Everyone loves gangster films, James Cagney, Paul Muni, and Humphrey Bogart lit up the silver screen for years portraying some of the toughest mugs in cinema, but director Alan Parker took a decidedly different angle with Bugsy Malone, the entire cast consists of children averaging twelve years of age and also it’s a musical, and for a first feature-length film that shows some serious cojones from a director.
The songs for the film are by legendary singer/songwriter Paul Williams (Phantom of the Paradise) and all of them are pretty damn catchy and though the cast consists of all kids the singing was actually provided by adults with Williams performing several of them. This does make it a bit weird when you hear Paul Williams’s very white voice belting out of Razamatazz (Michael Jackson and no, not that one) a ten-year-old black kid who is Fat Sam’s piano player.
Funny enough this kid and Paul Williams are about the same size.
Set during the Roaring Twenties we get your standard story of rival gangs fighting it out on the mean streets of Chicago, where head mobster Fat Sam (John Cassisi) runs a successful speakeasy, but he finds his entire organization in jeopardy when it fulls under the sites of Dandy Dan (Martin Lev) a rich and polished rival mob boss. If put into the context of real children Dandy Dan would be that rich kid down the street who “buys his friends” with all the cool toys his parents can afford.
The title character of Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio in his screen debut) is a drifter who does as little as possible but just what he needs to get by. He’s a grifter, a thief, chauffeur and sometimes boxing manager but things change when he falls for Blousie Brown (Florrie Dugger) a girl with a great voice and dreams of being a movie star.
A rival for Bugsy’s affection is torch singer Tallulah (Jodi Foster), who is also Fat Sam’s girlfriend and this brings up the “creep factor” as it’s one thing to see little boys dressed in suits and sporting fake mustaches but it’s another thing altogether to see young girls dressed up as 20s speakeasy singers.
The other key element of Bugsy Malone is the “Splurge Guns” which Dandy Dan is using to take out Fat Sam’s gang for in this alternate kid universe guns have been replaced by cream-filled pies and to get hit by one meant you were dead. Whether this meant you were actually dead or just forced to leave this universe and go back home to your parents is left unclear. Now, Dandy Dan arrives on the scene with a technological edge in the form of Tommy Guns that can fire pie filling, and thus, one by one, Fat Sam’s rackets start to crumble.
Eventually, Bugsy is able to turn the tables by outfitting a group of down and outs with a shipment of captured Splurge Guns and he stages a cream-filled ambush of his own. The climax is your basic Great Hollywood Pie Fight with cream filling flying everywhere, that is until the fight is brought to a stop by Razamatazz who starts tinkling the ivories with a song that gets the whole cast singing along.
“We could’ve been anything
That we wanted to be
And it’s not too late to change
I’d be delighted to give it some thought
May-be you’ll agree that we really ought”
I’ll always have a soft spot for this movie, having first seen it in the theatre when I was ten years old, and watching it again it really hasn’t lost any of its charms as the songs are still great, the premise is wonderfully goofy and the cast of young performers are all surprisingly good.
This is one of those films that probably resonates more if you were a kid when you first saw it back in the day, that aside the songs are still great and the whole thing is just a lot of fun.