We continue the 2016 Blind Spot Series with our second entry...
Why did I pick it? When I was young, really young, living in Queens, WPIX, or simply channel 11, was what I spent the most time watching. It was the television home of my beloved New York Yankees. Just by virtue of this, I spent most summer nights with the station. I also stuck around for lots more. It didn’t have any original programming aside from the nightly news, but a number of the syndicated shows they ran went on to become some of my personal all-time favorites. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent watching The Honeymooners, The Odd Couple, The Jeffersons, Barney Miller, Sanford & Son, The Twilight Zone, the original Star Trek, Batman, and the list goes on. On Saturday mornings, I flipped away to catch cartoons on other networks, but came back by eleven for my weekly ride on the Soul Train. They reserved the rest of the weekend for old movies and made a big deal when they were showing something of relatively recent vintage. Before the Digital Age, recent meant something that came out within the last five or six years. These came with weeks of advertisement, but also an eight or nine o’clock weeknight showtime.
One such movie was 1976’s Bugsy Malone. The star was a kid from another sitcom I loved, Scott Baio. He played Chachi on Happy Days. When I saw he had done a movie, I was drawn to it. However, it was not meant to be. Those weeknight prime time starts would take a young me well past bedtime. Mama Dell was occasionally flexible with the time she sent me to see Mr. Sandman, but only for an unspecified number of events. I knew there was a limit, but only she knew what that limit that was. Therefore, I didn’t want to chance using them all up on movies I would have another chance to see. There were Yankees’ games to watch. There were even Mets games on channel 9, and Knicks’ games, too. The Grammys were rolling around at some point. Plus, you never knew when the next can’t miss TV special was coming on. Bugsy Malone just wasn’t important enough for me to risk Mama Dell’s wrath by asking if I could stay up late to watch some movie she never heard of.
Years later, as an adult, I would get a second job to help my very own family make ends meet. It was as a clerk at Blockbuster. By the way, this would turn out to be one of the more important steps on my road to becoming a movie blogger. One of the perks of the job was getting to see tons of free movie rentals. Seizing the opportunity to see older films that previously got by me. I loaded up on the classics like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, Seven Samurai, and so on. Eventually, I remembered the title Bugsy Malone. I looked all over the store where I worked, to no avail. Same goes for other stores I visited. Less than a year into my employment, as a way too late reaction to the fledgling Netflix, Blockbuster finally got their online service going. I joined up, though it was only “highly encouraged,” not mandatory of employees. I found Bugsy Malone and threw it in my queue…where it sat. And sat…and sat…until I eventually dropped the service. When I made up my mind that I was definitely joining in on this year’s Blind Spot Challenge, hosted by Ryan at The Matinee, I knew Bugsy Malone needed to be on my list. Of course, it wasn’t streaming on Netflix. I’m not that lucky. However, they did have it in their DVD stock. I put it in my queue, moved it to the top, and here we are.
Here is the Prohibition Era, possibly Chicago, in the middle of a gang war between the “crime” families led by Dandy Dan (Martin Lev) and Fat Sam (John Cassisi). Dan is clearly winning due to his crew being the only ones with tommy guns, or “splurge guns” as they call them in the film. Bugsy Malone (Baio) is a bit of a ladies’ man. He is not involved with either side in the war, but spends most nights hanging out at the club owned by Fat Sam. Bugsy takes a shine to Blousey Brown (Florrie Dugger), the new girl who has just recently started working there. Since Bugsy is serious in his pursuit of Blousey, he’s simultaneously trying to resist of charms of the club’s star singer Tallulah. She is played by a young woman who earlier in 1976 wowed audiences in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a thirteen year old Jodie Foster. In fact, all of the actors are young. Really young. Every single role is played by a child. And yes, Bugsy eventually finds himself involved in the goings on between Dan and Sam. Oh, there’s one more thing I almost forgot. It’s a musical.
Aside from the fact there are no adults in Bugsy Malone, the biggest thing that pops out at the viewer is its set design. Director Alan Parker, who would go on to helm Midnight Express, Fame, and Angel Heart among others, didn’t just find a location and drop a bunch of kids in it. He built an entire world scaled to their size. The icing on the cake comes from the small, pedal operated cars. They are simply a stroke of genius. Even the violence is kiddie-fitted. The film doesn’t exactly shy away from it as a number of people are shot on-screen. The difference between this and other movies, and the thing this movie is most known for aside from its pubescent cast, is that the “splurge” guns shoot custard. I’m not kidding. Interestingly enough, when someone is shot the film treats them as if they’ve been killed. The custard and overall playful tone keeps things from getting grim. Through it all, a powerful illusion is created that this universe belongs entirely to them. Never once do we as viewers raise the question we always do when watching movies dominated by kids: where are the parents? That issue is far more irrelevant here than in any film I’ve ever seen.
Even without the need for adults, perhaps it was inevitable that a movie inhabited solely by children occasionally gives off a school play vibe. The impressive world building is a mostly effective defense against this, but it’s not impenetrable. Some really clunky line deliveries remind us that these are just a bunch of kids. Still, there are good performances to be found here. In the lead, Scott Baio displays a charm befitting his character. It only makes sense that his Chachi became one of the more lovable characters on Happy Days. The person who would eventually have the most prosperous career, Jodie Foster, is solid as well. She’s a bit over the top, exaggerating her movements a bit too much to showcase the sultry side of her character. That’s forgivable due to her age. The best work is turned in by our rival gangsters. Martin Lev’s stone-faced portrayal as Dandy Dan is on the money. As the boisterous Fat Sam, John Cassisi blows everyone off the screen. What he accomplishes here quickly makes it one of my all-time favorite movie performances by a child.
The film’s musical numbers are fun and well-staged, but still problematic. In a movie purposely constructed to be weird, these provide the weirdest moments. Mainly, it’s because our performers are lip-syncing to songs sung by adults. The fact that the kid’s we’re watching aren’t singing is highlighted in neon for all to see, pulling us out of the film. This adds to the school play vibe of which I spoke. Most musicals struggle because the story weakly links together a succession of songs. Bugsy Malone has the opposite problem. The songs feel like a pause in the narrative rather than the reason for it. To the credit of the cast, these kids lip sync and dance their hearts out right through to the bizarre out of nowhere finale. They just can’t overcome the restraints placed upon them.
When it’s not giving us the song and dance, the script is really good. It mixes pre-Hays Code gangsterisms with a bit of 70s flare to create its snappy conversations. This, and some gorgeous shots in the woods during a secret meeting make me wonder how much influence this film had on the Coen brothers when they made Miller’s Crossing. Obviously, they ratcheted up the double entendre and profanity, but the dialogue in these two films have a similar feel. However, feeling like other films is not something this particular movie does a lot of. Right from the start us viewers know that we’re in a place where we’ve never been. We recognize some familiarities, but they’re not put together in a way we’re used to seeing. This makes Bugsy Malone something most movies can’t claim to be – a wholly unique viewing experience.
2016 Blind Spot Entries
2015 Blind Spot Entries