Wednesday, June 26, 2019


I remember Bugsy Malone being on television all the time when I was a kid. It was a mainstay of syndicated stations, showing up probably at least twice a year, thought it felt like more. Which makes it hard to explain why I never watched it. The opportunity was ever-present. In my memory, Bugsy Malone is classified as “drab” and “corny,” meaning something in my child’s brain clocked the commercials for the film and dismissed it. Best guess is I just wasn’t buying the conceit. I was a judgmental youngster, quick to dismiss and move on. Bugsy Malone’s game of dress-up didn’t strike me as believable.

And it starred Chachi from Happy Days. AKA “Charles in Charge.” AKA Scott Baio. I was way ahead of the curve on not liking Scott Baio. He was someone for my sister to swoon over, not me.

For those who don’t know, Alan Parker’s 1976 musical Bugsy Malone is a jazz-age gangster picture made for and starring children. All the roles are filled out by elementary and middle school-aged actors dressed in fancy suits and putting on airs. Songs are provided by maestro Paul Williams, who also wrote the score for DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise and appeared on The Muppet Show and in Cannonball Run. The kids themselves don’t sing, but are dubbed by adult voices--one of the weirder and least effective parts of the concept. I found myself watching the performers’ mouths to see how well they lip-synched, since the oversized voices never match well enough to the pint-sized belters to create a convincing illusion. (There it is. Not Buying the Conceit!)

Baio leads the film as Bugsy, a genial hustler with no allegiances. That is, until he meets Blousey (Florrie Dugger), an aspiring singer looking for a gig in the big city. In trying to help Blousey out, Bugsy gets caught in a gang war between speakeasy owner Fat Sam (John Cassisi) and his rival Dandy Dan (Martin Lev). There are also some sparks between Bugsy and his old flame, the town’s top torch singer, Tallulah (Jodie Foster)--but Bugsy stays true, even when Blousey challenges him.

Parker strives here for a blending of adult story with childish sensibilities, aiming for both audiences, juxtaposing our expectations of mob movies with the incongruous youth of the cast. One could argue that it exploits how un-innocent children really are, given that they are prone to selfishness and greed and other base impulses in a way that likewise informs the criminal minds of their elders. It’s a violent life with the teeth pulled out.  In Bugsy Malone, the gangsters shoot whipped cream and throw pies. Kids go on dates and indulge in romance, but sexuality isn’t even implied. Cars look like 1930s models but don’t run on gas, they aare driven by pedaling. No one swears, alcohol is juice or sarsaparilla, everything is safe and danger is only pretend.

Bugsy Malone is cute and probably would have charmed me had I watched it at the right age. At 47, I could only buy into it in fits and starts. Some stuff really works. Both Cassisi and Lev act circles around their castmates, making for convincing miniature gangsters. Both are character types that would be right at home in a Coen Bros. film, perfect for a kiddie matinee redo of Miller’s Crossing. Baio is even fine in his way; only Foster seems to be out of place, never looking quite comfortable miming someone else’s words or acting the grown-up.

Individual music numbers have pizzazz. The melancholy “Tomorrow,” performed by a janitor who dreams of dancing and the lonely chanteuse who believes in him, dredges up some strong emotions, mostly because its young onscreen performers bring an ageless sadness to their tapping--it’s not that the emotion transcends their young years, but that childhood is full of melancholy, too. On the flip, “So You Wanna Be a Boxer” is jaunty and fun, a perfect take on the boxing montage.

The rest I could take or leave. Just like with the lipsyncing, something about all their playing dress-up kept me at arm’s length. Maybe it’s that the script is just too conventional to consume me. Sure, Parker and his crew capture a lot of scenes just right, getting the look of other gangster pictures of the period--a romantic outing with Bugsy and Blousey would not have been out of place a few years later in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America--but it’s all simulacrum with no authenticity. The climactic pie fight is all kinds of goofy, with Jodie Foster getting the highlight, delivering an off-the-cuff “So this is showbiz?” followed by what looks like a genuine, unrehearsed laugh. But even here it feels like Alan Parker himself is only playing. Despite the appearance of chaos and the alleged record number of pies thrown, the sequence feels as controlled as everything else--an approximation of something that will only fool those who haven’t otherwise seen the real thing.

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