With a nod towards gangster movies and musicals, Bugsy Malone gave children and adults alike a front-row seat to perhaps the greatest and largest all-kid cast ever herded into a British film studio. Layla Cummins looks at how the movie might have fared in today’s climate.
Bugsy Malone (1976) was a child’s imagination come to life and, at its heart, is a film made by children for children (although grown-up kids still get a kick out of it). While writer/director Alan Parker may have nurtured the initial concept of combining two widely popular genres of the time, it was his son Alex who asked the legitimate question: “why couldn’t all the characters be kids?”
From contemporary attitudes to the logistical elements of managing up to 200 children on and off the set, we’re unlikely to ever see a movie like it and here are the reasons why:
Child actors in the 70s vs. child actors now
There was no room for wallflowers in Bugsy Malone. Searching for the right kids to play the lead roles, Parker held casting calls and tested over 10,000 children. John Cassisi landed the role of Fat Sam when his schoolmates singled him out as the naughtiest kid in class. Scott Baio, who played the smooth-talking Bugsy, threw the script in Parker’s face. And only Jodie Foster, fresh from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and who, according to Parker “directed me more than I directed her,” could have gotten away with delivering such honey-tongued lines as, “I like my men at my feet.” Yes, 70s Hollywood had a very different attitude.
The fantastic opening moments to Bugsy Malone.
The tongue-in-cheek dialogue and snappy back-and-forth between the mini gangsters in the 70s wouldn’t cut it in today’s world. Not only are the acting chops of 70s kids different, but…
Children are (apparently) difficult to work with
Family-friendly romps with a gaggle of young protagonists will usually have a supporting cast of adults who step in when the mischief’s been managed, signalling a return to the status quo. Yet, very few films are brave enough to drop several school buses worth of kids onto a live set and have them act every single role. Bugsy’s New York is populated with enough supporting child actors to flesh out Parker’s world: the swarming press, the chief inspector with his oversized moustache, the barber who prepares a straight razor shave on a boy reading a newspaper (only to then tip off the rival gang and have him splurged in cold blood), violinists, dancers and shoe shiners all blend seamlessly into this child-friendly utopia.
Working with the 200-strong ensemble of children was, according to Parker, a “logistical nightmare,” involving careful planning to negotiate legal restrictions on working hours and schooling. For comparison, Sean Holmes’s 2015 stage production of Bugsy Malone in the Lyric Hammersmith had a cast of 35, with several main characters played by children under the age of 16, which came with its own headaches. The differences show Bugsy’s film debut was a nightmare to plan and is unlikely to happen again.
Musicals are overdue a dip in popularity
With Bugsy’s repertoire of catchy songs including ‘Down & Out’, ‘Fat Sam’s Grand Slam’ and ‘Tomorrow’ the film tapped into the musical cinema market in a big way. But while big Broadway shows remain as popular as ever, musicals in the cinematic format may be on a downward trend. What began as glee clubs and high school musicals in the late noughties led to a revival in musical cinema with a comedic interpretation of the genre Pitch Perfect (2012) enjoying commercial success, and romantic drama La La Land (2016) scooping a ton of awards following its release.
However, more recent offerings like Cats (2020) have confused the multitudes and feel like the end of our flirtation with musical cinema, until it inevitably becomes fashionable once more.
The famous splurge gun attack.
Bugsy has aged well and carries the spirit of childhood make-believe into the 21st century thanks to its innate youthful charm and lashings of nostalgia. Are we likely to see another of its kind on the big screen? With uncertainty in the multiplexes and a lack of risk-taking in Hollywood and beyond, we probably won’t see the likes of Bugsy Malone any time soon.
While he and his gangster pals live on in smaller theatre productions (albeit with modern tweaks – less femme fatale in Tallulah’s character and more panto-style hijinks) it’s a shame to think we may never again experience the magic of watching 200 kids fully immerse themselves in a world usually reserved for adults, reminding us once again that they really could be anything that they wanted to be.