Here’s a bad idea: make a film about a New York gang war, and cast it exclusively with amateur pre-teens. Then… make it a lip-syncing musical.

Worse, set the film during the murderous prohibition era, with boss-era machinations, brutal gangster strategy, and wet, brick, streets. Then pace the picture to the rhythm of machine gun fire, and the grim math of mafia logic. Sounds pretty stale, at least to me.

But what if you recruited and cast dozens of pre-adolescents, drawn almost exclusively from US and UK schools? What if you created a film where no principal actor is over the age of sixteen? And what if every actor refused to mail this thing in… instead leaving everything on the staged pavement and igniting every scene?


Figure 1: Albin ‘Humpty’ Jenkins (as “Fizzy”) is just one of dozens of fantastic unknowns who bring the cliches of Bugsy Malone to life.

Thus: Bugsy Malone, a film that bottles the madness of pre-adolescent school theater, delivering it as slick cinema, and so becomes sui generis. That Bugsy Malone emerges, inspirational, catchy, and unrivaled, in a period where cinema story-telling was starting to die, tells its own sort of tale. Revisiting the film now gives us a glimpse into movie-making that runs both deeply within, and against, its time.

A Childhood Gangland

The story is a simple one. Two rival gangs, both coveting the speakeasy, sarsaparilla, and grocery markets, duel one another for supremacy in 1920s New York. Fat Sam (John Cassisi), a good-natured but hard-boiled hoodlum, controls the neighborhoods of the city from his speakeasy headquarters, hidden behind a false front bookstore: “Fat Sam’s Grand Slam”. His rival, Dandy Dan (Martin Lev), is a ruthless patrician, living upstate and wielding his increasing power through a gang of thugs who methodically begin to assassinate Fat Sam’s crew.

Did I mention that everyone dies by pie-in-the-face? Not only does this potentially ill-conceived mechanic work beautifully, owing to director Alan Parker’s careful use of freeze framing the moment of impact, but it provides the film’s central plot mechanic. As it turns out, the pie has become slow, archaic, and weak, and is now being displaced by machine-gun-like “splurge” weapons, which shoot meringue in rapid fire bursts. This technology, controlled exclusively by Dandy Dan, tips the scales of the gang war conflict and the film invites us to watch Fat Sam desperately clinging to his power, struggling to possess this new tool of war, even while his cadre diminishes around him.


Figure 2: Martin Lev’s Dandy Dan prepares for a gangland execution of his incompetent underling: death by pie.

Enter, Bugsy Malone (played with remarkable competence by the otherwise unremarkable Scott Baio), a small-time boxing promoter who works to stay out of the way of this conflict, but is inevitably drawn in by Fat Sam, who leans on our hero as a “fixer”. Malone is a schemer, one who ultimately assembles an army of unemployed workhouse upstarts to steal the guns, and bring balance back to this imaginary gangland.

Along the way, a love triangle emerges, between Malone, an up and coming singer Blousy Brown (Florrie Dugger in her impressive one-time screen appearance) and the sultry Tallulah (unmistakably: Jodie Foster), Fat Sam’s girlfriend. Malone pursues the hard-nosed Brown, who would rather be left alone, while Tallulah pursues a reluctant Bugsy.


Figure 3: Florrie Dugger and Scott Baio actually have some chemistry. Unquestionably the last time Baio showed dramatic potential, leaving aside his dreary and fascistic 2016 Republican National Convention speech; surely that’s an act?

The film ends, strangely, amidst a giant pie fight and sing-along. This last fact suggests the warm heart of the piece, which has every reason to fail and yet holds up strangely well today, an era in which such a film might be laughed out of the producer’s office for its naivete alone.

The secret to the picture’s unlikely success is that the principal creative team, Director Alan Parker and singer-songwriter Paul Williams, chose to treat the whole affair with terrific seriousness, attending to every fastidious detail, but with a wink of the eye. From the outset, we know we are in the hands of masters.

Twin Genius: Parker and Williams

As the film opens, fading up from black, we see the set, carefully constructed within the interiors of Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, England, soaked in rain, a perfect simulacrum of 1920s New York. From the sharp neon to the overflowing drains, we are immediately immersed in an urban environment rich with portent.

Fat Sam’s memorable Italian gangster voice-over also begins here, inviting us into the hardboiled world of Bugsy Malone:

“Someone once said, ‘If it was raining brains, Roxy Robinson wouldn’t even get wet.’ Roxy had spent his whole life making two and two into five, but he could smell trouble like other people could smell gas. But believe you’s me, he should’ve never taken that blind alley by the side of Parido’s Bakery. Whatever game it was everybody was playing, sure as eggs is eggs, Roxy the Weasel had been scrambled.”

This is followed immediately by the catchy theme music of the film, sung by the musical creative genius Paul Williams, whose career was peaking at precisely this moment, and whose familiar voice tells us that “everybody wants that man… Bugsy Malone”.


Figure 4: Scott Baio’s Bugsy rallies men in the poorhouse; Parker’s sets evoke the period in remarkable gritty detail.

The rest of the picture follows suit. Parker lets every scene count, and populates his world with carefully crafted landscapes, all drawn from film cliché: the audition scene (“don’t call us, we’ll call you”), the dance hall (and its obligatory cigarette girl), and even the Chinese laundry (on race: see below). The sets and costumes are gritty, muted, and real.

The dialogue, in much the same way, is spare, serious, and riddled with carefully-placed clichés. Parker’s film’s environment and performances are freakishly deliberate and hand-crafted. That Parker could, within a few short years thereafter, create the harsh interior world of a Turkish prison in Midnight Express (1978) as well as the war-torn wasteland of Pink Floyd’s hotel room in The Wall (1982), becomes no surprise when we witness his craftsmanship here.

For his part, Paul Williams was riding high in 1976, with hit tunes (“An Old Fashioned Love Song” peaked at Billboard’s number four in 1971), several soundtracks (his songs for The Muppet Movie would follow in 1979), stints at the Sands in Las Vegas and countless appearances on The Tonight Show. His tunes are pitch perfect in Bugsy Malone, though the overall musical effect is somewhat bizarre.


Figure 5: The film’s finale betrays its happy soul. Covered in pie, the cast breaks into Williams’ catchy “Give a Little Love”.

This is because Williams continued to work from California, while Parker set the stage at Pinewood Studios. Over the course of six weeks, Williams sent Parker his recordings, performed and sung by his American crew while Parker staged the numbers, all lip-sunk (is that a past participle?) by the child actors. Having Paul Williams voice emerge from the mouth of Razmataz, the black piano player (one-timer, Michael Jackson) at the Grand Slam, is simply surreal, thought it strangely works a kind of magic. The two auteurs were at the top of their games in developing this trifle.

Race and Sex in Preadolescent 1976

If there are places where the film might rub against contemporary sensibilities, it is in the subtle awkwardness of the black and female characters. Notably, black actors occupy many of the cliched positions one might imagine from a film shot in the 1930s, rather than the 1970s: the chauffeur, the janitor who dreams of stardom as a soft-shoe man, and so on.

Even so, the film provides several rich opportunities for its actors of color. A Good Samaritan, Leroy Smith (Paul Murphy), rescues Malone from thugs and goes on to a successful boxing career, and is given a “black side kick” role. Beyond this, black and Asian actors occupy a range of parts, as gangsters, workers, athletic trainers, and entertainers, alongside their white counterparts. The effect overall is pretty inclusive. By comparison, consider that the contemporaneous The Sting (1973) kills its only black character in the first ten minutes.


Figure 6: Bugsy Malone stages a remarkably multi-ethnic cast, though many of its race notes fall flat.

Similarly, the sexual overtones of the picture are interesting, mostly because Jodie Foster simply towers over the rest of the cast, both physically and in terms of raw maturity – she was 14 at the time. Having come directly from the set of Taxi Driver (1976), where she played a child prostitute, and given in Bugsy Malone both a litany of double-entendres, as well as a risqué musical number, Foster comes across as a fully-formed woman among children. The impact of this mismatch has a fascinating and transgressive feeling.


Figure 7: Jodi Foster towers over the cast as the sultry Tallulah

I’m not sure these odd features make the film more or less interesting for contemporary audiences but they might have seemed weirdly unremarkable, if not charming, in 1976. And that gives the movie a somewhat dated taint. It is probably for these reasons, along with the film’s unique aesthetics and style, that Bugsy Malone is largely forgotten today. That’s really too bad, because its creators crafted something unique and strange here.

My Experience: Very good

Chances Alexander will like this: Fair/Good