It’s a Small World (DVD Review)13 Sep, 2010 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Stars Paul Dale, Anne Sholter, Todd Karns, Will Geer.
A small movie about a small guy with an eye for flashy women of all sizes, this unearthed obscurity from a cult director is a required stop-off for connoisseurs of strange — or, in the self-coined term of film historian Michael Weldon, “Psychotronic” cinema. Though, in its day, trade magazines devoted to box office must have correctly predicted that its commercial chances would be slimmer than those of, say, even the latest Lash La Rue Western.
Last year’s outstanding documentary on William Castle — included in Sony Pictures’ boxed set of The Tingler, Homicidal and other exploitation heavyweights in baby boomer memory banks — more than covered the biographical basics. Castle was a journeyman ‘B’ director at Columbia in the 1940s and returned there for a long run that included his 1959-64 heyday. But between these two studio tenures, he freelanced a few years elsewhere for a series of non-household names (though every once in a while, you’ll run into someone who has a few good things to say about 1951’s Hollywood Story at Universal-International).
It’s a Small World — coincidentally, this was the working title of TV’s “Leave It to Beaver” when it was in the planning stages — was distributed by short lived Eagle-Lion Films, which gave us some taut early Anthony Mann film noirs, The Jackie Robinson Story, the sci-fi groundbreaker Destination Moon, and, indeed, Lash La Rue in Law of the Lash. A feature-lead showcase for former Wizard of Oz Munchkin Paul Dale (of the “Lollipop Guild”), World examines the plight of a rural male youth destined not to grow and the verbal/psychological abuse he takes from all but a few. Unless you’re a Munchkin cultist (and I’ve run into more than a few), the most familiar actor here won’t be Dale but future Grandpa Walton Will Geer (about to be politically blacklisted in real life) and Todd Karns, who’d previously played James Stewart’s war hero brother in It’s a Wonderful Life.
But life is not so wonderful for Dale’s character Harry Musk. The local hayseed kids don’t want him on their sports teams and even beat him up. When he gets older, a snotty sister credits his presence for dampening her dating opportunities. The teacher he has a crush on blows town with her squeeze. Later, the across-the-hall tramp who gets him aroused invites Harry for innocuous drinks, thrusts her breasts in his face (perhaps unavoidably), blatantly stands him up on dates and finally tries to exploit his size by getting him to pose as a young boy in her boy friend’s pickpocket ring.
Almost by definition, the result is an inevitable curio — though speaking artistically, there are probably only a couple ways a director could have gotten a truly good movie out of this material, neither of them open to even a semi-mainstream filmmaker in 1950 (notwithstanding 1932’s one-of-a-kind Freaks from MGM). One way would be to go the David Lynch route and play up Harry’s unrealized yearnings (which one scene here — probably the best in the movie — actually does). The other would be to fashion an eccentric comedy right out of HaroldandMaude-ville — hooking Harry up with an Amazonian babe who loves him and everyone else in the small-minded community be damned.
Instead, the movie takes the predictable way out after showing mild promise midway in — the part of the story that serves up not just the tramp but a male stranger on a park bench who chats up Harry upon the latter’s arrival in the big city. As it turns out, this guy (Karns) isn’t up to anything funny and wouldn’t know what a sexual hustler is. He merely wants to set up Harry in a shoe-shining business.
The circus turns out to be Harry’s salvation — even after he’s spent almost the entire picture stating vehemently that being gawked at under the big top isn’t the way he wants to go. It helps, of course, that the circus that ends up employing him also has on the staff a horsewoman (Anne Sholter) just his size. She’s also a platinum blonde with a figure that, if not complete dynamite, is at least a case of M-80’s.
Once love blooms, the movie has one of the most lickety-split wrap-ups I’ve ever seen, and it’s difficult to say whether this is any way due to discrepancies in its running time (the DVD box says 69 minutes, IMDb.com 74, and the disc I ran clocked in at just under 68). The print quality, however, is excellent — better than you almost ever see today of a movie Eagle-Lion distributed. Its artistic debits notwithstanding, this is as good a release as any to explain why the “on-demand” concept was conceived. How many vintage screen oddballs are still in mothballs — spanning, especially, the immediate postwar era through the collapse of the studio system?