Reflecting upon the character the Minuscule Monk, I can’t help but think of Yosemite Sam. This diminutive gunslinger or prospector or pirate or whatever he did for a living was the creation of animator Fritz Freleng for the Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies cartoons in the 1940s. Yosemite Sam was, along with animal hunter Elmer Fudd, the natural enemy of Bugs Bunny (he hated rabbits) and was certainly the tougher hombre. Trapped under prodigious red mustaches that doubled as a bifurcated beard, he toted two blazing Colt .45s that he often fired in every direction as he hopped and leaped in frustration at his failure to catch Bugs Bunny. This hot-headed cowboy appeared under different occupations and names (Chilkoot Sam and Sam Von Schamm the Hessian Soldier were but a few), but his main moniker, derived from Yosemite National Park, suggests a gold rush prospector.
Above all, Yosemite Sam was short, but I never really considered him a midget, The cartoon universe had its own surreal logic (think of Bugs slamming a door on Sam flattening him like a pancake only to see him shrug off his flatness and restore himself to normal shape) and I accepted the name changes, the professional morphing, and the shortness (he didn’t seem that much shorter than Elmer Fudd).
One day in 2008, I was driving through Philadelphia and took out my mini-recorder and proceeded to tell the tale of the Minuscule Monk, a Five Points native transported to the wild West where he had become a notorious gunslinger. It was a spontaneous dictation and lasted all of two minutes, but I did establish the essentials of the character. I even included the long standing bet on whether he possessed certain anatomy in his operatic region. There was no rhyme nor reason to this bit of nonsense, and certainly not any plan to include him into a Lizzie Borden Girl Detective mystery. But it was typical of some of the low brow ideas that hit me while driving through Philadelphia.
Anyway, along came my first attempt at a Lizzie Borden novel and I had need of what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, some object like the Maltese Falcon or the Lost Ark that helps drive the logic of the plot but is ultimately just a fetish object that makes everyone in the story go nuts. In my storyline it had to be an easterner who had escaped into the wild West and has returned as a dangerous outlaw. Of course, I thought, The Minuscule Monk!
This is not to say I didn’t have other diminutive gunslinger influences. The most obvious (at least to me) is a 1938 musical western that was filmed with an exclusive cast of little people. The Terror of Tiny Town (dir. Sam Newfield) had been included in a book that used to be my bible: The Fifty Worst Films of All Time by Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss. First released in 1979, this whimsical tome introduced me to films such as Robot Monster, Plan 9 from Outer Space and The Conqueror which featured John Wayne as Ghengis Khan. It also included The Terror of Tiny Town which eventually got re-released on VHS tape and is now available , for those who dare, on YouTube.
It is a movie as short as its stars, and lacking in most of the qualities that make up a good film. Even if you ignore the fact that the cowboys, cattle rustlers, outlaws, lawmen, saloon crooners, town drunks, wacky comedy relief, barber shop quartet, bartender, heroes, villains and ranch owners are all midgets, the movie makes for a very boring and clichéd western. The entire novelty of the film is the cast. No one watches this film for its dramatic content or its completely forgettable songs such as “Mister Jack and Missus Jill” and “Laugh Your Troubles Away,” unless of course you watch the film several times like I did and then you can’t get the songs out of your head even if you employ hypnotism.
The Terror of Tiny Town was the brain child of producer Jed Buell, a veteran of the Mack Sennett studios who had been responsible for the Fred Scott singing cowboy movies. Here’s a clip from one of Scott’s films, Moonlight on the Range (a.k.a. Moonlight on the Trail) and is of particular interest since it co-stars Al St. John, Fatty Arbuckle’s nephew and ex-co-star of Buster Keaton. St. John had a second career acting in westerns as the grizzled bean-chowing cowpoke Fuzzy Jones. This clip shows what The Terror of Tiny Town may have been like if Fred Scott has made it as a big star or the actors were full sized. Can you smell an Oscar?
Buell got the concept for The Terror of Tiny Town after a colleague complained that if the economy continues to hurt the film industry, they’ll all have to start hiring midgets as actors to save money. Somehow this sparked a creative storm inside Buell’s head and he quickly arranged for what claims to be the world’s only musical western performed entirely by midgets.
Buell recruited his actors from a vaudeville act called Singer’s Midgets. Produced and managed by Austrian-born Leo Singer who fled to America before WWI with his little troupe in tow, the act was extremely popular in the decades before WWII. The Terror of Tiny Town was their first major foray into motion pictures. Their second film as a troupe was The Wizard of Oz (1939). While the musical western earned a ranking in lists of the worst films ever made, The Wizard of Oz achieved cultural immortality. Several of the Munchkin cast (many of whom doubled as Flying Monkeys) became famous and appeared in high profile films.
The most famous was Billy Curtis who played City Father of Munchkinland and went on to have a fifty year career in Hollywood. He can be seen in High Plains Drifter and Planet of the Apes. He acted the role of Mayor McCheese on McDonald’s TV commercials. There is a Pinterest page to showcase his unsung career.
Click here to see Billy Curtis’ Pinterest board
In The Terror of Tiny Town Curtis plays Buck Lawson, the handsome lead, a cowboy dressed in white, the guitar twanging son of a wealthy ranch owner whose herd is being wrangled by the villain Bat Haines. Bat is played by Little Billy Rhodes, otherwise known as the Barrister of Munchkin City. Bat Haines is rustling cattle from both the Lawson ranch and Tex Preston’s ranch, cross-wiring the two ranch owners and trying to trick them into killing each other. Buck sets out to save his father’s ranch from destruction and eventually uncovers Bat’s conspiracy. Along the way he falls in love with Preston’s niece, played by Yvonne Moray (one of the Lullaby League in Oz) whose speaking voice sounds like she’s from Brooklyn and who provides complete blank stares that pose as emotional responses to deadly situations.
Billy Curtis as Buck Lawson
Clint Eastward and Billy Curtis, High Plains Drifter, 1973
The film gets a lot of mileage out of indirectly making fun of the actors’ height, having them walk under fences and saloon doors without ducking, clambering up and down front stoops, standing on platforms to reach the saloon bar, and holding over-sized pistols that look like they would break every bone in their hands if they ever fired. In fact, most of the sets are full sized, including tremendously tall doors, over sized armchairs, beer mugs and stage coaches. A few exceptions include the use of Shetland ponies as their mounts, giving us the hilarious image of the pint-sized hero riding into heroic deeds on a trotting pony.
What is the secret of the place called Tiny Town? Was it built deliberately out of scale? Were the inhabitants once some lost tribe wandering the desert, finding their oasis in a city abandoned by full sized western folk? Perhaps it’s best not to let your mind go in that direction for that way madness lies. The metaphysics of cinema has many mysteries.
The songs in the film were written by Lew Porter, a prolific soundtrack composer whose credits include mostly B-grade Westerns. As a working musician, he had found his niche that brought home the beans and bacon and he stuck to his guns till the very end. One can dismiss him completely from the stage of world cinema, but The Terror of Tiny Town has the potential to put “Laugh Your Troubles Away” into your mind and then you are stuck with him forever.
Little Billy Rhodes as Bat Haines
Little Billy Rhodes as the Barrister of Munchkinland.
The Terror of Tiny Town remains unique in film history. No other filmmaker ever dared to repeat its gimmick, unless you count Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone, but that was made with children, so it cheated. Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small wasn’t a Western or a Musical. Yet it is the most extreme exploitation of little people on film that I’ve ever seen. Tiny Town is a rather conventional and cliched movie. Herzog’s film is an art house surrealist nightmare.
The irony of all this is that the Minuscule Monk never found his Tiny Town. He wandered from one full sized camp to another, forever humiliated for his otherness. Along the way he became as mean and hair triggered as Yosemite Sam. The horrors of war twisted him even further. Killing became as natural to him as brushing his teeth – even more so since he was never known to brush his teeth.
As for his childhood in the Five Points of New York, his adventures in the Kansas-Missouri Border Wars, his eventual assassination and mummification, I’ll leave that tale for other posts.
In the meantime, watch (on purpose) a transfer of a battered old VHS copy of The Terror of Tiny Town courtesy of YouTube.