by Heath Holland
I’ve been consistently amazed at the amount of variety that appeared on screens in 1976, but I don’t think any movie better represents the weird, wild, experimental spirit of that year than Bugsy Malone. Here we have a gangster film set in prohibition-era New York City with all the elements you’d expect: extortion, racketeering, illegal speakeasies, rival mob organizations, and gang hits are the order of the day in this tale of the tumultuous twenties, but with a twist! In this crime film, the cast is made up entirely of children. That’s right, everyone in this film is 16 years old or younger. The results are a movie that, as far as I’m aware, stands completely alone in what it does.
Bugsy Malone is ultimately a kid’s movie, but it never feels patronizing or condescending. In fact, one of the joys for me is that it also plays well for adults because, underneath the child actor twist, this is still an engaging gangster movie, albeit one with singing, dancing, and lots of whipped cream. Two rival mob gangs (led by “Fat Sam” and “Dandy Dan”) are fighting for control of organized crime on the tough city streets. In the real Roaring Twenties, underground clubs popped up to illegally serve alcohol to a thirsty public, but in Bugsy Malone, the clubs serve drinks of orange juice and milkshakes. One of the gangs even runs a profitable sarsaparilla racket. Most importantly, when mafia executions are carried out, they are done not with bullets, but with custard cream pies. The movie opens with an unfortunate victim being cornered in a dark alley by a group of thugs who plaster him to the wall with cream from their tommy guns, effectively snuffing him out as an onlooker screams from a second-story window. In Bugsy Malone, getting pied is the equivalent of the Big Sleep.
This is also Jodie Foster’s third and final appearance in our look at the movies of 1976, but it’s no surprise that she brings exactly the same thing here that she does to movies like Freaky Friday and Taxi Driver, namely maturity and presence beyond her years. Her character of Tallulah (no doubt inspired by silver screen starlet Tallulah Bankhead) is a torch singer and a denizen of Fat Sam’s club, and she gets to deliver some of the movie’s best lines. When cooly flirting with Bugsy, she asks “Wanna smear my lipstick?” Later, when Bugsy has tripped over something and fallen to the floor, she deadpans “I like my men at my feet.” It’s great, and Foster brings that gravitas that makes her so unique and powerful on screen. Most importantly, she seems to be having FUN.
I should also mention that Bugsy Malone is a full-fledged musical that would make Chicago proud. Most of our characters get a song that defines what they want, and there’s often a lot of dancing to punctuate what they’re singing about. Like the kid mopping up at the bar who could have been a dancer like Fred Astaire, or the thugs who work for Fat Sam and have a whole dance routine to show how tough they are. Interestingly, adult singers provided the real vocals for these songs and all the kids lip-sync, making the musical numbers in this movie the only time that adults are involved in what’s happening on screen. Not a single adult is ever seen on camera.
A Star Is Born with Barbra Streisand. He also popped up in my piece on The Boy in the Plastic Bubble because he had a song in that movie too, as well as contributing a song to the ultra-indie horror Land of the Minotaur, which we also covered here. That’s four appearances during this series on 1976! Is it possible that Paul Williams might be the real star of this series? The answer is “yes.” Is Paul Williams standing behind me making me write this? Also yes. Please send help.
Lastly, I want to take a minute to point out that almost all but a handful of shots for Bugsy Malone were filmed on a set inside Pinewood Studios. This is not a bad thing; the sets themselves are done really well and feel huge and inhabited, but still somehow artificial and otherworldly. The urban streets of New York circa 1927 look amazing as created inside Pinewood by production designer Geoffrey Kirkland. Watching the movie again in preparation to write about it, I kept thinking how much it reminded me of Gotham City in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, which also shot almost entirely inside Pinewood Studios. I know it’s probably only a coincidence, but is it possible that some of the sets from Bugsy Malone survived long enough to be repurposed for Tim Burton’s superhero film 13 years later? Probably not…but what if?
Get more Heath Holland at his blog Cereal at Midnight!