Review: Little Cigars

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

Far be it from American-International to leave off supplying product, however hackneyed, until the last gasp is wrung from audience and genre alike; so in Little Cigars we have still another of those unstable meldings of comedy and crime, with a bit of violence thrown in. This low-budget late entry has a couple of extra things going for it, though. Curiosity value, above all. The titular Little Cigars, it turns out, are a troupe of midgets. In both senses of the word, they perform the genre’s customary capers. And a good thing, too. It would be hard to find in what goes on around these “little people” onscreen anything you might call a performance, exactly—least of all from full-size thesp and leading lady Angel Tompkins, though she does try her goodnatured best and has ample natural endowments for her stock floozy role as Cleo.

Nor does Christenberry’s direction contribute much. Well, that’s not quite fair. There’s one nice crane shot early on, when Cleo, seductively half-dressed for carny-show purposes, a glossy “Miss Nova Scotia” ribbon traversing her flanks, suddenly picks up little Slick (Billy Curtis, as emcee of the show and leader of the troupe) and carries him off the stage, through the curtains at the back; whereupon the camera moves up and we watch her proceed down the back stairs of the improvised stage, across a patch of grass, and into the company’s travelling wagon, the enraged midget still helplessly borne in her arms. A well-planned shot establishes a feeling of esprit de corps among the troupe members as two of the Little Cigars, having just wiped up the floor with a masher, jump back up into the frame, in tandem motion, and onto their high restaurant-counter stools. There’s also an exhilaratingly anarchic garage heist, the midgets scurrying efficiently back and forth, presto, under Slick’s frantically paced coxswainship, four or five tiny figures piling more and more loot into a small getaway car, cans of gasoline, mammoth truck tires, impossibly large, awkwardly shaped automotive implements. And there is, finally, a bizarre Hitchcockian necktie-type murder which may have been the director’s own idea: the gunman-victim thrashing about a small motel room like a bucking bronco, while the midget fastened to his back and throttling him holds on, holds on … until he expires. Here Christenberry has the good sense to simply stay in the middle distance and let it all happen, no fancy cutting or closeups or camera movement.

Aside from the above moments, his directorial virtues in Little Cigars seem limited mostly to that kind of modesty, and it’s not always enough. For example, when Cleo—fleeing the two hired guns dispatched by a freaky sexual client she has (again in both senses of the word) “burned”—arrives in tiny Coshocton, Ohio, the movie does finally get into high gear; but it’s not thanks to any special mise-en-scène, any special sense of place from Christenberry. It’s just that the midgets make their entrance (Slick: “You know what they say in show business: you ain’t nothing till you play Coshocton, Ohio!”) and once they take over, you’ve always got somebody interesting up there to keep your eye on. The urban scenes that dominate the end of the movie aren’t characterized much more than Coshocton is, though one potential underlying theme is the protagonists’ passage from the relative harmony still possible within pastoral Middle America, to the murderous discord of the Big City. But that’s mainly thematic window-dressing. The midgets are the show, and at the three-changes-per-week rerun theater where I saw the movie last December, they more than managed to sustain audience interest. A double process goers to work as we watch: Here are all these picturesque tiny figures, scuttling around a big dark parking lot, looting cars; circulating at waist level among the corn-fed carny crowd, simultaneously selling bogus vitamin bars and picking pockets; vaulting onto bank counters with shotgun in hand; emerging en masse from laundry bags, robbing the company safe, and exiting down a chute with the loot. Fascinating: a novelty act. At the same time, though, the faces are individuating, and the voices and personalities of the Little People are starting to interest us just as though they were, well, normal. It all goes to waste whenever the movie reverts to melodrama. The midgets are not very skilled actors (except for Curtis), and the melodrama is trite anyhow. Furthermore, Christenberry cheats: despite all the hardware the Cigars tote on their armed robbery missions, no lawmen or bystanders ever get injured, for that would alienate sympathy. Fortunately, the melodrama seldom intrudes for long; the prevailing tone is comic.

Which brings us to the other extra thing Little Cigars has going for it. Screenwriters Garfinkle and Perrill may or may not be midgets themselves, yet they manage somehow to construct a verbal environment that seems beautifully appropriate to midget sensibilities: an uneasy compound of self-deprecation and defiance, humiliation and pride, expressed nonstop in a stream of words and wisecracks—an unending oscillation, in short, between Tiny Is Beautiful and Tiny Is Sheer Hell. In the last scene, one of the Cigars spits on Cleo, who has paired off with Slick but appears to have betrayed both him and the others. “Any woman who’d be satisfied with some midget…,” he murmurs. The nagging sense, on both sides, that Cleo and little Slick’s pairing-off lacks credibility leads to another verbal motif, the recurrent “how come we’re still together?” exchanges between them. In the movie’s closing line, with a touch of sentimentality, Cleo answers, “Because you’re my old man and I dig your little ass.” Slick’s answer in an earlier scene is wittier, and it’s edged with the exquisite habitual irony that is a specialty of the oppressed. “Well, we’re a good fit,” he declares with a Mickey Rooney leer, “and that’s hard to find.”

LITTLE CIGARS
Direction: Chris Christenberry. Screenplay: Louis Garfinkle, Frank Ray Perrill. Cinematography: John M. Stephens. Titles: Sandy Dvore. Production: Albert Band.
The Players: Billy Curtis, Angel Tompkins, Jerry Maren, Frank Delfino, Emory Souza, Felix Silla.

Copyright © 1974 Ken Eisler