Bugsy Malone

Bugsy Malone. Paramount Pictures 1976.
Bugsy Malone. Goodtimes Enterprises 1976.

Before watching the movie:

I stumbled across this maybe decades ago, I believe referenced in an educational book about movie making, which noted that there was a movie that cast all child actors in grown-up roles, requiring all of the sets and props to be custom-built at a child scale. That obviously stuck in my mind, but I never followed up on it. Recently I watched a movie that made an offhand reference to this movie, finally looked it up, and here it is.

I had no idea before I looked it up that it was a musical. This sounds fantastic. A G-rated gangster movie musical with a completely child cast, starring Jodie Foster and Scott Baio. I mean, it could go horribly wrong, but what reputation I’ve been able to glean about it suggests not.

After watching the movie:

In a 1920s gangland world where a pie in the face means a guy is finished, a new powerful weapon is introduced. In the hands of a rival boss, the Splurge Gun, which rapidly fires balls of custard anywhere, may prove to be the engine of downfall for Fat Sam’s empire of sarsaparilla speakeasies and grocery rackets. Against this backdrop, broke scoundrel Bugsy Malone, boxing promoter with no clients, meets and becomes close with Blousy Brown, aspiring singer/movie star. As Dandy Dan’s thugs close in on Fat Sam, he may have no one else to turn to but Bugsy.

There may not always be verisimilitude in the performances on display, but there is just about always youthful enthusiasm. Everyone’s having fun and bringing their energy to the set. The whole thing is a bit of absurd schoolyardish fantasy anyway, so why bother creating maximum reality? The child-sized sets and props feel child-sized, and while I think it would have been possible to use camera optics and meticulous design to make them feel more like an adult-sized world with adult-sized child stars, it’s just more fun to show that in this world, the cars are pedal-powered. Murder is symbolized by pie attack, for goodness sakes.

That said, there are limits. A write-up of this movie cannot ignore that the musical numbers are all dubbed by adults. Some of these are good matches, that I could almost ignore the maturity in the voice. Some of them are even so good I was open to the idea that that particular performance was by the actual child actor. Some of them are very, very wrong. When Bugsy starts singing, it’s a 185% different voice. And he has spoken lines in the middle of his big number that switch back to Baio’s own voice. Fat Sam has a jarring disconnect as well, but I think he only sings one line in the whole movie.

It’s a nice thing to have racial diversity in a film that could have gotten by without it. There are numerous examples of characters of different races interacting without the racism one would expect from the real 1920s. But this goes much further. In most gangster stories, you may get an Italian family or an Irish family, and maybe a Jewish character, but this actually shows a multitude of multicultural life in a way, aside from the racism that’s better left out anyway, that seems very true to what a major city of the time would have felt like. There are Asian characters who seem to have been partly isolated by similar cultural pressures to those that create Chinatowns. The black characters have equal respect, but they are depicted in class positions common for the time being emulated. Fat Sam is portrayed as very ethnically Italian, there are characters emigrated from the British Isles, and Bugsy himself is described as half-Irish, half-Italian. It may be a minor stretch for the scene where a bunch of people of several nationalities (including Asian, African, Middle Eastern, and European ones) are telephoning in many different languages to report on the news, but it’s meant to be a little jokey.

This is a little bit of fun in the milieu of Al Capone, with even less danger than playing a prohibition-era video game. The songs can drag on, and just plain break immersion, but every frame reminds the viewer not to take it too seriously. Who wouldn’t want to play with speakeasies and tommy guns without anybody getting hurt?

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