“The creation of an imaginary situation is not a fortuitous fact in a child’s life, but is rather the first manifestation of the child’s emancipation from situational constraints… In short, play gives a child a new form of desires. It teaches her to desire by relating her desires to a fictitious “I,” to her role in the game and its rules. In this way a child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that tomorrow will become her basic level of real action and morality… In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development.” – Lev Vygotsky, “The Role of Play in Development,” from Mind in Society, 1930
“If you ever saw kids playing – three little kids playing Starsky and Hutch interrogating a prisoner – you’ll probably see more real, honest moments happening than you would ever see on that TV show, because those kids would be so into it. When a kid points his finger at you like it’s a gun, he ain’t screwing around, that’s a gun where he’s coming from.” – Quentin Tarantino, interviewed in Film Comment, 1994
From its initial release in 1976 to the present day, when you’ve attempted to explain Bugsy Malone to someone unfamiliar with it, they would have likely looked at you as if you had started speaking Martian. “It’s a musical about a gang war during Prohibition, but it’s all done with children under 16, and they hit each other with cream pies.” Even filmgoers who can easily accept, say, a foul-mouthed raccoon whose best friend is a tree with a three-word vocabulary, or vampires that like baseball, often can’t wrap their head around the concept. But as writer/director Alan Parker elaborated, he’d been entertaining his four children on road trips by telling tall tales of a crafty gangster, cribbed from old movies he’d seen, then when he decided to turn that premise into a movie, one son suggested the protagonists be kids, and despite knowing the headaches inherent to filming with child actors, he liked the challenge. “[I] was just starting out. I was fearless and a bit naive,” he said to The Guardian in 2015.
Parker, with his inspirational producer David Puttnam, had previously explored the notion of young people in otherwise adult circumstance. In 1969, while both had been making their name in advertising at the CDP agency in London, Puttnam told Parker of his desire to expand into making films, and encouraged him to write his first script. Working from a package of Bee Gees songs Puttnam had licensed, and his own memories of puppy love, Parker wrote Melody, a winsome story of two UK middle school students, Daniel and Melody, who fall for each other, and are determined to marry as soon as possible, a wish that at first amuses but increasingly rattles the adults around them. The 1971 film, directed by Waris Hussein, reunited Mark Lester and Jack Wild, who had starred in the Academy Award-winning musical Oliver!, as Daniel and his rowdy best friend Ornshaw, and model Tracy Hyde as Melody. Parker’s screenplay treats their affections with the grave sincerity of childhood, never condescending or presenting it for adults to laugh at, culminating an exchange between them so moving, this author has used it as a wedding toast several times:
In his first theatrically released feature, Parker completely does away with adults and puts children front and center and in full control of destiny, albeit in a fanciful setting. Bugsy Malone places its all-kid cast into what could be called a combination live-action role-play and quasi-paintball game: a turf battle between established boss Fat Sam (John Cassisi), who owns the best speakeasy in town and dates its top star Tallulah (Jodie Foster), and tenacious upstart Dandy Dan (Martin Lev), owner of the most dangerous weaponry ever brought into conflict, “splurge” guns, whose rapid-fire hits of whipped cream has been “finishing” Fat Sam’s crew. Wily but penniless boxing promoter Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio), Tallulah’s ex, sees opportunity to ingratiate himself with Fat Sam to help boost his new steady, aspiring songstress Blousey Brown (Florrie Dugger), but ends up getting drawn into the fray as well. Could Bugsy help Fat Sam and Dandy Dan figure out how to get their own piece of the pie, or will everyone in the city get creamed?
As suggested by the opening quotes by psychologist Vygotsky and filmmaker Tarantino, in this setting, Parker from the outset clearly understood that having children enact adult scenarios is an inherently funny trope dating back to Hal Roach’s Our Gang shorts, but here they adhere to rules (when you’re hit with the whipped cream, you’re out of the story), approach all the events taking place with absolute sincerity, and consequently deliver moments worthy of many older contemporaries. When Dandy Dan takes out one of his own team for carelessness, the means may appear a little comical, but it’s a scene as tense as DeNiro’s baseball monologue in The Untouchables. When custodian Fizzy has been denied a chance to demonstrate his dancing skills, and sings the mournful “Tomorrow” as acutely sympathetic showgirl Velma consoles him, you feel his despair and a bond they’ve had for ages. When Fat Sam loses one of his men to a splurge gun accident, he’s legitimately anguished; even if they’re merely playing a game, in that moment, his friend is dead dead dead and he couldn’t save him. Every so often, though, a wink is allowed, such as Sam’s solution to a crony’s lack of Italian comprehension.
Adding to the sweet but never saccharine charm is the glorious song score by Paul Williams. From the bounciness of “Bad Guys” and “Fat Sam’s Grand Slam” to the taunting “My Name is Tallulah” and the big closer “You Give a Little Love,” it’s a parade of tunes that, again, are not written down for their young characters, but instead giving them moments to rise up. While there has been some debate in hindsight by both Parker and Williams about using adult singing voices (including Williams himself) on the track as the child performers lip-synched, especially when the voice doesn’t match the actor, for most audiences, it’s never been much of an issue; merely another odd detail along with the cream pies. In an unintended way, in fact, it again feeds into the Vygotkyan analysis – for example, when Bugsy recruits desperate men in a soup kitchen in “Down and Out,” he may walk in with the still-squeaky speaking voice of Scott Baio, which even these fellas his own age may not find motivational, but when he launches into song with Archie Hahn’s confident tenor, he has elevated himself to become a leader that these lonely guys will follow. Much like the classic “Minnie the Moocher” segment from The Blues Brothers, it’s a demonstration of what magic a great piece of music can deliver to a listener.
Bugsy Malone has generally received more love overseas than in America. Stateside, despite glowing reviews from Vincent Canby, Charles Champlin, and Siskel & Ebert, the film was given a short and spotty release; however, it would receive three Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture – Comedy or Musical and Best Score, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song Score. In Europe, it was a competitor for the Palme d’Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, oddly enough, losing to Taxi Driver, which Foster had filmed beforehand. In England, it was a success that garnered 9 BAFTA Award nominations and won 5, including Best Soundtrack, Best Screenplay, Best Production Desgin, and two prizes for Jodie Foster that were shared between this film and Taxi Driver, Best Supporting Actress and Most Promising Newcomer.
Over the years, Alan Parker and David Puttnam would frequently return to the subjects of youth, love, and Bugsy Malone. Puttnam would again work with Jodie Foster and Scott Baio on the 1980 Adrian Lyne film Foxes, and later produced a six-film series for then-new UK broadcaster Channel Four called “First Love;” some of these TV movies – Kipperbang, Experience Preferred But Not Essential, and Secrets, were released in U.S. theatres. While Parker has distinguished himself as a versatile director of multiple genres, a significant number of films in his resume – Fame, Shoot the Moon, The Commitments, Angela’s Ashes – have either focused on children and teenagers taking on adult responsibilities, or depicted what the actions of adults have wrought upon them. Parker also wrote the book for a 1983 stage adaption of Bugsy that retained Williams’ songs, which has had multiple revivals in the UK, as well as dozens of high school presentations, and previous incarnations have been early showcases for Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jamie Bell. In his aforementioned Guardian interview, he remarked, “Over the years, when I’ve done retrospectives, I’ve never included it, as I didn’t think it fitted with the rest of my work. But curiously, as I get older, I realize it still looks modern. It hasn’t dated. I’m rather proud of it.”
The film’s profile and influence has happily increased in the 21st Century. In a 2006 ad campaign for Coca-Cola parodying the Grand Theft Auto video game series, Williams’ “You Give a Little Love” once again provides a soundtrack to depict all manner of conflicted parties coming to joyful unity, an animated feat that Kendall Jenner unconvincingly tried to copy with Pepsi-Cola and live actors a decade later. And filmmaker Edgar Wright has been a reliable booster of the film. In 2002, he directed a music video for Britpop band The Bluetones’ single “After Hours” that was a direct homage to Bugsy, complete with young dancers and bright set design. And on Sunday, December 2, 2007, Wright hosted one of the finest events in modern New Beverly history: a triple feature of Bugsy, Phantom of the Paradise, and Ishtar, with Paul Williams recounting his history with all three films, and a bonus moment of Quentin Tarantino singing “Portable Picnic” (“Hot fudge love, cherry ripple kisses…”) to introduce Ishtar.
Jodie Foster and Scott Baio obviously went forward to long careers in film and television, but many of the supporting players would have great moments of their own to follow. Vivienne McKone, playing featured dancer Velma in the “Tomorrow” sequence, is a UK soul music artist whose major label debut was produced by Minnie Ripperton and Simply Red producer Stewart Levine. Phil Daniels, briefly seen as a clumsy waiter, would star in two seminal ‘80s rock music dramas, Quadrophenia and Breaking Glass. And Dexter Fletcher, the long-sought Baby Face, has appeared in The Rachel Papers, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Layer Cake, plus more recently was the uncredited second director for the smash Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. But some other members of the cast, while not going on to show business careers, distinguished themselves in other fashions. In 2003, UK channel ITV tracked down several of the performers for the series “After They Were Famous,” and in this portion of the program, the four main leads – Foster, Baio, Florrie Dugger, and John Cassisi were reunited together to share their fond memories:
Watching Bugsy Malone for the first time is a wonderful opportunity for young budding movie lovers to enjoy remnants of old Hollywood staged amidst peers their own age, or for older experienced movie lovers to go back to a fantastical intersection of aspiration and mischief. And the joyful feeling from watching fresh talent at play stays consistent over repeat viewing. Thus, the Bev invites you, in all aspects of the phrase, to come out and play with us.