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The Terror of Tiny Town

The Terror of Tiny Town(1938)

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The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)

Not many films in the history of motion pictures can claim the exclusive subgenre territory that The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) owns. Since 1938, for better or worse, it remains the only All-Midget Western Musical ever produced. Created as a novelty variation during a string of independently produced B-Westerns, its potential appeal was recognized by Columbia Pictures, who picked it up for wider distribution. The fact that The Terror of Tiny Town remains the only attempt to make an All-Midget Western Musical is an indication that perhaps producer Jed Buell's gamble did not pay off as he had hoped, in spite of the interest from a major studio like Columbia.

Most (but not all) prints of The Terror of Tiny Town open with a pre-credits sequence in which a normal-sized man emerges from behind a curtain to address the audience. By way of introducing this "novelty picture," he explains that it has "everything that a Western should have" but that it is not to be taken too seriously. At this point Little Person Billy Curtis, in character as Buck Lawson, corrects the announcer and points out that, in fact, the picture is serious and that he is The Hero. "Little Billy" Rhodes then emerges, in character as Bat Haines, to be greeted by hisses from the off-screen audience! Looking straight into the camera, the Villain points a gun in our direction, saying, "Who laughed?" The announcer tries to keep the two mortal enemies apart and makes a recommendation to start the movie.

With the unusual nature of the film properly set up, we open on a cheery yet bizarre scene: there is a musical number called "Laugh Your Troubles Away" being performed at the outdoor Tiny Town blacksmith shop. (Clearly filmed on a preexisting Western set, the town itself isn't tiny only the residents are). Joining in on the singing is Buck Lawson (Billy Curtis), dressed in a clean all-white cowboy outfit and hat. Pop Lawson (John Bambury) comes up and tells Buck to check out the ranch for rustlers, because there are calves disappearing. Thus begins what turns out to be a standard B-Western plot: It turns out the rustling is being carried out by black hat-wearing villain Bat Haines ('Little Billy' Rhodes) and his gang. Haines plants a branding iron for Buck to find which implicates Tex Preston (Bill Platt), an old foe of Pop Lawson. As Tex and Pop growl at each other in town at the barbershop, Buck appeals to the town Sheriff (Joseph Herbst) for help. Haines knows that the Sheriff is a former convict, so he has him in his back pocket. Tex awaits the arrival of his niece Nancy (Yvonne Moray) who is due to arrive by stagecoach. The coach is set upon by Haines and his gang, but is rescued by Buck. Nancy and Buck start to fall for each other; since a relationship between the two would bring the Preston and Lawson families together, the evil Haines decides to do something drastic to drive them apart.

Most commentaries, those from 1938 as well as modern ones, go out of their way to comment that The Terror of Tiny Town "plays it straight" by simply placing a cast of Little People into a standard B-Western. However, there are actually several instances where the filmmakers attempt to inject some humor. When we first see the Western town, for example, a couple of ladies are walking along the main storefronts and one can be overheard gossiping, "as I was saying, I never thought that Mrs. Clancy could be so small..." The first time that a cowpoke hitches up his horse and then walks under the hitching post, the moviemakers accent the gag with a loud musical sting. Later, when Tex Preston heads for the barbershop, the camera lingers as he struggles to climb the first step up from the street. (The fact that Preston is played by what must be the oldest, frailest, and most wrinkled midget ever to appear on film sabotages the joke). Finally, the bass singer in the barbershop quartet is played, of course, by the smallest, youngest-looking cast member to heighten the irony.

Cynthia J. Miller writes in Hollywood's West: The American Frontier in Film, Television, and History, "Jed Buell's musical Westerns used parody, gimmickry, and casts of unlikely characters to turn 'the way things ought to be' on its ear. Buell's work might have been unremarkable were it not for the cultural commentary inherent in these small artifacts of moving picture industry history. While elements of all were in keeping with the Western myths and traditions of the day, the success or failure of the unique aspects of Buell's musical Western legacy whether viewed as parody or desperation, exploitation or mutation, the result of genius or greed speaks to the social and cinematic culture of the 1930s."

The Terror of Tiny Town was initially exhibited through various independent exchanges on a states rights basis, which was the standard practice for minor productions like those from Spectrum Pictures. Shortly after its initial release, the film was picked up by major studio Columbia Pictures. Columbia perhaps sensed a market beyond the typical B-Western audience that it could exploit, although Les Adams writes (on b-westerns.com) that "Columbia probably picked it up to fill an unexpected hole in their production schedule, i.e., number of films promised to be delivered to their exchanges for the 1937-38 production season." Columbia printed new posters, lobby cards and pressbook material for the film and redistributed prints through their own theater exchanges. (Adams notes that this was not an uncommon practice a year earlier Columbia had picked up the more routine Heroes of the Alamo [1937], which had been independently produced by Sunset Productions and had already been distributed to several regions of the country).

The Terror of Tiny Town fell into obscurity for decades but returned to prominence in the early 1970s, when it began appearing on the college and midnight movie circuit as a "camp" oddity, along with such other 1930s films as Reefer Madness (aka Tell Your Children 1936) and The Cocaine Fiends (aka The Pace that Kills 1935). The Terror of Tiny Town was also featured in Harry and Michael Medved's condescending books The 50 Worst Films of All Time (1978) and The Golden Turkey Awards (1980).

Producer: Jed Buell
Director: Sam Newfield
Screenplay: Fred Myton; Clarence Marks (additional dialogue)
Cinematography: Mack Stengler
Film Editing: Martin G. Cohn, Richard G. Wray
Music: Lew Porter
Art Direction: Fred Preble
Cast: Billy Curtis (Buck Lawson/The Hero), Yvonne Moray (Nancy Preston/The Girl), 'Little Billy' Rhodes (Bat Haines/The Villain), Bill Platt (Jim 'Tex' Preston/The Rich Uncle), John Bambury (Pop Lawson/The Ranch Owner), Joseph Herbst (The Sheriff), Charles Becker (Otto/The Cook), Nita Krebs (Nita, the dance hall girl/The Vampire), George Ministeri (Armstrong/The Blacksmith), Karl Casitzky (Sammy/The Barber), Johnnie Fern (Diamond Dolly), W.H. O'Docharty (The Old Soak)
BW-62m.

by John M. Miller

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The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)

The Terror of Tiny Town producer Jed Buell (1897-1961) began his show business career as an exhibitor, managing the Orpheum Theater in Denver, Colorado in the early 1900s. While still in his 20s, he moved to Hollywood and joined the famed Keystone Studios as a publicist. Keystone chief Mack Sennett eventually promoted Buell to publicity director for the studio.

Buell left Sennett in 1929 to produce films on his own. He formed Spectrum Pictures, and concentrated on B-Westerns. Poverty Row companies such as Spectrum were production-only entities, and usually relied on other companies for distribution. In addition, they had no guaranteed exhibition outlet. The major studios (MGM, Warner Bros, RKO, etc.) had theater chains, which ensured an exhibition venue for their product; minor Hollywood studios relied on other distribution models, booking theaters by region on a "states rights" basis at significantly reduced rental rates.

A year before he tested the Western conventions by populating a film with Little People, Jed Buell and Spectrum Pictures challenged the genre with Harlem on the Prairie (1937). For this film, Buell took a standard Western singing cowboy script, but cast it with an all-African-American cast, hiring Big Band singer Herb Jeffries to play the crooning cowboy hero. (Jeffries was known as the "Bronze Buckaroo" and for a brief period had simultaneous careers as both a movie actor and a singer in Duke Ellington's band).

The credits for The Terror of Tiny Town prominently list "Jed Buell's Midgets." This implies a long-formed troupe, but actually this film is the only place to find this credit. Buell recruited Little People from many quarters, but the bulk of the cast was actually brought in from members of a European troupe known as "Singer's Midgets." Many in the cast were soon hard at work at MGM as Munchkins in Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939).

In its August 1, 1938 review of the movie, TIME Magazine indulged in an unusual amount of behind-the-scenes reporting on the making of The Terror of Tiny Town. Here is part of their write-up: "'If this economy drive keeps on, we'll end up using midgets for actors.' To hefty, thrifty movie producer Jed Buell this crack of a subordinate was intended as a reproof. Instead it gave him an idea. Soon he was collecting all the midgets he could reach through agencies, advertisements, radio broadcasts ('big salaries for little people'). They drifted in by twos and threes. From Hawaii came a troupe of 14. At length he had 60 of them, averaging three-feet-eight in height, about 70 lbs., ranging in age from 19 to 65. Meanwhile, his writers turned out a script for a 'rollickin', rootin', tootin', shootin' drama of the Great Outdoors.' On the Lazy A ranch at Santa Susana, Calif., producer Buell started filming the first all-midget photoplay ever made. He had troubles. The flaccid little people tumbled off ponies, had trouble handling man-sized six guns, had attacks of temperament and sunburn. Finally, at a cost of almost $100,000 and many a headache, the film was finished." That last figure the budget is no doubt inflated by several thousand dollars. The shooting locations as noted in The Hollywood Reporter included Newhall and Placerita Canyon in Southern California for the exteriors and International Studios for the interiors.

SOURCES:
"Tradition, Parody, and Adaptation: Jed Buell's Unconventional West" by Cynthia J. Miller, in Hollywood's West: The American Frontier in Film, Television, and History edited by Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor. University Press of Kentucky, 2005.

The 50 Worst Films of All Time by Harry Medved with Randy Dreyfuss. Warner Books, 1978.

b-westerns.com

by John M. Miller

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The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)

In the same year that producer Jed Buell and director Sam Newfield made The Terror of Tiny Town, the pair made several other musical Westerns, including a few featuring singing star Fred Scott which were partially financed by Stan Laurel Productions. In mid-1937 the famed comedian had formed a production company in a bid to gain more control of the Laurel and Hardy comedies from his producer, Hal Roach. During a brief period Laurel's company co-produced such Buell B-Westerns as The Rangers' Round-Up, Songs and Bullets, and Knight of the Plains (all 1938). Contrary to some reports, Laurel's company had nothing to do with The Terror of Tiny Town.

The screenwriter of The Terror of Tiny Town, Fred Myton (1885-1955), specialized in B-Westerns, but also wrote a few Poverty Row horror films, such as The Mad Monster (1942), and Dead Men Walk (1943), both featuring actor George Zucco.

Director Sam Newfield (1899-1964) was one of the most prolific directors in motion picture history. He worked exclusively for low-budget studios, and most often in the field of B-Westerns. It would not be unusual for him to turn out upwards of 15 movies in a single year. In the 1930s, he helmed features starring such Western standbys as Tim McCoy, Bob Steele, Ken Maynard, and Rex Bell. Even when Newfield moved to directing TV episodes in the 1950s, the shows he worked on imitated the low-budget, fast turnaround of Poverty Row films, and included episodes of such series as Captain Gallant of the Foreign legion and Hawkeye.

There are five songs featured in The Terror of Tiny Town, all credited to songwriter Lew Porter (1892-1956). (One song, "Hey, Look Out", lists Phil Stern as co-writer). Like almost every other member of the creative team on the film, Porter was prolific but toiled exclusively in the Poverty Row of Hollywood, and almost entirely for the B-Western genre. Among the very few NON-Western titles to which he contributed music were Spooks Run Wild (1941), The Corpse Vanishes (1942), and Jive Junction (1943).

The top-billed actor in The Terror of Tiny Town was Billy Curtis (1909-1988), a Little Person who remained a well-known supporting actor and a fixture as a Hollywood "character" off-screen for many years. He had a key role in The Wizard of Oz (1939), and was subsequently seen in films as diverse as Buck Privates Come Home (1947), Limelight (1952), Princess of the Nile (1954), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), High Plains Drifter (1973), and Eating Raoul (1982), among dozens of others.

The following press release appeared in the July 20, 1938 issue of Variety: "Sol Lesser has closed a deal with Jed Buell for series of films using midget cast utilized in Buell's Terror of Tiny Town. Second picture to be started within thirty days will be based on lumber camp, with a grown-up heavy portraying mythical Paul Bunyan. Upon completion of this one Buell is leaving for Europe to round up additional midgets for future productions." Jed Buell never made the announced Paul Bunyan movie, and in fact, never made another film with a cast of midgets.

In Michael and Harry Medved's 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards, The Terror of Tiny Town won in the category of P. T. Barnum Award for Worst Cinematic Exploitation of a Physical Deformity.

SOURCES:
"Tradition, Parody, and Adaptation: Jed Buell's Unconventional West" by Cynthia J. Miller, in Hollywood's West: The American Frontier in Film, Television, and History edited by Peter C. Rollins and John E. O'Connor. University Press of Kentucky, 2005.

The 50 Worst Films of All Time by Harry Medved with Randy Dreyfuss. Warner Books, 1978.

b-westerns.com

by John M. Miller

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The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)

"Last fortnight, at the second-run Ritz Theatre in Los Angeles, audiences chuckled good-naturedly at producer Buell's novelty horse opera, but only once did they really howl: when three-foot-nine hero Billy Curtis, pursuing three-foot-nine villain Little Billy, galloped off on a black pony, was soon scooting along on a white pony, finished the chase on the black. Trouble with The Terror of Tiny Town, producer Buell was soon to realize, was that without a few normal-sized folks for contrast, midgets appear much like other people. Next time out, producer Buell's half-pint stock company will have something to stack up against. They will act out the legend of the mighty lumber man, Paul Bunyan, with a burly upper case actor in the lead."
Time, August 1, 1938.

"Contrived. Doll-like personalities...sling mean six-guns in battles between hero and villains, indulge in miniature romance, promote the triumph of virtue over heavy odds and carry on all the other antics of the Western meller."
Variety

"Wild West drama played entirely by midgets...As all the cast are midgets, the element of surprise is lost and the film tends to be just another Western....Everybody seems to be riding everywhere."
Monthly Film Bulletin

"Quaint... Performed by the first all-midget cast ever to make a feature... The hard-riding, two gun boys go buckety-buck on Shetland ponies. The heroine escapes the villain by running under the furniture instead of around it...The formula drama has been given pint-sized treatment."
The Hollywood Reporter

"[Rating: *1/2] If you're looking for a midget musical Western, look no further. A typical sagebrush plot is enacted (pretty badly) by a cast of little people, and the indelible impression is that of characters sauntering into the saloon under those swinging doors!"
Leonard Maltin, Classic Movie Guide.

"What can we really say about a troupe of midgets whose acting ability is exceeded only by their height. At times, the viewer has the uncanny sensation that he is watching a Western in which Truman Capote acts, sings, dances, and plays all the major parts. The director, Sam Newfield, apparently gave his cast no other direction than 'Look cute and act midgety!' And that they do. At times, the film resembles a below-average Our Gang comedy, in which the children try to talk after sucking on helium balloons all day...As these little people waddle through the film spewing high-pitched, garbled dialogue, it seems that the actors are intended to be retarded as well as minuscule."
Harry Medved, The 50 Worst Films of All Time.

"To be honest, The Terror of Tiny Town is not a great movie. But in fairness, it's not all that bad either. It's just a typical low-budget Western with an atypical cast who averaged 3'8" in height...Amidst the commotion are the usual suspects in these quickie oaters: a comic relief cook, a sultry saloon singer, a Stepin Fetchit-type black servant, and plenty of cowboys who don't seem to have any visible source of income yet have plenty of funds to spend ordering beers at the local watering hole. There's also a penguin, although his presence here is never quite clear...Yet The Terror of Tiny Town is so patently weird and spirited that it actually becomes very funny (albeit in a perverse and politically incorrect way). The midget cast isn't especially talented and a lot of the dialogue reading comes across as hilariously stilted (the fight sequences are priceless in their clumsiness - obviously stunt doubles were out of the question here). And Nita Krebs, as the Dietricheseque saloon singer, is so wildly over-the-top (or under-the-top, in her case), that her musical siren call is priceless in its warped eroticism. This is a fun curio, to be certain. If anything, the old axiom 'they don't make 'em like this anymore' clearly applies here!"
Phil Hall, filmthreat.com

"It holds up as a curio for those parties who are just curious to see midget cowboys in action. It's certainly not one of the worst films of all-time as stated by some shortsighted critics, nor is it a rancid exploitation film despite being politically incorrect. But it's also nothing special outside of the midget cast, who are awful actors and their speech is stilted--which adds to the camp feeling. Buell's film differs from Tod Browning's 1932 Freaks because it treats its midgets as if they were normal people while Browning showered them with compassion."
Dennis Schwartz, Ozus' World Movie Reviews

"Aside from a couple of puns about smallpox, and being a "big man" around town, this script could have been lifted from any of the hundreds of westerns Hollywood was cranking out at this time. Seeing a midget smoke a cigar and drink a beer loses its novelty after a few scenes, and the screenplay is less than enthralling. The acting is awful across the board. The songs all sound the same, and the recording is very difficult to understand."
Charles Tatum, efilmcritic.com

"Some indications of the cast's height do appear. The sets are normal sized, just maybe not so much that you'd notice, except for the swinging saloon doors that the cowboys walk under, and the midgets ride Shetland ponies. Once in a while there will be a size-ist joke, such as the band's double bass needing two people to play it, or the thirsty barman drinking beer out of a huge glass. Uninspiring comedy scenes include the chef, Otto (Charles Becker) chasing a duck around, or a singalong that includes a penguin for no apparent reason, but mostly this is played straight, unless you find the idea of short people inherently funny."
Graeme Clark, thespinningimage.co.uk

Compiled by John M. Miller

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The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)

(PRE-CREDITS SEQUENCE):
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages, we're going to present for your approval a novelty picture with an all midget cast, the first of its kind ever to be produced. I'm told that it has everything. That is, everything that a Western should have. It's a soul stirring drama, a searing saga of the sagebrush, and it's called "The Terror of Tiny Town." But I must caution you not to take it too seriously. This picture beg...
BUCK LAWSON (Billy Curtis): Hey Mister! Come down here! I wanna talk to you.
ANNOUNCER: Uh, pardon me. (Listens as 'Buck' whispers in his ear). Excuse me. There's a slight correction. (Listens again). You mean it is serious?
BUCK LAWSON: Sure it's serious! I'm the hero. After this picture's out, I'll be the biggest cowboy star in Hollywood.
BAT HAINES ('Little Billy' Rhodes): Wait a minute! (sneering) Biggest star in Hollywood...
ANNOUNCER: Who are you? Well, who are you?
BAT HAINES: I'm the villain. (reacts to hissing from unseen audience) Who did that? (audience laughs and applauds) The applause is OK (draws gun), but who laughed? I'm the toughest hombre that ever drew lead, and I ain't afraid o' the biggest one o' you. I'm the Terror of Tiny Town, and that's the star part.
BUCK LAWSON: That's what you think.
BAT HAINES: Yeeeah. That's just what I think!
ANNOUNCER: (separating the two) Wait a minute! Men! Men! Wait a minute!
BUCK LAWSON: We'll see! Let's go through with the picture.
ANNOUNCER: That's a swell idea. Let's go through with the picture!

POP LAWSON (John Bambury): Buck, if you've got all that chirping out of your system, maybe you can get back to the ranch.
BUCK LAWSON: Sure Dad. I'm riding back right away.
POP LAWSON: I want you to go up to the North Fork range, and see what's wrong up there.
BUCK LAWSON: Whaddaya think's wrong?
POP LAWSON: I don't know I was up through there the other day, and there ain't hardly a calf on the range. And I don't think cows have quit havin' families.
BUCK LAWSON: Maybe a mountain lion's been getting' 'em?
POP LAWSON: I didn't see any lion tracks.
BUCK LAWSON: Well, I'll scout around and see what I can find out.

BAT HAINES: Here comes Buck Lawson! Hit leather! Keep that iron in I want Buck Lawson to find it!

BUCK LAWSON: Dad, it ain't mountain lions that's been gettin' away with our calves. I jumped a bunch o' rustlers at work.
POP LAWSON: Rustlers!
BUCK LAWSON: And they left in such a hurry, they forgot their branding iron.
POP LAWSON: (looks at iron) Cheap Work Pete! Tex Preston!
BUCK LAWSON: That's the way I read it.
POP LAWSON: Why that low-down ki-yoat! I fought Tex Preston to a standstill 15 years ago and it looks like he ain't learned his lesson!

OTTO/THE COOK (Charles Becker): Mr. Preston I think to myself, you tired of eat beef, so I cook you a nice duck. Oh Boy. (Kisses duck) She looks beautiful in a frying pan.

OTTO/THE COOK: Fritz! Come here ducky! For goodness sake, can't we sit down somewhere and talk things over?

POP LAWSON: Seems to me that I smell something that should be buried. Smells mighty like a polecat.
TEX PRESTON (Bill Platt): Why, you!
POP LAWSON: I won't get shaved here today. I might catch smallpox.

BUCK LAWSON (Watching stagecoach being approached by Bat and his men): I wonder who those hombres are? Let's pick up their trail and see what they're up to.

THE SHERIFF (Joseph Herbst): Buck, how about riding with the posse?
BUCK LAWSON: I've got an idea that I'd be wasting my time.
THE SHERIFF: Meaning anything in particular?
BUCK LAWSON: No, it just seems that you don't have any luck when you go hunting outlaws.

THE SHERIFF: I'm warnin' you, Tex. Don't start no trouble in town.
TEX PRESTON: I don't want trouble. But I won't run away from it, either!

POP LAWSON: This the way you ride the line, lollygagging with one of the Preston breed?
BUCK LAWSON: Dad, she has nothing to do with the quarrel between you and Tex Preston.
POP LAWSON: She's of the same breed and, man or woman, I won't have one of them on my range.

BUCK LAWSON: We both know who killed Tex Preston.
BAT HAINES: Yeah, but I know who's going to hang for it.
BUCK LAWSON: Don't bank on that too heavy.

Compiled by John M. Miller

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