Sunday, January 4, 2015

It's a Small World

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

It's a Small World (Eagle-Lion, 1950) - Director: William Castle. Writers: William Castle, Otto Schreiber. Cast: Paul Dale, Lorraine Miller, Will Geer, Nina Koshetz, Steve Brodie, Anne Sholter, Todd Karns, Margaret Field, Shirley Mills, Thomas Browne Henry, Harry Harvey, Jacqui Snyder, & Lora Lee Michel. B&W, 74 minutes.

William Castle directed many an offbeat film, usually accompanied by loads of ballyhoo. But this is a film we usually don’t find in his oeuvre unless we look carefully.  It’s not mentioned in the wonderful documentary about him on TCM, and comes at a time when he decided to leave Columbia, tired of directing nothing but B’s while waiting for the “A” assignment that was promised, but never came.

And so he struck out on his own, pitching his talents to the ultra low-budget Eagle-Lion Films. Castle had a pretty good resume. He was a studio director for Columbia, turning out B-product such as The Whistler series and Boston Blackie films. But when a promised promotion to direct A-features failed to materialize, Castle bailed on his Columbia contract and signed with Universal-International. He was at large in the period between studios, so he pitched a couple of projects to Eagle-Lion. The studio, which was serving as the American distribution arm of England’s J. Arthur Rank Organization, produced B-features to accompany such noted British imports as Olivier’s Hamlet. Eagle-Lion established itself by absorbing the bankrupt Producers Releasing Corporation and its studio space on Gower Street.

Castle’s first pitch was for a science-fiction film along the lines of Destination Moon, basing the film on Robert Heinlein’s 1947 novel Rocket Ship Gibraltar, but Eagle-Lion honcho Arthur Krim turned it down, seeing the project as too expensive to mount. Castle’s next pitch was something along the lines of a epic Western, but that was rejected also as being too expensive for Eagle-Lion’s tastes and pocketbook, but Castle was not one to be deterred by rejection. Ever the salesman, he proposed a film in line with recent features such as Crossfire (1947), The Snake Pit (1948), and Home of the Brave (1949). Its plot would be about the life of a social “outsider” and stump for acceptance. Thus, It’s a Small World came into existence: a well-meaning look at a midget (Dale) and the problems he must overcome. An old saying is that the road to hell is paved with the best intentions, which is the case with this film. Castle made it as a serious commentary on the problems of little people in the world, but it comes off as an unintentional hoot.

To use the present PC parlance, “little people” have been employed as the subject of many an exploitation picture. It wasn’t always so, but finding a film that took such characters seriously is a difficult job. The best-known midget performer was Harry Earles, who had a substantial role in both the silent and sound versions of The Unholy Three (1925 and 1930), and a leading role in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Other than that he appeared in shorts, (mainly unbilled), and as one of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

As a matter of fact, The Wizard of Oz was one of the few films not to use smaller performers as an exploitation device. Most films featuring smaller performers were low-budget atrocities such as Sam Newfield’s all-midget Western, The Terror of Tiny Town (Jed Buell Productions/Columbia, 1938).

As time passed, smaller performers slowly moved from the cellar of exploitation films to roles in mainstream productions, though the occasional exploitation film still managed to creep in. But in 1950, exploitation was still the norm; a norm Castle wished to change.

Castle approaches his subject with all the necessary sincerity and gravity his budget will allow, but what does the film in is the performance of his leading man, Paul Dale (real name Dale Paullin). Dale, whose only other acting credit was in The Wizard of Oz as one of the Lollipop Guild, was working in Des Moines as a disc jockey when Castle tapped him to star in this movie. His problem is the whipped-dog look he carries through most of the picture. It’s so obvious and affected that the natural sympathy we should feel for our protagonist dissolves instead into laughter and snarky remarks. It doesn’t help Dale that he can’t act, either. There are way too many scenes where he looks at a complete loss as what to do. However, I blame this on Castle, who obviously wasn’t used to directing non-professionals.

The film is divided into three parts. Part 1 is entitled “The Boy,” and it’s where we meet our protagonist, Harry Musk (Dale) of Santa Clara, California. As we open, poor Harry is getting the snot knocked out of him by a group of neatly-dressed thugs with crew-cuts who are joyfully beating Harry because he’s trying to convince them he’s 12.

Harry’s home life isn’t that much better. (Home is a really cheap set with fake trees outside.) Harry’s widower father (Geer) is a well-meaning clod who, when Harry comes into the kitchen looking as if he’s been through the wringer, artfully concludes that he’s been fighting and asks Harry why he never fights back. The answer should be obvious. There are four of them and Harry’s a midget. His eight-year old sister, Susan (Snyder), tells Dad that it wasn’t Harry’s fault; the other kids are just bigger than he is. This flummoxes Dad. “I can’t figure it out,” he says. “I’ve beat him and I’ve pampered him and he just says nothing.” Father of the Year he’s not. 

Dad then hauls Harry off, standing him up against the wall, where we see a clearly marked pencil line. Measuring Harry again, Dad realizes that he still hasn’t grown, despite the beatings and pamperings. Dad takes Harry to the family’s doctor. “All I can say is your boy will grow no bigger than he is right now.” Some help he is. What the doc does prescribe is a thick book titled Medical Almanac “that will help you understand it.” So Harry reads about his condition, arriving at the conclusion that the only way he will get taller is to stand on the book.

Dad now gets another brainstorm: he pulls Harry out of school, over the objections of Harry’s teacher. It’s better if no one sees you, he tells the lad. After all, they’ll only make fun of him. That night, Castle tries to get arty. Harry has tormenting dreams, which show themselves as shadows on his bedroom wall. It’s great that the shadow also has Harry’s squeaky, comical voice. It’s also wonderful that the shadow also takes delight in tormenting Harry, asking sarcastically if his condition also means that his shadow won’t grow, either. “You gotta grow,” the shadow tells him, “I won’t stay small.” Great, even the schlemiel’s shadow picks on him.

Harry now spends his days helping Dad on the farm. From the swelling crescendo, we come to believe that Harry and Dad are growing closer, or that Harry has found happiness. Or whatever.

But not everyone hates or makes fun of Harry. A young girl, Janie (Michel), comes by and plays with Harry and his farm animals. One arty montage of young animals later, we see Harry and Janie again. Only this time Janie is older, a teenager, though the actress playing her seems to be at least in her mid-20s (Field was 28 at the time of filming). She’s also taller than Harry. It seems they read together, and today she is reading to him a passage from Gulliver’s Travels. Subtle, huh? At any rate, Harry falls asleep. Maybe he’s bored. Perhaps he only likes short stories.

Later, she gives him a belated birthday present - a watch with “To My Best Friend” inscribed on the back. But before Harry can surmise that there’s something more to this, Janie cuts him to the quick by saying that she’s engaged to be married and will be moving away with her bridegroom. Harry is crushed; she’s the only friend he has. Her absence only makes life at home that much more intolerable. Dad is hiding him away, and Sis is really getting on his nerves, complaining that she can’t ask any of her dates over after they take her home. (This being a small community, they surely must have heard of Harry somewhere.)

Harry concludes that life on the family farm isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and as he’s 21 years old, he tells Dad that it’s time he went out on his own. There’s not much he can do on the farm other than sit around due to his small stature. Harry sends a letter to a small-time carny named Jackson (Henry). Jackson takes the bait and pays Harry a visit. He’s pleased by Harry’s potential and agrees to take him on. This necessitates a sloppy goodbye scene between Harry and Dad. Dad goes so far as to hug his son and tell him that, if things go wrong, he can always come back home. For her part, Sis apologizes to Harry for the way she has treated him. Neither, however, tells Harry that they don’t want him leave.

Cut to Harry and Jackson on the road. By the look on his face, Harry is obviously regretting his decision. When they enter a diner, Jackson tries to get his new employee to perform for the customers. Harry begs off and heads for the bathroom. Locking the door, he opens the window and takes it on the lam. As Harry runs through the nighttime countryside, Castle entertains us with a trick he will use in his later horror films. No matter where Harry runs or turns, he is confronted with the superimposed image of Jackson’s laughing face. Reaching the highway, Harry thumbs a ride with a trucker who thinks Harry is a runaway child, and Harry accompanies the trucker to a vegetable market in the big city, where he disembarks and walks around the big city.

We have now reached Part Two of our story: “The Woman.” We quickly know where this is going thanks to a drawing of a woman standing under a streetlamp accompanying the title. But first, Harry has things to do. After leaving the market he walks around, allowing Castle to provide us with some location shooting. He ends up on a park bench, where he meets Sam (Karns). Sam, a hell of a nice guy, informs Harry that he’s an ex-serviceman who’s looking to live “free and easy” for a while. He makes his living shining shoes and, as he has an extra shoeshine kit, Harry can come in as his partner. Harry accepts and the next morning the two are busily shining shoes in the park. Because of his height, Harry proves something of a novelty; he quickly attracts a line of customers while Sam is ignored. “It’s a good thing we’re partners and not competitors,” Sam tells him as they pack up for the day.

In the meantime, Harry has rented a small room. Things are finally looking good for him, but we know this can’t go on forever. One night, Harry hears a noise in the hall. Looking out, he sees it's the woman who lives across the hall being smacked around by a man (obviously meant as a john). Harry tries to rescue her, but is knocked aside for his efforts. The man scrams and the woman, who introduces herself as Buttons (from the many buttons on her dress), joins Harry in his room, letting him play paramedic as he applies a damp cloth to her brand new shiner. Harry has never met anyone like her; his gaze travels up from her F-me shoes to her tight skirt to her cheap hairdo. For her part, she looks at him like a bird of prey looking at its next meal, sizing him up as easy pickings. They go to the sleazy neighborhood bar, where she introduces him to booze and beer. The next day is Sunday and Harry is heading out to work when Buttons tells him to take the day off - she knows how to spend it better. They go off on a date, strolling hand in hand as she helps Harry lavish his earnings on her. All the while, she’s talking about some plans she has for her and her little beau. Harry is totally smitten. We quickly surmise from Harry’s besotted persona that, even though it’s kept strictly off-camera, Buttons has been inducting him in the art of bedroom wrestling as well.

But all is not sunshine and roses. Harry is getting increasingly frustrated with her habit of keeping company with other men. (Doesn’t it dawn on him by now?) When she ditches their date in favor of another guy, Harry is mad. He looks out the window to the shadowy bar across the street. Failing to heed the all-too-obvious symbolism of Castle’s attempt at expressionism, Harry toddles there to drown his sorrows with a liquid dinner, chugging down beers, getting blotto. His resentment toward his erstwhile girlfriend grows as he sees a couple making out in the next booth. Worse, he sees the superimposed image of Buttons no matter where he turns. He climbs on top of a piano, trying to emulate Dietrich. When a female souse points out what a cute midget he is he throws his beer in the woman’s face.

The next morning, still nursing his wounds, plus a possible hangover, he’s back on the job, but surly as all get out. Sam asks Harry what’s wrong, but all he gets is hostility and surly silence. Sam presses for an answer. Harry’s answer is to walk away. He arrives back home after dark to find Buttons waiting for him. After buttering him up, she tells him she has found a “good job” for him, handing him a card. All he has to do is go to the address on the card. When he does so the next evening, it’s in a dingy apartment. He knocks and is met by a woman so fat Haystacks Calhoun looks skinny by comparison. She takes one look at him and laughs. He points at her and laughs. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship . . . well, maybe not.

Inviting him inside, she quickly gets down to business. Her name is Rose (Koshetz), and she’s the leader of a gang of pickpockets. Harry is the newest trainee; he will learn the art of picking pockets, and will delve into crowds disguised as a child. Buttons arrives, along with a guy named Charlie (Brodie) whose idea of camaraderie is to address Harry as “Shorty.” Here’s the plan: Buttons and Charlie will stroll around like a couple, and Harry will pose as their kid to ward off suspicion.

Sounds good, but Harry’s hesitant because this is a crooked scheme. The gang works on him to change his mind, with Buttons in the lead. She hits Harry with the classic “look at all I’ve done for you and this is how you repay me?” line. Harry’s still not won over, so Buttons dismisses Charlie and Rose from the room and turns on the charm - such as it is. She quickly turns the little guy’s head and he joins the gang. Rose trains him in what he needs to know in his new profession and Harry picks it up quickly (He’d better, there’s only 74 minutes in this film.), and soon the gang is on the street. We know this because Castle once more gives us an arty-farty montage of the four of them superimposed over various crowds. Hey, it saves both time and money (hiring extras), not to mentions lots of pages of script.

At any rate, the gang is successful, parlaying Harry’s smooth little digits into oodles of bucks. Harry's back at his place, hiding the loot as Sam visits and ask Harry why he hasn’t been around. Harry puts him off with a weak spiel. Who needs Sam and the bench when he’s got big bucks and a girl? However, unbeknownst to the little guy, he and Buttons are heading for the rocks. Having got what she wanted from the little guy, Buttons is losing interest. After Harry catches her making out with Charlie, he’s moved to declare his love and intention to marry. Her reaction is peals of derisive laughter accompanied by the question of why she should want a midget.

Harry finally realizes he’s been played and goes to Rose to announce that he’s giving his two-week notice. Furthermore, he’s going to the cops to make a clean break of everything. Rose’s answer to this announcement is to wrap her big fat mitts around Harry’s little neck, telling him to forget about quitting, and if he knows what’s good for him, he’ll show at the next gang meeting. 

Harry gets the message and shows for the gang’s meeting, but not before calling the cops and tipping them off. Seems the gang is planning a really big job this time - the filching of a payroll. (How a gang of pickpockets is going to pull this one off is laughingly preposterous to start.) As Rose outlines the plan, Charlie notices that Harry keeps looking at the door. Charlie smells a rat - a little one at that. Things are about to become rough for our little hero when, lo and behold, a couple of cops - including Castle himself in a cameo - break down the door and arrest everyone in the dump.

Harry, with the ever-loyal Sam at his side, is pleading his case with the judge. Since Harry ratted out the gang, and seeing that he’s not a hardened criminal, the judge decides to remand Harry to the custody of someone else, handing him a ticket to Miami. Sam offers to go along on the ride, telling Harry that he can shine shoes just as well in Florida as he can here, but Harry pulls a Garbo - he vants to be alone.

This brings us to part three: The Circus. Yes, that’s where the judge decided to send Harry: he’s ordered to the winter camp of the Cole Bros. Circus. This is a real circus. It’s still around, and obviously Castle decided to use it to save big bucks. The circus, in return, is under the belief that it will get free publicity from the throngs that come out to see Mr. Castle’s movie. Suckers. Harry is introduced to the manager, Mr. Winters. He’s soft-spoken and pleasant, almost the anti-Jackson of the carny. Harry’s not so sure he wants to stick around. Mr. Winters asks him to take a look around before making his decision, and Harry agrees.

As he makes the rounds, he sees that the circus is a close-knit family, where everyone has a place and everyone pitches in. The capper for Harry is when he’s introduced to Dolly (Sholter), a blonde midget who works a pony act. As time passes they grow closer. She presents him with a watch for his birthday. Why, it’s inscribed “To My Best Friend,” just like the one Janie gave him. Will wonders ever cease? The moral? Bad girls (Buttons) take your presents, while good girls like Janie and Dolly give you presents.

Later, Harry tells Dolly he has a surprise for her. He plays her a record to which he’s made up lyrics. The title of his tune? “It’s a Small World,” as if you didn’t know. Harry belts it out in a fashion that tells us Sinatra has nothing to worry about. But Dolly is tickled pink. After he finishes, he takes her in his arms and plants a manly kiss on her lips. The film ends with Harry and Dolly getting married. Yes, Harry’s going to stay with the circus, because they accept him for who he is rather than castigating him for what he can’t help. And the world has become so much the better for it.


-- Will Geer (Dad) was a stage and film actor whose film performances were few and of a supporting nature. The biggest thing in his life was being blacklisted in 1951 for refusing to name names. He survived by forming the “Theatricum Botanicum,” a repertory theater in Topanga Canyon, California, where he coached actors. He returned to Hollywood in 1962 with a supporting part in Advise and Consent. Geer kept busy with supporting roles in movies and guest shots on television before landing the role of Grandfather Walton, in The Waltons, the role he is best known for today.

-- Shirley Mills, who played Harry’s 16-year old sister, Susan, was best known for her starring role in the 1938 exploitation film, Child Bride, in which, at the age of 12, she played a blooming sexpot who is the object of leering by several creepy hillbillies. The “highlight” of the film was her extended skinny dipping scene - at the age of 12, yet. Despite having this on her resume, she was able to land a plum role as one of the Joad children in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. She also appeared (mostly unbilled) in movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Curtiz, Allen Dwan, and George Cukor. By 1956, parts dried up and her last film was 1961’s Twist Around the Clock.

-- Lora Lee Michel, who played the 8-year old Janie, also played the younger version of heroine Jill Young (Terry Moore) in 1949’s Mighty Joe Young. Her career never lasted beyond the child stage.

-- Margaret Field, who played the 16-year old Janie, languished in B-moviedom before switching to television. She is most famous, however, as the mother of actress Sally Field.

-- The carny pro Jackson was played by Thomas Browne Henry. He went on to work mainly in television. His credited movie resume was mostly B to Z productions such as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), Blood of Dracula (1957), The Beginning of the End (1957), and The Brain From Planet Arous (1957).

-- Those who recognize Harry’s buddy, Sam, played by Todd Karns, probably remember him from his most famous role: that of George Bailey’s brother in Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. He was never able to match the promise of that film and was out of Hollywood by 1956. He moved to Ajijic, Mexico in 1971 and started a English language theater called The Lakeside Little Theater, where he produced and directed shows up to his death in 2000.

-- Nina Koshetz (Rose) was a famous opera singer in her native Russia. She came to America in 1920, having fled the Communists. Besides becoming a highly respected vocal coach, she also appeared in a few films. Her most famous role was in 1938’s Algiers, with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr.

-- Steve Brodie was the sleazy gangster Charlie. He went on to a long career as a guest star on television. His best movie roles were as Private Judson in A Walk in the Sun (1945), Floyd in 1947’s Crossfire, and as Chief Budge in The Caine Mutiny (1954). He also appeared in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), and the camp classics The Wild World of Batwoman (1966), The Giant Spider Invasion (1975), and the incredible Frankenstein Island (1981).

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