What is it about novelty exploitation cinema that tickles us so? What? You’re not tickled? Well, maybe it’s just me then.
A tumbleweed rolls by a stark western street. A buzzard caws and flaps away. A rock tumbles down a stony plateau. Suddenly, in the distance, the thunderous patter of horse hooves on the tough desert floor. A miniature carriage erupts passed a rickety wooden gate. It is pulled by a dozen adorable Shetland ponies. The diminutive driver whips the dwarf steeds to a fine halt and the little people inside disembark. It’s a wild west inhabited entirely by little people! So what do The Wizard of Oz and classic cowboy melodramas have in common? Well, if you’re referring to The Terror of Tiny Town they share a lot of the same cast (the Munchkins anyway).
Curios and novelty films are generally categorized by their kookiness and, occasionally, exploitation-type setups. Exploitation cinema generally targets specific obsessions such as blaxploitation, sexploitation, nunsploitation, etc. They find a controversial theme and make the given novelty a sort of mini-genre unto itself. They went in waves…and the surf took a much harder pounding in the 1970s. There was a whole world of movies catering to all sorts of peculiar tastes and usually without the benefit of a large budget. Jungle cannibals, ethnic retoolings, vampire lesbians, shocking violence, schlocky monsters, and weird pagan rites abound in this realm.
Sometimes they weren’t just shocking or bad. I am actually particularly fond of a few of these oddball curios. The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) was an all little-person cast cowboy movie and it was never meant to be a really good movie, but you know what? I liked it. Chained for Life (1951) starring the famous conjoined twins, the Hilton Sisters, and the legendary original shockumentary Mondo Cane (1962) are also worthy of a looksie in my opinion. They may not have been made to be great, but they might just still entertain you.
The Terror of Tiny Town is a fun little western flick with all the classic twists of a full-size cowboy melodrama. This movie gets written off as a mere triviality, but it’s actually a prime example of how an endearing curio can work. There is nothing in the plot, characters, or random musical numbers that is particularly great. It’s your typically thin B-grade ’30s cowboy plot with the good guys and the bad guys, and it would be great enjoyable pulp in any size. The kicker is that its novelty makes it something of a standout. If the cast was full of big people nobody would care about this movie, but since the story has been adapted for all folks under 4′ 10″ it becomes unique. I was actually surprised the film didn’t take more cheap shots at its stars (considering it’s supposed to be an “exploitation” movie). Although scenes of ten-gallon-hat-wearing desperadoes walking underneath the saloon doors might be considered somewhat insensitive, it’s still a good joke and I do thrill at the racing Shetland pony-drawn coaches. It’s got some decent songs, laughs, action, and splosions.
What actually struck me as being more odd than a midget western, was that most of the actors had heavy German accents.
Next movie! I first became acquainted with the conjoined Hilton Twins from the spectacular movie Freaks (1932), directed by the great Tod Browning (Dracula, The Unholy Three). They played the only thing they could play: themselves. Joined at the hip, the Hilton Twins had to do everything together. A popular vaudeville act, they were used to being billed as a novelty, but one thing you definitely notice when watching them in both Freaks and Chained for Life is that they are very natural and there really isn’t anything “freakish” about them.
Chained for Life (director Harry Fraser’s last film) has Violet and Daisy Hilton starring as a conjoined Vaudeville singing act, Vivian and Dorothy Hamilton (not too big a stretch with the names there). The movie is a sort of flashback from a trial. Vivian has murdered her sister Dorothy’s husband, but the courts are not sure how to prosecute the guilty party while sparing the innocent. Through the many testimonial flashbacks we see how it all happened. Dorothy was conned into a publicity marriage by her manager (played by Allen Jenkins who I mainly remember as being the elevator guy in Pillow Talk) and a slick double-crossing stage magician, Andre Pariseau (Mario Laval). The movie depicts Dorothy’s longing to be separated so she can have a normal life; Vivian’s shrewdness and ardent distrust for Andre; and Andre’s two-timing. The courts refuse to let Dorothy obtain a marriage license because they would consider it bigamy. They are outraged, but they make it swing via an oblivious blind minister. After the publicity marriage, Andre dumps Dorothy and Vivian vengefully murders him. The film avoids resolution and instead tries to stump the audience with its bookend scenes of the judge (Norval Mithcell) openly asking the audience how he should rule.
A few things that make Chained for Life so intriguing is how they manage to keep half the twins in the dark about certain information. Usually one has to be asleep or there’s a curtain between them. It tends to create very odd juxtapositions that almost feel like a metaphor for the dual nature of mankind. The other fun aspect of the film is the frequent use of Vaudeville acts (I suspect to pad the film to feature-length). There’s a wise-cracking juggler, a man who does bicycle stunts, and an accordion player who blasts through The William Tell Overture in record time, in addition to the Hilton Twins three duets they sing together.
It’s meant to be pulpy and forgettable, but it does delve into some fascinating subject matter regarding the lives and limitations of conjoined twins (particularly in the prudent early 1950s). All in all Freaks is a billion times better, but this is a welcome treat for people who want more of the Hilton Twins.
Mondo Cane (1962) is famous for being what is considered the first shock-umentary. Shockumentaries take controversial, perverse, sensational, disturbing, and yes, shocking, documentary subjects and show you, the viewer, just what kind of strange sickness exists in this world. Often times they stage much of the main action and embellish the facts to make things more than what they really are. Mondo Cane was the first and would influence a whole new genre, the most famous offspring being Faces of Death (1980) and its sequels. Cane, the product of filmmakers Paolo Cavara, Gualtiero Jacopetti, and Franco Prosperi, is a warped, ironic, and actually quite humorous look into strange and disturbing customs all around the world. Where the film obtains its charm is not from its unflinching gluttony for its disturbing subject matter, but the humor it finds in juxtaposing the most bizarre and grotesque exotic rituals with more familiar “civilized” acts that mirror them. This film loves irony. Almost the whole movie could be described by a narrator saying, “You think that’s gross? Well, take a look at what your neighbor does.” The narrator is probably the best part of the movie too. He almost sounds like the guiding voice through a classic Disneyland ride like The Haunted Mansion.
You will see pet cemeteries; people cutting their legs with broken glass as they run through the streets; geese force-fed meal all day; tribal ladies cooped up in cages and waited upon; dogs being cooked; people exalting effigies of Rudolfo Valentino; women painting their bodies blue to create “art”; a woman breastfeeding a pig; Japanese businessmen getting hosed off in a strange spa; shark torture; and much, much, much more.
Although some of the movie is fabrication, that is not necessarily the point. Flaherty staged a lot for Nanook of the North (1922) to show the world what the life of an Eskimo might look like, not necessarily an Eskimo named “Nanook” specifically. Cavara, Jacopetti, and Prosperi just want to have fun at your expense and present the world as one weird, sick, funny place. More than present true realities, it wants you to reconsider your own lifestyle before judging others and it attempts to put these seemingly shocking incongruities in perspective. I may not appreciate the entire shockumentary mentality, but I did enjoy Mondo Cane.
These movies sometimes get unfairly looked down upon, but you know something? They’re still entertaining little curios, novelty or not. For singing dwarf cowboys, conjoined twin murder trials, and a buffet of international eccentricities check out The Terror of Tiny Town, Chained for Life, and Mondo Cane.