The Roaring 20’s Become Fun and Lively with “Bugsy Malone”

Growing up as a late teen I didn’t go to the movies all that much, rather I would have the movies come to me through pay services such as HBO and Showtime. During my time in high school I found a film that I had absolutely enchanted me, my family, and many in my small circle of friends.

It’s the roaring 20’s. Prohibition is in full swing so this is the time of speakeasies, gangs and turf wars. There are two gangs at play in New York City. A mobster named Fat Sam runs one and Dandy Dan operates the other. As is the nature of turf wars, Dandy Dan wants to essentially run the city, which means he needs to take over Sam’s operations by muscling him out. In the meantime, a very idealistic young lady named Blousey Brown is trying to become a singer (with aspirations of becoming a Hollywood star) so she is auditioning over at Fat Sam’s Grand Slam (the name of Sam’s speakeasy). It is here that she meets the movie’s title character, a very personable, and slightly arrogant young man named Bugsy Malone. He’s immediately drawn to her and has decided that he’ll do anything that he can to help her realize her Hollywood dream. However, Sam has his own plans for Bugsy because his team of thugs are all being wiped out with this new type of gun that Dan is using, and he’s looking to Bugsy to help him out because in Sam’s words, “You’ve got brains up there, not pretzels!” Bugsy, with the help of a street fighter turned boxer (thanks to Bugsy), learns where the guns are being kept, raids the storage house and supplies Sam’s last remaining business (the Grand Slam) with all of the guns for what is liable to be a truly awful shoot out. Only the weapons used here are splurge guns and this movie ends with everyone singing.

Yes, for those people who never heard of this movie, Bugsy Malone is actually a movie musical written and directed by Alan Parker (this was his feature film debut, but would very quickly go on to much bigger and better things such as Pink Floyd’s The Wall) back in 1976. Dreaming up a movie that his kids could see he created this gangster film and only used child actors. Adult singers, including the movie’s songwriter Paul Williams, would later dub the singing. In the title role of Bugsy is a very adorable looking Scott Baio. For someone who was very young in the business, he did present the role with many of the tropes and clichés that charming rogues from that Golden Age of Hollywood were supposed to have. He never comes off as stiff, and while as a youngster I may have totally accepted his behavior as not only believable, but also sort of cool, watching it today felt slightly cringe-worthy, especially in today’s social climate of the #MeToo movement. This is not Baio’s fault, nor is it really the fault of the writing and directing. If we were to watch a true film from that era, with adults in the roles we would most likely give it a hand wave and just say, “Well that’s the way it was!” However seeing a child actor do it was a bit odd only because we’re seeing these antics coming out of a child who is acting as an adult for the sake of the story.

Moving further on in the roles is Fat Sam’s gun moll, and star of his speakeasy, that being Tallulah, played by the incomparable Jodie Foster. While the entire main cast comes off strong here, Foster is without doubt the best thing there on the screen. Having several roles, as well as a prior TV series (ABC’s Paper Moon) under her belt she had already mastered the art of subtle acting. She was able to deliver the lines in such a way that at no time did she take me out of the movie watching experience. Because of her already impressive resumé she was given second billing in the movie, but her on screen time is actually less than the young actress who played Blousey Brown, that being Florrie Dugger. She also brought an interesting, and even innocent portrayal to the role of Blousey. It helps that she has big eyes that did wonders whenever she would dream about going to Hollywood and becoming a star. The role may have been something of a stereotype, but Dugger played it to perfection.

Lastly, there are the roles of the mobsters, that being John Cassisi as Fat Sam and Martin Lev as Dandy Dan. These parts SCREAM of cliché, but given that this is a musical comedy that is perfectly okay, and these two young men were perfect. Cassisi comes off as a true Al Capone type character with the way he bullies and yells at his men. He may be a mob boss, but he’s definitely from the streets, and Cassisi delivers that street attitude in a way that makes you realize that he was clearly a lot of trouble while in school. On the flip side Lev’s role of Dandy Dan is one of aristocracy. Dan lives on a sprawling estate, loves to play polo, and Lev portrays Dan as the dashing but deadly type. There are many other small roles, including one extremely tiny part with the character of Lena Marelli. She’s quite the stage prima donna with a loud, shrill singing voice, and would later become Dr. Who’s only scream queen companion. Yes, Lena Marelli was played by a very young Bonnie Langford.

One of the last elements in this film is the music. Parker had originally penned a tune or two for this movie when he was pitching it, when it was immediately decided that the movie needed a professional songwriter, so the studio chose Paul Williams. He not only did a bang up job in crafting songs that reflected this era, but also sang a number of songs, including those that gave voice to Bugsy. The songs have a certain simplicity to them, but the hooks are all there. After I first saw this movie I had to get the soundtrack (which I played to death) because those songs were some of the catchiest I had ever heard. Today I find them to lack much sophistication (Hey, I’m a prog-rock lover these days!), but thinking back to this film’s target demographic makes me realize that Williams perfectly succeeded in what he was trying to achieve.

So after watching it again I have to ask myself, does this movie stand up? Well for me it did quite nicely. Then again it took me back in time to when I first saw it, and the quality of the movie is just strong enough that it allowed me to watch it with those youthful eyes I had back in the late 70’s. On the other hand, Keith had never seen this movie before so he was sort of grimacing at much of the movie. There were parts that made him laugh, but he was more laughing at the movie, and not with it. This brings me to my conclusion that if you were around at the time when this movie first came out, and if you enjoyed it at that time (regardless if you were a child, teenager, or adult), then Bugsy Malone might actually still work for you. However, if you’ve never seen this movie before you might be better off with Lady, Be Good or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

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