Bugsy Malone (1976)

bugsy malone

“We coulda been anything that we wanted to be/But don’t it make your heart glad/That we decided/A fact we take pride in/We became the best at bein’ bad!” 


Deneb’s rating: 3 ½ pies out of five.

Deneb’s review: Every now and then in this wide and wondrous world of ours, one runs into a movie concept that simultaneously makes one go ‘Of course! How come no one else thought of that?’ and ‘What, really? Wow.’ Such a film is Bugsy Malone.

How so? Let me lay it out for you. Bugsy Malone is a musical about Prohibition-era gangsters, which wouldn’t be so terribly peculiar all on its own except for who is playing said gangsters – namely, kids. Youngsters. Little ‘uns. Not really tiny little ‘uns, mind you (at least, none with speaking parts), but there’s not a person in front of the cameras over the age of sixteen, and most are younger – sometimes considerably so.

So how exactly did they pull this off? Well, read and learn.

The story is set in 1920s New York, at the height of the age of the gangster, where a power struggle is taking place between two rival mob bosses – Fat Sam (John Cassisi) and Dandy Dan (Martin Lev). The results are brutal! Brutal, I say!

How so? Well, here’s the deal – in this kid-populated universe, the history of weaponry has apparently gone slightly differently than in ours. Violence is carried out not with bullets, but with pies! Custard-cream pies, of the sort any clown would be proud to wield. You get creamed with a pie, you get… well, nobody ever says what exactly happens to you. Maybe nothing. Maybe it works on the honor system. Maybe everybody is just implicitly lactose-intolerant. Whatever the case, you get pied, you are no longer a factor. Pies rule the sticky streets of gangland.

Or they used to, anyway. See, Dandy Dan is a clever fella, and he’s equipped his hoods with a new invention – the Splurge Gun!

What is the Splurge Gun? Well… you know Paintball? The Splurge Gun is something like that, only instead of firing paint, it fires cream. Great big splats of custard-cream fired machine gun style, in such a manner as to make a severe mess very quickly.

Needless to say, pies are of no use at all against such a superweapon, and before long Dandy Dan is taking Fat Sam to the cleaners. He aims to put him out of business and take over, and he enforces said aim at the point of a Splurge Gun – or rather, lots and lots of Splurge Guns. It’s creamy carnage!

As one may imagine, Fat Sam is not enjoying this one-sided battle one little bit. What’s a comparatively-less-bad mob boss to do? Well, he does have one ally who might help turn the tables – Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio, in what may have been his first onscreen role).

Bugsy himself isn’t all that important a guy in all this. He’s a boxing promoter when he has the chance, but he seems to spend most of his time cooling his heels at the Grand Slam speakeasy and exercising his ability for fast-talking. Still, he’s got a good head on his shoulders and isn’t above picking up a few dishonest bucks here and there – especially since he’s started going steady with one Blousy Brown (Florrie Dugger), and he could use the extra dough.

Will Bugsy get the girl? How long can Fat Sam maintain his criminal empire and remain un-splattered? Can anyone wipe that superior look off Dandy Dan’s face? Can the dreaded threat of the Splurge Gun be stopped? I’m not tellin’ ya; watch the darn movie.

All right, let’s start with the bad – or at least ‘could have been better’ – stuff.  Bugsy Malone is far from a flawless movie.

For starters, the plot is not exactly the most innovative in the history of cinema. It’s serviceable, but the basic outline is pretty much all there is; it’s essentially just a framework on which to hang songs, jokes and action sequences. I won’t pretend that it doesn’t work well enough as far as that goes, but it’s not a movie that you watch for the story, let’s put it that way. Also, while the ending doesn’t come completely out of nowhere – the film does build to a fairly satisfying climax first – it’s somewhat bewildering, to say the least. Clearly the movie demanded a happy ending of some sort, but this happy ending? Err… Hum.

On a related note, this thing is populated entirely by stock characters. That’s part of the charm, I suppose, but regardless, everyone in this movie falls squarely into one established category or another – the slick, arrogant head crook, the blustering mob boss, the wannabe actress, the fast-talking wise guy, the jaded seductress (oh, I’ll get to that in a minute, don’t you worry), the blundering second banana, etc., etc. There are a few minor exceptions – Bugsy’s protégé Leroy is at least somewhat original, even though he doesn’t actually affect the plot much – but overall, we are in Cardboard Cutouts-Ville here.

Third, the basic concept of the film leads to some inherent limitations in the quality of the acting. To the filmmakers’ credit, they did overall do a sterling job in the casting department, netting several very good performers, but working with child actors is always tricky, and BM features nothing but child actors – inevitably there are some that either have more charisma than acting talent, or were cast more or less due to their ability to speak English on cue. I’m not dissing the actors in question here, mind you; good acting is tricky at any age, and takes time and practice which you can’t really expect a twelve year old to have acquired a lot of. I don’t want to seem like I’m picking on these kids, but, well… nonetheless.

Also, the fact that they are kids occasionally takes one out of the story a bit. Overall it’s easy enough to buy the notion that we are actually dealing with adults who happen to look much younger (especially since the sets were clearly – and wisely – scaled down for them), but inevitably the occasional hiccup occurs. For one thing, none of the songs are actually sung by the kids themselves; they were all dubbed by adult singers. This sometimes works out all right when female singers are involved, or ones who are in their early-to-mid teens, but it’s a little surreal hearing a manly bass or tenor coming from the mouth of a pre-pubescent boy who we’ve just heard talking in his natural range (especially since, to the actors’ credit, they did an exceptional job when it came to the lip-syncing). You get used to it, but it does lead to the occasional ‘uh?’ moment.

Sometimes it leads to a few moments that are a bit more questionable, and even, if not disturbing exactly, vaguely iffy. Remember that, sanitized though they may be, these are gangsters we’re dealing with here – adult gangsters, and the adult people who surround them, doing adult things. It’s one thing when they’re getting comically splattered with goop in lieu of a gangland killing; it’s another when the entertainment at the Grand Slam is a line of chorus girls – chorus girls who are, on average, about fourteen years old – chorus girls wearing chorus girl outfits, and being… well… uncomfortably seductive, let’s put it that way. At least they are teenagers, which mollifies matters a bit, but if you’re an adult heterosexual male and you don’t start squirming just a trifle during the ‘My Name is Tallulah’ sequence, well… you’re a stronger man than me, sir.

All that being said, this is not a picture that is trying to be deep, or to win an Oscar, or to do just about anything except one thing: entertain. The number one question, therefore, goes like this – is Bugsy Malone entertaining? Certainly it is. It may be a trifle spotty in certain areas, but taken as a whole, it’s a hoot.

Despite my quibbles with the ways the ‘kids playing adults’ concept occasionally fails, it is also one of the more entertaining aspects of the movie. In order to make it work, they had to create an entire alternate reality, one in which the Splurge Guns and pies are only a relatively small part. There are speakeasies in this version of the ‘20’s, too, but they sell soda and juice instead of booze. There are cars, but they’re pedal-powered dealies that you drive like a bicycle. (And frankly, it looks really fun – I want one.) You think regular car chases are entertaining, wait ‘til you’ve seen one between period jalopies with the drivers desperately working the pedals as the vehicles struggle to exceed thirty MPH.

Fascinating though these details may be, however (and they are fascinating; you notice more of them each time), they are more or less bonuses for those paying attention. The real draw, clearly, is the songs; they’re what’s played up on the taglines and what put butts in seats back when the movie came out. It didn’t hurt, of course, that the music was handled by one Paul Williams, the guy behind the songs in The Muppet Movie as well as one of my personal favorites, Phantom of the Paradise – check out my review of it, if you’re interested. The man knew his business, and getting him attached to your picture was more or less an assurance that you’d get some nifty tunes in it.

He doesn’t disappoint here. Not all of BM’s songs are exactly masterpieces, but not a one of them is bad, and that’s saying something. At their worst, they’re just all right, but at their best they’re incredibly catchy. (I am especially fond of ‘Bad Guys’, which has to be one of my favorite movie songs ever, and is basically the reason why I own the DVD in the first place. I love it beyond reason – my only complaint is that it’s a verse too short.) I am, admittedly, a fan of Williams’ work, so those less enthusiastic about his music may not respond to them as strongly, but if you do, then… well, you do. Even if they don’t strike a chord with you, I doubt you’ll dislike them.

On to the characters, who I won’t bother doing my usual detailed breakdown of, as there aren’t all that many of them. First, of course, is Bugsy, who… isn’t actually very interesting. Scott Baio does a good enough job as a wisecracking fast-talker with a good heart, and the character is likable enough, but we don’t really get enough focus on him for us to know him well. Instead, most of the film’s attention goes to Fat Sam, who is interesting, to the extent that a large chunk of the plot revolves around him. John Cassisi overplays the role to within an inch of his life, but in this case, it works. Sam’s a blustering, pushy, yet somehow endearing loudmouth who starts going all to pieces when things go wrong, and it’s honestly a bit difficult to underplay a role like that and do justice to it, ya know?

That honor goes (dang, the segue-force is strong with me tonight) to Dandy Dan, the villain by virtue of every other character who isn’t a faceless thug being on the other side from him. Martin Lev rarely even raises his voice as Dan, but that adds to our impression of him as a dislikably slick sort of guy who has the advantage and knows it. While Fat Sam spends all his time holed up in his office, yelling at his flunkies and biting his nails, Dan spends his cooling his heels in his ridiculously posh mansion and gloating. He’s cool as ice, and it works. Unfortunately, underplaying is no excuse for another character, Bugsy’s girlfriend Blousy Brown, who is, well… flat. I said I wasn’t going to pick on these kids and I won’t, but Florrie Dugger is just not a very good actress. She’s not bad, exactly; she has a few good moments, but compared to some of the other actors here, she’s an amateur, and it shows.

Such, thankfully, cannot be said about the other main female character here, Tallulah, Fat Sam’s moll and torch singer. She is played by Jodie Foster. Yes, that Jodie Foster, who at this point in her career had already been in eight movies and more TV work than can easily be counted. As such, she more than deserves her own paragraph, acting rings around everyone else in what really is a rather tiny part. Tiny or not, though, she is scarily good in the role – you will forget that she is a fourteen-year old girl, and start seeing her as a cynical vamp in her early thirties. That is, you’ll forget it until she starts… singing… Yeah, remember that bit I mentioned earlier? She’s one of the reasons why. Stop being so good at your job, fourteen-year old Jodie Foster! You’re creeping me out!

         Anyway – final analysis time. Do I recommend this film? Yes, I do. It’s not without its flaws, and there are certainly plenty of films I’d rank higher, but it is almost impossible to dislike Bugsy Malone – and I say ‘almost’ only because people can dislike anything. The songs are catchy, the story is serviceable, and the whole nature of the thing lends it an air of charming make-believe, like this is the best game of cops and robbers (well, OK, ‘robbers and robbers’) ever. All the kids involved with it were clearly having a blast, and that translates into the sort of infectious energy that can’t be bought, sold or replicated. It’s lightning in a bottle; they were having fun for the express purpose of getting you to have fun, and you’ll feel like a grumpy ol’ poop if you wind up not doing so. See it. You’ll have a good time.

And with that said, I bid you adihere’s pie in your eye! SPLORCH!

"I dunno, Boss, I think the retro look is out."  "Shaddup, Knuckles, no one cares what you think. We're gangsters in the 1920s; if WE can't pull off retro, who can?"
“I dunno, Boss, I think the retro look is out.”
“Shaddup, Knuckles, no one cares what you think. We’re gangsters in the 1920s; if WE can’t pull off retro, who can?”


The pedal cars were heavy enough that it was difficult for the drivers to build up sufficient momentum; they had to be ‘jump-started’ by people pushing them off-camera.

Jodie Foster was allegedly quite startled the first time she heard the squeaky singing voice that had been dubbed over hers. I’m not surprised, either; her natural range at the time was actually quite deep for her age.

Despite the fact that there’s no actual smoking in the movie, the Grand Slam has a haze of smoke in the air as there would be in a real speakeasy. Now that’s attention to detail.

At one point, Blousy identifies herself as “a dancer”. Since her ambition at every other point in the film is to sing, this is pretty clearly a flub.

The Splurge Guns were initially designed to fire wax balls filled with cream, thereby achieving the desired ‘pie in the face’ effect when they hit you. Turns out that getting hit by wax ammunition hurts, though, so they had to change things around. The finished model actually shot ping-pong balls; the ‘splurge’ was achieved by rapid cuts to the actors getting hit by handfuls of cream hurled from out of frame.

Bugsy quotes the ‘I coulda been a contender’ line from On the Waterfront. On the Waterfront was made in 1954, several decades after when the movie is set.

Paul Williams has stated that he’s proud of the songs he wrote for the movie, but admits that, in retrospect, the dubbed vocals were maybe not the best decision, and that “perhaps I should have given the kids a chance to sing the songs.”

Florrie Dugger originally had a much smaller role, until the actress initially cast as Blousy (who may or may not have been Jodie Foster; accounts vary) went through a growth spurt and became significantly taller than Scott Baio.

There is one song in the movie that was sung undubbed, but it’s intentionally a bad one, and relegated to the background.

In order to cast Fat Sam, Alan Parker visited a Brooklyn classroom and asked for “the naughtiest boy in the class”. John Cassisi was unanimously selected.

If getting creamed is the same as getting killed in this universe, then does the final sequence implicitly take place in some sort of afterlife?

Groovy Quotes:

Fat Sam: Sure as eggs is eggs, Roxy the Weasel had been scrambled.

Hoods: (singing) We coulda been anything that we wanted to be/
But don’t it make your heart glad/
That we decided/A fact we take pride in/
We became the best at bein’ bad!

Bugsy: What’s your name, anyway?
Blousy: Brown.
Bugsy: ‘Brown’? Sounds like a loaf of bread.
Blousy: Blousy Brown.
Bugsy: ‘Blousy Brown’? Sounds like a stale loaf of bread!

Fat Sam: Get him to me – poisonally.
Tallulah: Personally?
Fat Sam: Poisonally!
Tallulah: Poisonally.

Fat Sam: We all know who’s behind this, don’t we?
Hoods (in unison): Sure do, Boss.
Fat Sam: Don’t need a head full o’ brains to know that, do you?
Hoods: (in unison) Certainly not, Boss.
Fat Sam: So who is it, ya dummies? Tell me! Who?
Hoods: (in unison) Dandy Dan, Boss.
Fat Sam: Don’t you dare mention that name in this office!

Fizzy: (singing) Tomorrow/Tomorrow, as they say/
Another workin’ day/And another chore/
Tomorrow/An awful price to pay/
I gave up yesterday, but they still want more.

Tallulah: So this is show business.

Fat Sam: If it was raining brains, Roxy Robinson wouldn’t even get wet.

(Bugsy is sending instructions down the line)
Bugsy: Right, this is what we’re going to do. Get Babyface.
Leroy: Get Babyface.
Bum #1: Get Babyface.
Bum #2: Get Babyface.
Bum #3: Get Babyface.
(This goes on for a while, until…)
Bum #16: Get Babyface.
Bum #17: Get Babyface.
Bum #18: Get Babyface.
Babyface: Get Babyface. (Beat) I am Babyface; what am I saying?

Fat Sam: You can’t speak Italian?
Knuckles: No, Boss, I’m Jewish.
Fat Sam: Then read the translations!

Blousy: You know him?
Bugsy: Know him? (crosses his fingers) We’re like that.
Blousy: You’re real good friends?
Bugsy: Nah; it’s just that when I talk to him, I cross my fingers he won’t hit me.

British reporter: …And what’s more, what I have to tell you is certainly not cricket!

Bugsy: You look like you put your face on backward this morning.
Bartender: You’ve got too much mouth, Mac.
Bugsy: So tell my dentist.

Tallulah: Let’s go before your suspenders strangle you.

Bugsy: Have you eaten?
Blousy: Ever since I was a kid.

Fat Sam: Don’t ever let me see you laughin’ at me again, y’hear, else I’ll ram that smile right down your throat! I’m Fat Sam; don’t ever forget that – number one man, top dog, Mr. Big! Always have been, always will be; now get outta here!

Dandy Dan: This is the big one.
Hoods: (in unison) The big one.
Dandy Dan: The shakedown.
Hoods: (in unison) The shakedown.
Dandy Dan: The payoff.
Hoods: (in unison) The payoff.
Dandy Dan: And I tell ya; it’s gotta be good, it’s gotta be neat, and it’s gotta be quick.
Hoods: (in unison) It’s gotta be good, it’s gotta be neat, it’s gotta be –
Dandy Dan: Quit repeatin’ everything I say, will ya!

Song lyric: Anybody who is anybody will soon walk through that door/
At/Fat Sam’s Grand Slam/Speakeasy!

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Angels with Dirty Faces (from what I’ve heard of it, anyway)
  • Phantom of the Paradise


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