26 December 2010
I’m not the type to cry about how children’s movies aren’t as good as they used to be — far from it, as we seem to be living in a golden age for terrific kids’ movies. But there’s something exceptional about Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone (1976) that’s worth discussing. Last night our home-for-the-holidays family watched it again and I struck by its appeal to both adults and children – a rarity in the 70s, an era of corny Disney features like The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) that, I’m guessing, don’t hold up all these years later. The difference, I think, is that the child actors in Bugsy Malone are pretending to be adults in a Prohibition-era world of gangsters, molls, torch singers and showgirls, and wannabe prizefighters. Because they inhabit their pretend-adult roles so seriously, the movie evokes a sweet melancholy for disappointments, lost chances, and broken dreams, moods discordant with other children’s films. In fact, I think it’s the film’s juxtaposition of its sometimes dark themes, its terrific child actors, and its joyous final song that rejects cynicism in favor of youthful hope that makes it so watchable. (Friends, it’s available in full on YouTube.)
When I saw this at a relatively young age, I wanted to visit the set and play there. They drive kid-sized replicas of early autos that operate by bicycle pedal, it’s full of eminently singable song-and-dance numbers, and best of all, the plot pivots on a gang war over guns that shoot whipped cream. The acting isn’t always seamless, but the best characters are played by the transcendently good Jodie Foster and, of all people, a pre-Happy Days Scott Baio as Bugsy. Bugsy’s a scrapper – a good guy who’s a bit down on his luck but manages to get along. He flirts with all the girls, but he really takes a shine to the solemn-faced Blowsey Brown (Florrie Dugger), a would-be singer who carries a baseball bat in her suitcase. She shows up at Fat Sam’s speakeasy to get a job; Bugsy gets pulled into working for Fat Sam during the gang war; and their budding romance gets complicated by the worldly, wise-cracking Tallulah (Foster), a torch singer who vamps it up with the guests at the club.
What I find so remarkable about this is the prevailing sense of cynicism in the early parts of the film. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a group of 12- and 13-year-olds voicing such quasi-noir skepticism about the world. When the club’s janitor hears again that he’ll have to wait till tomorrow to try out for a tap-dancing job, he resolutely picks up his tap shoes and sings a slow dirge:
Tomorrow never comes
What kind of a fool
Do they take me for?
A resting place for bums
A trap set in the slums
But I know the score
I won’t take no for an answer
I was born to be a dancer now, Yeah!
Tomorrow, as they say
Another working day and another chore
An awful price to pay
I gave up yesterday
But they still want more
Likewise, when Bugsy thinks he’s found a new boxer of extraordinary talent, he takes the poor guy to Cagey Joe’s gym to have him trained. Joe looks him up and down and begins a warning-off song, eventually joined by all the other boxers in the room:
So you wanna be a boxer
In the golden ring
Can you punch like a south-bound freight train
Tell me just one thing
Can you move in a whirl like a humming bird’s wing
If you need to
Can you bob, can you weave
Can you fake, and deceive when you need to?
Well, you might as well quit
If you haven’t got it.
I should mention that this is really a catchy song, with lots of quick cuts to boxers in training. But “you might as well quit / if you haven’t got it”? When have I ever heard that before in a kids’ movie?
Now, no adult today will find the movie’s central plot about the growing arms race to be terribly remarkable — after all, the “splurge guns” at the center of the story shoot whipped cream — but as the film was made in 1976 it’s worth pondering whether it had the Cold War and the US/Soviet arms race on its mind. Splurge guns prove to be infinitely more “deadly” than earlier weapons (that is, throwing whipped-cream pies into people’s faces), and without them Fat Sam is losing his territory quickly. The film ends with an utter white-out battle in the speakasy, hitting everyone mercilessly in a way that at any other point would have signified death — in fact, it might have led to an even bleaker conclusion to a film that already has a lot of bleakness on its mind. But when a pie hits the piano player and he hits a couple of notes, the battle halts; he begins singing in a rueful way, “We coulda been anything that we wanted to be,” a song that grows into a promise to change, to make friends, to live, to love:
It’s been lost, hasn’t it — the sense that the world is precarious, and that we have to become better than we are to save it. It’s a mood I grew up with as a kid in the 70s, with children’s shows that advocated a social conscience. All the more reason to watch Bugsy Malone. Remember that Scott Baio was once a froggy-voiced kid with a sweet Brooklyn accent, a kid who could really act; remember that children’s films had something to say about politics; remember that 1970s message about children being the future. It’s a pleasure to remember.