The appearance of “little people” in movies pretty much goes back to the history of cinema itself. Dwarves and midgets (now considered derogatory terms by many) have often been seen as the focus of exploitation films (FREAKS, THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN, THE SINFUL DWARF), as supporting and main characters in fantasy films (THE WIZARD OF OZ, WILLIE WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, TIME BANDITS, THE LORD OF THE RINGS and any Christmas movie in need of Santa’s helpers), or any production when their size comes in handy to fill a tiny creature suit or fill in as an adult portraying a child (PLANET OF THE APES, STAR WARS, DEMON SEED, etc.). Having already exhausted just about every arena of drive-in cinema known to man, American International Pictures (AIP) took on a gang of grifting midgets for its 1973 release of LITTLE CIGARS (also known as THE LITTLE CIGAR MOB).
Cleo (Angel Tompkins, THE TEACHER) is the mistress of a mob boss (Joe De Santis), running out on him after burning his genitals with a cigar and robbing him at gunpoint. The sexy, leggy blonde now sports a wig disguise by day, taking off in her car and landing a job as a waitress in a coffee shop. Waiting tables there, she encounters two performers from an all-midget carnival troupe headed by Slick Bender (Billy Curtis), and consisting of Cadillac (Jerry Maren), Monty (Frank Delfino), Frankie (Felix Silla) and Hugo (Emory Souza). Cleo attends their fairly awful roadshow act, makes an early exit and discovers that Slick and his friends rip off the empty parked cars while the show is still in progress. Cleo comes back to confront the troupe after her gun is swiped, but soon finds herself in a skimpy outfit and propelled into the act, and easily adapting to their unlawful ways of pocket-picking and re-wrapping Three Musketeers bars to sell as a chocolate wonder drug. Becoming increasingly romantic with leader Slick, Cleo convinces the gang to take their thieving to the next level, resulting in a string of substantial heists and armed robberies. They all have fat wallets now, but are continuously running from the law.
Despite the rather cutsey title and a lighthearted advertising campaign, LITTLE CIGARS isn’t so much a comedy, but rather a gritty little drive-in film with a few comic moments (it’s certainly no 1970s re-imagining of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”). The plot is pretty basic, but the approach is different and can be quite odd at times, even for a AIP film. The reason for this is that the film never tries to sugarcoat things despite the possibilities, with Cleo and the five midget characters coming off as desperate anti heroes, never very likable as they constantly get on each other’s nerves, live for greed and are likely to turn on one another at any given moment. With her incredible enhanced figure and villainous good looks, Tompkins was the perfect choice for Cleo (she was also something of a drive-in movie queen at the time). The character is out for herself from the beginning, using her looks to manipulate men (and tease our midget friends) and you really can’t gauge her true intentions towards Slick until the very end.
With five midgets dressed up in cat burglar gear, it’s fun to watch them jump from one caper to the next with the help of a beautiful woman (who even disguises herself as a mustached delivery man at one point). Their vertically challenged stature enables them to smuggle themselves (via roomy car trunks, deliver baskets, vegetable crates, etc.) into various establishments to pull off a robbery, and this allows for a succession of amusing, well-paced scenes. But along with the tomfoolery are some dark bits, including the subplot of a duo of mob hitmen tailing Cleo, leading to an unexpected murder scene and a surprising amount of brawling violence for a PG rated picture. With a lively cast of familiar character actors, some rather cheap non-studio production values, a sub-Partridge Family soundtrack juxtaposed against such scenes as a 60+ year old midget bedding a leggy 30-year-old blonde and the aforementioned bits of out-of-nowhere viciousness, LITTLE CIGARS is not easily categorized, though it’s easy to see why the film has a cult following even if it’s a small one (no pun intended).
As for its “little people” cast, most of them are legends in the industry, the oldest being Curtis, followed by Delfino and Maren. Curtis and Maren had both appeared in 1938’s THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN, and more importantly, the following year’s THE WIZARD OF OZ, and both had steady careers in TV and film. Delfino, though much older than Maren, didn’t start acting in films and television until the mid 1950s, but also worked steadily throughout his career and easily recognizable to anyone who watches classic sitcoms. Of the three, the only survivor is Maren, now in his early 90s and still working! Italian-born Felix Silla (his character of Frankie is given the most pathos of the bunch) was probably best known as “Cousin Itt” on TV’s “The Addams Family”, but also has a hefty resume of TV and movie credits — now in his early 70s, he retired in the mid 1990s but still makes appearances at memorabilia conventions. The least recognized of the quintet is Souza, though horror fans will know him as the demon in 1978’s THE EVIL (he died in 1980 at the age of 42). The cast also includes the great Michael Pataki as a tied-up garage mechanic, Barbara Rhoades and sexploitation star Sharon Kelly as backstage strippers, Angelo Rossito as a dwarf who gets offended when mistaken as a midget in a police lineup and future “WKRP in Cincinnati” star Frank Bonner as a hotel bellman.
MGM is presenting LITTLE CIGARS on home video as part of their Limited Edition Collection of made-on-demand DVDs. The transfer holds the film to its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The film’s colors appear stable and image is quite good except for some occasional softness, some minor grain and a few nicks on the print source. The mono audio is also in good shape, with no noticeable defects. No trailer or chapter menu is included, but but the viewer can move ahead at ten-minute intervals throughout the presentation. (George R. Reis)
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