There’s an age as a boy growing up (around twelve to fifteen) that girls develop faster than you. All of a sudden, they’re young adults even though you’re still a little baby face. You have knobby knees and they have dancer’s legs. They’re starting to wear makeup and you’re still playing with toys. Going into Bugsy Malone – a straight-faced gangster film set in 1929 starring only children under the age of seventeen – the question is whether the novelty of its casting decision means anything. The film actually makes the fictional landscape of the gangster film more real, by taking its troublesome boys and distant, unknowable broads and making them children at an age when that’s just the way things are. The mysterious sexual tension is made strangely innocent, though the archetypes haven’t changed from when Bogart and Cagney inhabited them. Bugsy Malone is a gangster film that took a good look at itself and wondered if it could do better. It’s really close.
The children look incredible in their parts: Bugsy Malone is play-pretend pardoned by the Hollywood boss-man into a power trip. The suits and dresses are meticulously tailored, the hair is slick and shiny, and the entire grimy cityscape – complete with barrooms, dance floors, pedal cars, alleyways, cufflinks – is built down to the scale of its little people. Some unsung team of heroes was crafting miniature shot glasses and carving fairie furniture just so the entire cast could play-act as grownups (and perhaps so director Alan Parker could play-act as a kid). The world of Bugsy Malone – the scene, the landscape of its vision – is any kid’s dream.
The cast rises to this occasion. Parker employed his own brand of method casting to fill out Bugsy Malone. He found John Cassisi as the gang-lord Fat Sam by going to a Brooklyn classroom and asking for the naughtiest boy (of course, everyone in the room snitched him out immediately). Scott Baio slammed the script down in disgust and walked out of the audition – Parker knew right then that he had his lead, someone who could refuse to easily accept even the most delectable play-pretend on the grounds that he just don’t take orders too well. Well Bugsy ain’t no mug, as someone says, and neither is Baio (at least, not at that time). Martin Lev is treasurable as the rival mob boss Dandy Dan – clearly, this kid has seen movies.
But no one could watch the film and not take away Jodie Foster as the dancer Tallulah, mugging her tooth-gap like any man would be so lucky. “I like my men at my feet,” she says, and even at fourteen, Foster seems to mean it (she had already played the street walker in Taxi Driver at this point so her weary maturity wouldn’t have been in question). As Fat Sam’s squeeze and the film’s resident dance attraction, she has the look Parker must have been thinking of optimistically when he conceived this film to begin with, the look of the kind of girl Mae West described when she said that “A girl who knows the ropes will never get tangled up.” Foster commands attention in this film, and as a child she incentivizes a second-look at all the old movie dames, to see where we might have went wrong.
The one who doesn’t work so well is Florrie Dugger as the romantic lead, Blousey Brown, a name that Bugsy thinks sounds like a “stale loaf of bread.” He’s not far off. Apparently, the original Blousey hit her growth spurt during pre-production, outgrowing those pantyhose and flower-print dresses and little Scott Baio. Dugger was then cast from the extras and it shows. She never says things like she quite means it, and ends up as one of those movie dames that the script favors while we do not (Tallulah is clearly the unattainable bombshell, as Mrs. Robinson was in The Graduate; it’s just amazing that the distinction can be made between thirteen-year-olds). She really is stale: even her big singing number just sort of shows up, and she, unlike the rest of the cast, really gives off the air of a kid.
But even the bad performances all look the parts, and remind us of ourselves by doing so. They remind us how similar mob bosses are to playground bullies, and how displaying women on a stage for drunken amusement is about as honorable as dressing down the post-pubescent legs of a bunch of grade-schoolers. Or maybe it’s meant to reminisce on old Hollywood, rather than criticize old us: displaying the movies as cabarets of children in order to contrast the Coppola and Scorsese generation’s pungent realism with the innocent glamor of Bogart and Bacall. Children playing it straight may be the only ones fit to relive those old days, when getting hit with a marshmallow gun in the right make-believe setting made you as good as dead. This means that Bugsy Malone may be mostly about the children it casts as adults – this is where its novelty scheme really works – since they’re the ones most fit to portray how we used to pretend we were.
The film seriously lacks cigarettes – they so defined not only the atmosphere of the period but also its emotional minutiae (people do things with their hands in Bugsy Malone that I’ve never seen, since their counterparts in the movies would all be puffing between dexterous fingers). But the look of the film is sparkling: it’s real in a second-hand way, more of a Norman Rockwell impression of the time than a photo of it. The kids have the same pampered cheekbones that they do in Rockwell, that same effortlessly American look that movies only use today to portray brats. If Parker had been off at all, directing the kids to try too hard, to look too sweet or not sweet enough, it would have gone just as wrong as it does today.
If the look triumphs, the sound falters. Paul Williams is a good choice when you aim not for authenticity, but for an impression of the feeling it gives you (the score doesn’t sound like 1929, but it could play over your fond memory of it). The sounds of the era might have sounded old-fashioned, and the clear intention was to make Bugsy Malone a hip re-tailoring of nostalgia for the movies. Williams re-composes the Hollywoodized 20s and draws us back into them. The problem is the choice to dub the children over with adult voices. A small-fry piano player will suddenly burst into serenade as someone that sounds suspiciously like Paul Williams. Extras will bumble through refrains like they’re just moving their lips whenever the camera is around, and don’t quite remember the words. Somehow, these adult voices make the film seem like a kids movie (and this is the only time this is true), as though it’s suddenly too risky to hear the authentic voices of these children, after all this rigmarole of building their little tables and doorways and pint-sized petticoats. The adult singing denies the basic energy behind the whole experiment: don’t even tell me that Foster couldn’t have done that cabaret better; at fourteen, she would have had one of those movie scenes that gets full spreads in all the theory books.
The story is simple: rival mob bosses compete for territory while Bugsy takes odd-jobs and schmoozes on Blousey, for some reason (the personality is rather one-sided). The real premise comes not from the story but from the fringes of its performers. When Blousey says at the age of thirteen, “I’ve spent my whole life coming back tomorrow,” she can use her pudgy cheeks to make this old movie line seem portentous again, like no one is too young to regret their whole existence. Whether Bugsy Malone would become a kids movie depended on Parker understanding what he was telling us when he performed this old story in this way. When the kids say in unison, “We could have been anything that we wanted to be,” the film is talking about us, and doing it from the perspective of people who still have time to change. Despite its clear mistakes (aside from the music, there are whole scenes that serve no purpose, a musical number devoted to a boxing match that never happens, for instance), Bugsy Malone reminds us that we acted pretty badly in those days, and turned ourselves into children like Bogart to help the movies make us feel better about it. If we really wanted to do something about it – and I’m not saying we should – it would probably look a lot like Bugsy Malone. Our kids have always been our way of looking at ourselves; I’m surprised no one thought of this before Parker. Though after reading about the costume and cast calamities as they scrambled to compensate for sudden growth spurts and voice changes, I know why no one has thought of it since.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
|Bugsy Malone||Scott Baio|
|Blousey Brown||Florrie Dugger|
|Fat Sam Staccetto||John Cassisi|
|Dandy Dan||Martin Lev|
|Leroy Smith||Paul Murphy|
|Knuckles||Sheridan Earl Russell|