Authors Note: I've always liked westerns—especially the weirder and more obscure ones. This is the first in a series of occasional posts about some of my personal favorites.
"Chin up to the bar, boys!"
Back in the days when a movie ticket and a bucket of popcorn cost a nickel—and nobody gave much of a shit about things like character development, dialog, editing, continuity, special effects, lighting, camera angles, production values, overall quality or any of that other long-haired artsy-fartsy nonsense—old-timey Hollywood cowboy stars like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Lash LaRue, Tex Ritter and others cranked out hundreds of nearly-identical ultra-low budget time killers throughout the 1930's and 40's.
The good guys always wore white, never drank or swore, never shot first, never backed down in the face of danger and always saved the day; while the bad guys always wore black, could often be found hanging out in saloons or other implied gilded palaces of sin, were generally cowards who always shot first and were always dead or in jail by the end of the movie, which rarely lasted much more than 60 minutes.
The plots always went like this: an evil, smooth-talking banker/swindler/developer wants a chunk of land owned by a kindly, honest old rancher. They hire a bad guy in a black hat to shoot the old man, leaving the ranch in the hands of his pretty daughter, who asks the singing cowboy and his sidekick(s) for help saving the ranch. They happily agree, and sing a song to finalize the deal.
Then for the next 30-45 minutes or so fist-fights break out, good guys are double-crossed, the bad guy blows up a dam or something, the clueless sheriff arrests an innocent man, the pretty daughter falls in love with the singing cowboy, another song is sung, the pretty daughter gets kidnapped, the sidekick(s) get their asses kicked until the hero rides in at the last minute to save the day and the movie ends with everyone standing around laughing.
So, in 1938, to try and switch things up a bit—and hopefully squeeze a few more bucks out of Depression-era moviegoers—producer Jed Buell and B-movie director Sam Newfield decided to try something that hadn't been done before—or (as it turns out) since.
And so "The Terror of Tiny Town"—the world's only all-dwarf musical western—was born, starring "Jed Buell's Midgets" riding around on Shetland ponies, roping calves and walking into saloons under the swinging doors in what the title card promised was "A Rollickin', Rootin', Tootin', Shootin', Drama of the Great Outdoors"
Actually, just settle in for an hour or so and watch for yourself…
The first time I saw this movie back in the late 1980's it was on a long-lost, but fondly-remembered, USA Network variety show called "Night Flight," which was where you could see outstanding crap that just wasn't seen on television at the time like "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains" or "Eraserhead", along with music videos from bands like The Angry Samoans or The Circle Jerks that MTV refused to touch.
There was also a steady stream of shitty but awesome old B-movies whose copyrights had expired and slipped into the public domain, like the then-obscure "Reefer Madness" and "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla."
But "The Terror of Tiny Town" really captured my attention—thanks mostly to the little people, of course, but also to my dad's own collection of virtually unwatchable movies.
You see, like every other kid from his era, my dad had grown up on a steady diet of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry flicks on early television, and by the 80's had started collecting them on VHS, watching them every chance he could get.
Now, I've always liked good westerns ("The Searchers", "The Wild Bunch", "Once Upon a Time in the West", etc.), and I genuinely tried to appreciate my dad's collection of B-grade shit shows, but after watching what amounted to the exact same terrible movie a hundred or so times I kind of gave up.
I felt a little bad about it (it's not like we ever really connected on much) but Jesus Christ these films were awful—and not a fun, MST3K sort of awful, but more like a soul-sucking "stuck at the terminal in a crowded commuter jet for six hours" sort of awful.
I don't recall my dad appreciating "The Terror of Tiny Town" quite as much as I did, but at least it was a musical western with cowboys and horses (or Shetland ponies, anyway) in it—which made it a bonding moment of some vague sort, even if he probably hated it as much as I hated his big stack of godawful Roy Rogers movies.
Anyway, Billy Curtis—who played the 4'2" singing cowboy Buck Lawson in "The Terror of Tiny Town" and who actually came to Hollywood as part of a professional wrestling show—went on to a long career in movies as an actor and stuntman and later co-starred with Clint Eastwood years later in the genuinely disturbing slightly-supernatural western "High Plains Drifter", while he and much of the rest of the cast went on to play Munchkins in "The Wizard of Oz" the following year.
Curtis, who would have proudly described himself as always sticking up for the little guy, also led a well-publicized fight to force the Screen Actors Guild to accept dwarfs as full voting members in 1970.
But you wouldn't expect any less from a heroic singing cowboy, would you?
Image via YouTube