeared in The Wizard of Oz and Confessions of an Opium Eater 24 years later as “child”), has been wooed by Buck. Problems arise when Bat starts stealing cattle from Jim and passing the blame around. The plot gets more complicated when Buck’s dad, who appears to be the sheriff, sides with the straight-talking and straight-shooting Bat.
But no one will watch The Terror of Tiny Town for the unnecessarily convoluted plot. No, they will watch for scenes of small people trying to mount the steps of a saloon, which, at a monumental 18-inches, take a great deal of effort. Audiences will watch to see the cast duck underneath every hitching post in town rather than go around, because they are short. They will watch for a number of scenes involving the chef, Otto (Charles Becker, who was the Munchkin Mayor in The Wizard of Oz), as he has trouble with everything made for normal-sized humans. There is an extended sequence in the kitchen, where Otto takes great pains to enter a cupboard and let the door shut behind him, to prove he can fit inside. The rolling pin is two or three times as wide as his body, and he manages to fit at least half of his person into the stove. A stool is necessary to him to stir the pot on the stove, which looks like he might also be able to fit inside.
If these antics aren’t enough for a discerning eye, there are a number of musical sequences. Many of these are rather dull, though they do offer close-ups of the seductive Nita (Nita Krebs, billed as “The Vampire”) and her immaculate hair. Indeed, many of the film’s most amusing moments come from close-ups of perfect, and often humorous, hair.
The Terror of Tiny Town may upset some politically-correct audiences with its blatant abuse and exploitation of its cast’s size. Purveyors of quality cinema will be upset by the lack of filmmaking skills. The stilted acting, awful writing, and washed-out landscapes are a bit lifeless, though the use of actual locations predated Stagecoach by a year. The Terror of Tiny Town is not a good film, and few people will be able to enjoy its whole hour runtime. If someone wants an opportunity to laugh at how little people struggle with regular-sized items (why is a town built for regular-sized folks populated with little people?), then The Terror of Tiny Town will be your perfect film. But this seems rather cruel, and perhaps it would be more appropriate to appreciate The Terror of Tiny Town as one of the earliest and purest exploitation films ever made.