d. Tod Browning / 1932 / USA / 64 mins
Viewed on: TCM (UK)
Okay, I’m gonna go right ahead and admit it (and hope this doesn’t sound too condescending/offensive) but I’ve always had a strange obsession with people of a particularly short stature. It’s certainly not a case of ‘look at the funny little midget’ (although I’m sure it probably started that way when I was younger), nor is it some kinky foible. And I really don’t know how to explain it, I guess it might have something to do with scale, because I tend to like abnormally big things also. You know, mountains and such.
Anyway, although its not always necessarily done in good taste, cinema history has thrown up a string of films about dwarfs or with dwarfs as central characters. Now, I think most people who have seen it would agree that Tod Browning’s Freaks is a mighty fine film. It’s far from perfect, sure, but what is most surprising – particularly considering it was made over seventy years ago – is that it isn’t actually too hard on its assortment of strange characters. This isn’t the freakshow you might expect if you read the synopsis, but there are plenty of fairly nasty (albeit enjoyably un-PC) ‘midget-pics’ out there.
The Terror of Tiny Town – a 1938, Jed Buell-produced ‘midget-Western-Musical’ helmed by über-prolific B-movie gun for hire, Sam Newfield – featured an all-dwarf cast riding Shetland ponies, walking under saloon doors and making all kinds of puns, to giddy (but rather un-PC) comedic effect. Somewhat more serious (but equally un-PC for a raft of other reasons) was Even Dwarfs Started Small, a Werner Herzog classic from 1970 that saw a merry band of little people take over an institution/asylum and generally run amok. Even Dwarfs… is also, incidentally, one of my favourite films of all time, but that’s another story.
Billy Curtis, the diminutive hero of The Terror of Tiny Town, continued to make appearances on the big and small screens well into the 1980s, including two notable films released in 1973: High Plains Drifter (another Western, this time in a supporting role alongside director/star Clint Eastwood, and Little Cigars (an AIP B-Movie about a gang of midget-mobsters). The Monty Python gang joined the game in 1981 with Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, in which an eleven-year-old boy joins the adventures of a group of dwarves (each of whom was supposedly based on a different Python member).
Also in the sword and sorcery vein – and starring the 3’6″ Warwick Davis – was George Lucas and Ron Howard’s 1988 Tokeinesque tale, Willow. Having started out as Wicket W. Warwick, the Ewok hero of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), Caravan of Courage (1984) and The Battle for Endor (1985), Davis also featured as the title character in the Leprechaun cycle (1993-2003), as well as playing Filius Flitwick in the Harry Potter films and filling out the Marvin the Paranoid Android costume for the 2005 big-screen rendition of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
The record for the shortest adult actor in a leading role, however, belongs to a Filipino – with the 2’9″ Weng Weng topping the bill of action-comedy (and James Bond parody), For Y’ur Height Only in 1981. Weng’s character, Agent 00, also wins the award for the biggest bad-ass, battling his arch-nemesis Mr. Giant who, perhaps unsurprisingly, is played by another short person (and whose secret lair is on Hidden Island). Weng also featured in a Western/Spy actioner, ingeniously titled D’Wild Wild Weng (1982), before reprising his Agent 00 role in the 1982 sequel, The Impossible Kid, rounding out a bumper year with what one can only imagine to be a Leone spoof, The Cute…The Sexy n’ The Tiny (1982).
Perhaps the only properly ‘serious’ film that just happens to feature a dwarf in a leading role is Thomas McCarthy’s The Station Agent (2003), which starred Peter Dinklage as a man who moves to rural New Jersey in search of solitude after the death of his only friend.
Of course, I can’t let this piece go by without a quick mention of some of the other little people who’ve shone in a variety of supporting roles, particularly Jason ‘Wee-Man’ Acuña of Jackass fame and Verne ‘Mini-Me’ Troyer in the second and third Austin Powers films. There’s also the Munchkins – many of whom starred in Freaks or The Terror of Tiny Town – who populated The Wizard of Oz (1939), the Oompa Loompas of both Willy Wonka… (1971) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Hervé ‘Nick Nack’ Villechaize in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), Kenny ‘R2-D2’ Baker from the Star Wars series, and Billy Barty who featured in two films alongside Chevy Chase – Foul Play (1978) and Under the Rainbow (1981).
Oh yeah, I realise I haven’t really mentioned it, but Tod Browning’s Freaks is ace!
Phew…time for some clips:
FREAKS: “One of us!”
THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN: “I wonder who those hombres are?”
EDSS: Breaking plates!
Don’t mess with WENG WENG!
Also, if you have a spare 64 minutes, I would highly recommend that you watch Freaks (in its entirety) on Google Video: