Friday, December 12, 2008

The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)

For my inaugural post I will write about what is, in some ways, both a highly conventional and unconventional Western, and which shows the breadth of the genre. The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) is an all-midget Western about a cattle rustler who plays two feuding ranch families against each other. Like Romeo and Juliet, the son of one family and niece of the other fall in love and must arrange secret rendezvous. When their relationship threatens to end the feud and bring the families together, thus exposing the real cattle thief, the rustler resorts to desperate measures—murder.

It’s a predictable, pulpy plot, yet the filmmakers and actors take it incredibly seriously. The actors might be midgets, but they play the drama no differently than any actor (of any size) would. In the film’s bizarre prologue, an MC stands before a curtain addressing an off-screen audience. After he calls the film “a novelty” and warns the audience “not to take it too seriously,” a midget cowboy walks up to the MC to correct him: “Sure it’s serious! I’m the hero! After this picture’s out I’ll be the biggest cowboy star in Hollywood.” Following him comes the film’s villain, who claims that he will be the biggest star. An on-stage rumble ensues, and then the credits begin to roll.

While the stage setting reminds of Vaudeville and the side-show like nature of the film, the prologue servers to inform us that The Terror of Tiny Town is not just a joke. True, it is absolutely bizarre and, at parts, certainly funny, but if it were a mere gimmick the story would get old fast. Instead, the movie plays everything straight. The drama only features two gags that refer to the actors’ height (in one, two musicians are required to play a large double-bass, and in the other the cook actually enters a pantry in search of a pan). The familiar normalcy of the story and its settings (the ranch, the saloon, and the prairie), paired with the unorthodox casting, only serves to make the film all the more bizarre.

With a couple of love songs, some fist fights, an explosion, and more than a few horse chases, The Terror of Tiny Town packs a lot into its 62-minute runtime. It’s no John Ford movie, that’s for sure, but that’s also why the film is so important. It’s not like any other Western out there. Or, really, any other movie. The only comparison that comes to mind is Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970). The Terror of Tiny Town is truly a remarkable, one-of-a-kind, cinematic experience: a sort of strange poetry rarely encountered that leaves one speechless.

Here's the first part of the film, available on YouTube.

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