Keystone Comedy Meets the West in The Terror of Tiny Town

With "high culture" nowhere in sight, The Terror of Tiny Town, Buell's best-known, most controversial, and most baffling musical Western, was released in 1938. As with all Buell's musical Westerns, Tiny Town follows a standard format—a hero, a villain, two feuding families, cattle, lots of songs, and a girl. The Preston and Lawson ranches are feuding, each blaming the other for mysterious cattle disappearances. Of course, the villain, Bat Haines ("Little Billy" Rhodes), is behind the disappearances and, to make matters worse, has the sheriff in his back pocket. True to Western romance form, the hero, Buck Lawson (Billy Curtis), falls in love with Preston's niece, begins to solve the cattle mystery, and is nearly lynched for Preston's murder. After a classic fight scene with the villain in a cabin rigged with dynamite, he saves the day and gets the girl.

At this point, the similarities with more conventional musical Westerns of the day end. The Terror of Tiny Town draws its name from a cast composed entirely of little people. According to one magazine, the inspiration for Tiny Town hit Buell when an employee lamented, "If this economic dive keeps on, we'll be using midgets for actors." Before long, Buell was advertising "Big Salaries for Little People," and the project created a venue for a new kind of cowboy crooner (Medved 241): riding Shetland ponies, walking under the swinging doors of the saloon, and guzzling their booze from oversized glasses, the entire cast of Tiny Town was under four feet tall. Billed in the credits as "Jed Buell's Midgets," the players had all formerly been members of "Singer's Midgets"—a European theatrical novelty troupe, founded in 1914 and owned by Baron Leopold Von Singer. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Singer bought these little people from their families, who considered them nuisances or outcasts (Cox 9). Singer's actors traveled throughout Europe, South America, Asia, Australia, and finally the United States, playing nearly every theater on the Orpheum and Keith circuits. Prior to Tiny Town, one or two had been cast in films, including Laurel and Hardy's Block-Heads (1938) and Spencer Tracy's They Gave Him a Gun (1937), but the Buell film provided a springboard to stardom for several cast members. In fact, when filming for The Terror of Tiny Town ended, nearly the entire cast traveled directly from the set to take up residence in another tiny town—Munchkinland, in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Tiny Town is often cited as a parody of musical Westerns, made at the expense of dozens of little people. Listed in nearly every "bad movie" survey ever written, it opens with an announcer proclaiming: "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 it is everything that a Western should have." With this introduction, The Terror of Tiny Town takes on a carnivalesque feel— an air of a traveling sideshow. The hero and villain then join the emcee onstage, challenging first each other, then the unseen theater audience, in a battle of egos that thickens the air with burlesque and a kind of reflexive self-mockery completely foreign to musical Westerns of the era. Tiny Town draws heavily on producer Buell's and writer Myton's sense of visual comedy and harkens back to Buell's Keystone days. Early in the film, a penguin suddenly appears on a piano—just once, never to be seen again. During one of her exits, the heroine, Nancy (Yvonne Moray), runs toward a door and, instead of running around a desk, crawls under it to leave. While certain props were resized to fit the cast, others were left in their standard size, creating visual effects such as saloon patrons drinking from beer steins that look more like buckets with stems, and tiny Shetland ponies straining as they're tied to hitching posts that tower over them. Filling the traditional role of the comic sidekick is Otto, the chef (Charles Becker). Interspersed among other episodes of romance, gunslinging, and barroom brawls, the action turns periodically to the comic antics of Otto engaged in a Chaplinesque battle of wills with a reluctant duck he has planned for dinner. Otto chases the duck to and fro, around the yard, in and out of the barn, trying to outsmart the web-footed critter—with the duck nipping Otto on the behind, walking backward, and otherwise driving the poor chef to distraction. The film returns periodically to find Otto climbing into the stove, in and out of cupboards, and emerging from a pot of boiling water as the duck continues to evade capture.

if all these devices are interpreted solely as exploitive midget humor to turn a quick buck, then Buell's point may be missed. That is not to say that there was not a great deal of novelty-driven humor at the expense of little people—and at the expense of conventional singing cowboy films and African Americans, in the form of a shoeshine boy who aptly mimics the drawl and mannerisms of Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln T. Perry). But it might also be suggested that Buell was creating a new hybrid of sorts—a Western musical that was inextricably linked to the comic traditions of the Sennett era, where pratfalls, mockery, comic cops in tiny cars, and other visual oddities were the mainstays.

The Terror Tiny Town 1938 Midgets
Billy Curtis (as Buck Lawson) gets the girl in The Terror of Tiny Town.
Terror Tiny Town
Jed Buell proclaimed, "Big salaries for little people" in 1938.
The Terror Tiny Town
Actor Charles Becker as comic relief in The Terror of Tiny Town.

The cinematic West of the 1930s was an earnest place, where American myths were played out on the big screen. In good, comic burlesque tradition, Buell created in Tiny Town a vehicle that laughed at the West, while the West laughed back.

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