William Castle’s Little Picture

Somewhere between William Castle’s rebirth in the late fifties as the genius movie marketeer of such gimmicks as Emergo (House on Haunted Hill), Percepto (The Tingler), Illusion-o (13 Ghosts) or death by fright insurance policies (Macabre) and his prolific stint as a B-unit director in the forties and early fifties for Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures (and later at Universal-International) is the missing link that connects the two. Yet, although it probably qualifies as Castle’s most exploitive film in the true sense of the word, IT’S A SMALL WORLD (1950) has been unavailable for viewing until recently when the Warner Archives Collection released it on DVD.       

Directed by Castle, produced independently by him and distributed by Eagle-Lion Films, IT’S A SMALL WORLD is no forgotten masterpiece or even very compelling as cinema but it’s definitely a curiosity simply for the way in which it tries to balance a sympathetic case study of a midget with the lurid, sideshow aspects of its advertising campaign which proclaimed “The Amazing Story of a Man Forced to Live in a Child’s World!,” accompanied by suggestive illustrations which suggested a more perverse pulp fiction treatment.


Castle doesn’t even bother to mention the film in his entertaining autobiography, Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, but IT’S A SMALL WORLD marked the first time he ventured away from the formulaic B-movies he was making at the time (Johnny Stool Pidgeon, Undertow) in terms of subject matter. And it was certainly an unusual film for its time and an evolutionary step toward his later development of sure-fire audience hooks. But like Tod Browning before him, who had seriously misjudged MGM’s and the public’s response to Freaks (1932), Castle had no better luck in attracting audiences to IT’S A SMALL WORLD. And since the film didn’t earn the notoriety or controversy of a movie like Freaks, it quickly vanished and was rarely revived except for an occasional appearance on late night television in later years.

IT’S A SMALL WORLD has the structure of a three-act play which is portentously emphasized in the illustrated chapter headings for each section – “The Boy”, “The Woman”, “The Circus.” And despite the film’s sensationalistic poster, Castle touts his sincere intentions in an opening preface to the movie that appears over a bird’s eye view of a small rural town (which comes to symbolize ignorance and narrow-minded attitudes): “This is the story of a special group of people. It concerns the great difficulty they have in adjusting themselves to a normal world. It is hoped that by better understanding the lives of these people a greater and deeper knowledge of all humanity will come to us.”

Part one introduces us to our protagonist, Harry Musk (Paul Dale), a young boy who discovers at the age of 12 that his small size is due to a medical condition that affects “one in a million.” When it becomes obvious that Harry is not going to grow any taller, his affectionate but unenlightened father (Will Geer) decides to remove him from public school saying, “It’s the best thing son for you…People, they don’t understand. They’d only laugh at you. It’s best that nobody sees ya son.”  As Harry grows older but no bigger – the passage of time is depicted by Harry’s playmate Janie and his puppy dog growing to full size – his presence at home creates tension for his sister Susie. She finally snaps telling her father, “I can’t even invite my friends in….why can’t we send him someplace where he can be of some use like a circus or something?….I’m not going to let him ruin my life.” Anxious to get away from this stifling environment, Harry, now 21 years of age, leaves home to work for Mr. Jackson, a carnival promoter, but he escapes from this cruel taskmaster almost immediately and heads for Los Angeles. There he strikes up a friendship with Sam (Todd Karns, son of character actor Roscoe Karns), who hangs out in the park and shines shoes for a living. Soon, thanks to Sam, Harry has his own shoeshine operation and his future looks more promising.

Enter trouble in the form of femme fatale Buttons (Lorraine Miller), a brunette golddigger who lives across the hall from Harry in his boarding house. If the first third of the film plays like a dramatized special ed film, the second section of the film feels like a low-budget crime melodrama. Harry succumbs to Button’s seduction and she knows exactly how to play him: “You’re a gentleman, Harry. Anybody can see that and like I was saying, shining shoes is ok if you’re satisfied with nickels and dimes but you’re cut out for bigger things.” Harry is soon lured into aiding a gang of thieves led by Rose (Nina Koshetz) and Charlie (Steve Brodie), Button’s lover; his initial training echoes the Fagan/Artful Dodger pickpocket lessons in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Dressed and posing as a child, Harry is then taken on excursions to ball parks, stores, any crowded public places where pickpockets can thrive. All of this is depicted in a montage sequence but we never actually see Harry committing any crimes – probably due to budgetary reasons. This chapter comes to a swift end when Buttons cruelly rejects Harry and the little guy comes to his senses; he turns himself and his gang into the police, avoiding jail time by agreeing to be placed in the custody of Mr. Winters, the owner of the Cole Bros. Circus, which is headquartered in Miami, Florida.

Act three of IT’S A SMALL WORLD finds Harry succumbing to the fate he had tried to avoid from the beginning but has now come full circle. Yet instead of feeling exploited for his size, he discovers acceptance, friendship and even love within his new extended circus family and the movie has a happy fadeout, but not before Harry delivers a stirring, heartfelt rendition of the song “It’s a Small World” (by two-time Oscar nominated composer Karl Hajos) to his diminutive fiancee Dolly (Anne Sholter).

While Leonard Maltin’s succinct capsule review of the film accurately labels it a “truly strange B movie,” IT’S A SMALL WORLD is so flatly staged and directed and overly earnest in its sincerity that it never does come close to the exploitation tactics of such films as The Terror of Tiny Town (1938). Still, it has its share of odd moments, in particular a handful of surreal sequences in the first part of the film that look forward to Castle’s nightmarish interludes in The Tingler. In one, Harry is taunted by his shadow looming over his bed: “You better grow. I’m not gonna stay small.” In another scene, as he makes his escape from Mr. Jackson and races through the countryside at night, he is haunted by floating images of the evil carny smoking double cigars. And a later segment, when Harry is dumped by Buttons and goes on a drinking binge, achieves a dream-like film noir quality as he goes from bar to bar and ends up on a piano top, laughing hysterically before tossing a drink in the face of an obnoxious heckler.

Considering the ultra-low budget of the film, it is surprising to see a few familiar faces in the cast such as Will Geer as Harry’s well-intentioned father and Steve Brodie (The Steel Helmet, Donovan’s Brain) as a small change hoodlum. Geer, who will be forever associated with the TV series The Waltons, appeared in a lot of independent and liberal themed films during his early career such as Pare Lorentz’s The Fight for Life (1940), which is set in a maternity clinic in a city slum, Intruder in the Dust (1949), based on William Faulkner’s novel, Salt of the Earth (1954), a socialist drama co-produced by the International Union of Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers, and Black Like Me (1964).

In the pivotal role of Harry, Paul Dale, a disc jockey from Des Moines, does the best he can in his only starring role. He is no actor and was clearly cast because he is the real deal. His performance mostly consists of two different expressions, depending on the situation at hand. The one used most often is a forlorn, wounded look and the other is a sweet, innocent smile but regardless of the expression sadness radiates from this tiny actor. So in that regard Dale effectively evokes compassion and empathy for his character. Probably the most troubling aspect of his casting though is that Castle choose to use him in the childhood sequences as well instead of casting a child actor. Clearly the intention was to convey that Harry was a child when he stopped growing and looked that way for the rest of his life. But Dale does not really have the face of an ordinary child so it’s somewhat disturbing to see him in these early scenes.

Very little appears to be known about Dale. Some sources claim he was one of Henry Kramer’s Hollywood Midgets and appeared as one of the three tough kids in “The Lollipop Guild” musical number in The Wizard of Oz. Anne Sholter, who makes her only screen appearance in IT’S A SMALL WORLD as Harry’s bride, was a member of Nate Eagle’s Hollywood Midgets and was often billed as “the miniature Lana Turner.”  In real life, she was married to Frank “Cookie” Cucksey, a fellow member of Nate Eagle’s outfit, and they later moved to Sarasota, Florida where Frank worked for the Ringling Circus Museum as a tour guide. The buxom Miss Sholter is a lot more animated and expressive than her co-star and has a priceless response when she first sees Harry; “Yum Yum,” she says delightedly and we know the two of them will soon be an item.

One interesting aspect of IT’S A SMALL WORLD is that it was filmed on location in Los Angeles and Miami, Florida by the great Karl Struss. While his usual virtuosity is hard to detect here – he won the Best Cinematography Oscar for Sunrise (1927) and was nominated three more times – there are some fascinating behind the scenes glimpses of the Cole Bros. Circus as the trainers and riders rehearse their dancing elephant and horse acts under the big top. And speaking of animal acts, the Cole Bros. Circus has been in the news recently due to accusations of animal cruelty, especially in relation to their treatment of elephants; something that is hard to avoid thinking about when watching this footage.

The Warner Archive DVD of IT’S A SMALL WORLD is a no-frills release sporting a clean, acceptable transfer and no extras of any kind in keeping with their minimalistic model. The film is overpriced at $29.99 and only has a running time of 69 minutes. But how else are you going to see this long unavailable oddity? It’s not on Netflix or On-Demand yet and may never be. Still, Castle aficionados will want to check it out anyway and according to IMDB the director has a cameo in the film as a cop but either he eluded me or he’s not really in it.

Other sites of interest:

http://www.phreeque.com/nate_eagle.html

http://www.animalrightsflorida.org/ColeBros.htm

14 Responses William Castle’s Little Picture
Posted By Medusa Morlock : January 9, 2011 11:47 am

This definitely is a must-see for me, as a long-time circus/carnival/special people aficionado. But $29? That’s a bit too steep. I don’t like to see mainstream studios price-gouging like that, no matter what the title.

It sounds like the movie is what the Scott Carey would have faced if he stayed midget-sized instead of shrinking down into nothing. We get to see too little of that phase in TISM and this might fill in the gap.

Great review of a wonderful oddity!

Posted By Medusa Morlock : January 9, 2011 11:47 am

This definitely is a must-see for me, as a long-time circus/carnival/special people aficionado. But $29? That’s a bit too steep. I don’t like to see mainstream studios price-gouging like that, no matter what the title.

It sounds like the movie is what the Scott Carey would have faced if he stayed midget-sized instead of shrinking down into nothing. We get to see too little of that phase in TISM and this might fill in the gap.

Great review of a wonderful oddity!

Posted By dukeroberts : January 9, 2011 12:09 pm

Todd Karns will also be recognized as Harry Bailey, Jimmy Stewart’s younger brother in the greatest movie ever made, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 9, 2011 12:09 pm

Todd Karns will also be recognized as Harry Bailey, Jimmy Stewart’s younger brother in the greatest movie ever made, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Posted By dukeroberts : January 9, 2011 12:56 pm

It was $19.99 shortly before Christmas. Since no one else has the product they can charge what they want, but hopefully market forces will force them to lower the price so people may be more compelled to purchase it. Yay, free market system!

Posted By dukeroberts : January 9, 2011 12:56 pm

It was $19.99 shortly before Christmas. Since no one else has the product they can charge what they want, but hopefully market forces will force them to lower the price so people may be more compelled to purchase it. Yay, free market system!

Posted By Tom S : January 9, 2011 3:35 pm

The Warner Archives had a Black Friday deal where you could buy any 5 single disc titles for $50- I’d be surprised if that didn’t roll around again. Paying full price for them is kind of ridiculous, but if you wait for a while you can get a reasonable enough deal- and at least you don’t have to worry they’ll go out print.

Posted By Tom S : January 9, 2011 3:35 pm

The Warner Archives had a Black Friday deal where you could buy any 5 single disc titles for $50- I’d be surprised if that didn’t roll around again. Paying full price for them is kind of ridiculous, but if you wait for a while you can get a reasonable enough deal- and at least you don’t have to worry they’ll go out print.

Posted By Caroline : January 9, 2011 5:41 pm

Paul Dale was not a member of the Lollipop Guild. The Lollipop Guild was Jackie Gerlich, Jerry Maren, and Harry Earles. I wish people would get this right instead of assuming all Little People are interchangeable and starting “rumors” when the facts are readily available.

Posted By Caroline : January 9, 2011 5:41 pm

Paul Dale was not a member of the Lollipop Guild. The Lollipop Guild was Jackie Gerlich, Jerry Maren, and Harry Earles. I wish people would get this right instead of assuming all Little People are interchangeable and starting “rumors” when the facts are readily available.

Posted By morlockjeff : January 9, 2011 7:00 pm

Thanks Caroline. I was pretty sure he wasn’t in The Lollipop Guild but see that IMDB credits him for that too so that’s part of the problem right there.

Posted By morlockjeff : January 9, 2011 7:00 pm

Thanks Caroline. I was pretty sure he wasn’t in The Lollipop Guild but see that IMDB credits him for that too so that’s part of the problem right there.

Posted By Tim Tracy : January 10, 2011 9:20 am

Fascinating article! I’d never heard of this film, but you’ve certainly piqued my interest. I wonder if we’ll ever see this on TCM? Hope so!

Posted By Tim Tracy : January 10, 2011 9:20 am

Fascinating article! I’d never heard of this film, but you’ve certainly piqued my interest. I wonder if we’ll ever see this on TCM? Hope so!

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