Jed Buell was a publicist for Mack Sennett and Keystone who founded his own company, Spectrum Pictures, to make ultra-low-budget exploitation flicks, and in 1937 he produced an “all-Negro” Western, Harlem on the Prairie, starring the bandleader Herb Jeffries, which had some success. He also made singing cowboy pictures with Fred Scott, and Stan Laurel was involved on the production side in several (he was a great lover of Westerns). In 1938 Buell put together his most famous ‘novelty’ production, The Terror of Tiny Town, with a cast of actors with dwarfism.
This film has been largely ignored by writers of Western movie guides and it was also not reviewed by the mainstream press at the time but it did have some commercial success in a period when political correctness was not really a thing and audiences were OK with laughing at ‘incongruous’ actors. Phil Hardy, a rare writer of a Western guide who does review the picture, said that nowadays “the film seems cruel” and I know what he meant. The picture “invites us to smirk at a cast dwarfed by the hitching post they tie their Shetland ponies to.”
My own problem with the film is not the dwarfism, though I do not find it amusing, but that the players (many of whom would become Munchkins the following year) were such bad actors. They are clearly just saying the lines they have dutifully learned, and reciting them badly at that. Furthermore, the lines themselves were very poorly written, by Fred Myton (who worked on 40 pictures with director Sam Newfield). The director and producer took the decision to have the cast play the picture straight, so it’s a standard cheap one-hour B-Western of no discernible merit, unless you are entertained by the actors’ stature. Even at only 62 minutes, it really drags.
Movie posters proclaimed, “Half-Pints in 1-Gallon Hats!” and star Billy Curtis didn’t like it when the audience laughed. He was once quoted as saying, “I played the good guy who put the bad guy behind bars at the end, just like John Wayne. And I kissed the pretty girl, just like he did. So what the hell’s so funny?”
Actually, Billy, you didn’t put him behind bars. He was blown to bits by dynamite along with the whole cabin he was in. But we’ll let that pass.
Newfield directed no fewer than 142 feature Westerns between 1934 and 1958, but the vast majority were one-hour programmers with the likes of Bob Steele, Tim McCoy, Fred Scott & Co, and I can’t think of a solitary good one that he helmed. Well, perhaps that’s unkind. Let’s just say they were entertaining B-Westerns.
There are half a dozen (cheesy) songs in Tiny Town and star Billy Curtis (later to be Mordecai, the midget made sheriff in High Plains Drifter) croons one to his own guitar.
Buell himself delivers a ‘comic’ prologue with Curtis and with Little Billy, who plays the chief villain. Buell was a very big man, so the contrast is heightened.
Buell assembled Shetlands, calves to be rustled and even a scaled-down stagecoach to be held up, but the Western town set is the standard Columbia one and the ‘playing is straight’ notion is fatally undermined by not explaining why everything appeared so big.
Principal outdoor shooting was done in Placerita Canyon at Ernie Hickson’s Placeritos (Monogram) Ranch, later called Melody Ranch.
I felt duty-bound to watch this one, because it’s a Western, you know, and is kind of a landmark in the genre, in an odd way, but I wouldn’t want to see it again, and you could safely skip it, dear reader, without a qualm. Curtis might have compared himself to John Wayne (above) but even the cheapest of those oaters Duke was doing in the 1930s weren’t this badly directed, written or staged.
It’s sometimes cited as one of the worst films ever made, in such lists and books. It isn’t, actually. It’s pretty bad, certainly, as I say, but it’s not that bad. And, as Dennis Schwartz says, neither is it “a rancid exploitation film despite being politically incorrect.” But I did rather grimace at the saloon songs, I’m afraid. I just think the whole thing was faintly distasteful.
It’s just a 30s series Western very much at the lower end of the spectrum, as it were. The total budget was $36,000, at a time when as the press clipping said, “an average mob scene in Hollywood costs that much.” Mind, it was still three times what Harlem on the Prairie cost…