Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Unemployed Munchkins

Here's Monster Dad's random thought process for the day. While we were out for a walk today The Little Monster wanted to play "Oompa Loompas"--which is her way of saying she wants to play Veruca Salt while I play either an Oompa Loompa or Willy Wonka being angry at her for stealing a goose that lays golden eggs.

Anyway, the thought occurred to me that in this politically correct and technologically advanced world we're living in we have possibly done a disservice to "Little People" (the politically correct term for dwarves, midgets and other vertically-challenged people). I've heard many stories about how badly the Munchkins were treated on the set of "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), and I'm inclined to believe them (supposedly, the dog that played Toto was paid better than the Munchkins for instance). 1939 was a different time after all and that's not exactly a surprise. On the other hand, the movie gave great opportunities to a large group of people who were marginalized (at best) or considered "freaks" (at worst). I'm sure there were movies before "The Wizard of Oz" that made use of Little People, but I'm not too familiar with them. The movie opened many doors for the former Munchkins. True, they weren't necessarily always portrayed in a positive light, but they did find pretty steady work if they looked for it. Casting calls for Little People must have been like little (no pun intended) reunions to many of these people for many years after "The Wizard of Oz".

One of the most successful of the original Munchkins would probably have to be Jerry Maren. He played the member of the Lollipop Guild who hands Dorothy the giant lollipop. He not only continues to work in Hollywood to this day, but he was also Buster Brown (from the shoe company) and Little Oscar (as in Oscar Mayer), making appearances around the country for those companies.

"The Terror of Tiny Town" (1938) was a western that featured an all-Little People cast. The movie has long been considered a cult classic. And that's not really a bad thing--at least not to a fan of odd movies like myself. Was it exploitation? Perhaps (actually, most definitely so), but also a great opportunity for many of these people to get more exposure in Hollywood. How many waiters and waitresses working in Hollywood today, looking for their big break in the business, would kill for such exposure?

"Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (1971) gave employment to a number of Little People as Oompa Loompas. The Oompa-Loompas are now classic movie characters beloved by thousands of people who love the movie--not unlike the Munchkins of "The Wizard of Oz", just on a somewhat smaller (again, no pun intended) scale. George Lucas created another Wizard of Oz-like boon for the Little People with the original "Star Wars" (1977, 1980, 1983) trilogy in the 1970s-early 80s. The bulk of the Little People roles were for Jawas and Ewoks, but many others were sprinkled throughout those movies (the most obvious and popular being Kenny Baker's R2-D2). Lucas wasn't done with Little People after "Star Wars" either. Don't forget about "Willow" (1988), which features Warwick Davis as the title character. Other notable movies featuring Little People over the years include: "Time Bandits" (1981), "Legend" (1985), "Labyrinth" (1986) and even the Chevy Chase flick "Under the Rainbow" (1981)--which features some of the Munchkins from "The Wizard of Oz" playing actors playing Munchkins in the making of that very movie! Another hotbed of Little People activity was the Sid and Marty Krofft kid shows of the early 1970s that featured many roles for these actors ("H.R. Pufnstuf", "Lidsville", "Sigmund and the Sea Monsters"...).

More recently the roles seem to have become a bit more scarce for these people. The show "Seinfeld" featured some Little People actors in a few memorable episodes in the late 1990s. It also gave us a comical look into the community of Little People who work in show business. The movie "The Station Agent" (2002) made Peter Dinklage a star and he's gone on to quite a few other roles. But his success has been an example of the exception rather than the rule.

This is where the political correctness and technology problems come in. Because of political correctness we are not supposed to think of "Little People" as being different. While this is a noble gesture it also has an unfortunate and unforeseen side-effect. It is no longer okay to cast Little People in movies the way they used to be. Peter Dinklage has found success playing more-or-less "regular" people who just happen to be small in stature. I can't imagine a movie getting made these days which would need a casting call for a large number of Little People in the roles of Munchkins, Oompa-Loompas or anything else that might be considered a "freak". Thanks to modern technology, there's not even a need to worry about what someone might say about the less-than-politically-correct casting of Little People anymore. When a movie requires characters that are too small for "regular" actors to play, those roles can now be filled by computer generated imagery (CGI) effects--think Gollum from the "Lord of the Rings" (2001, 2002, 2003) trilogy. Gollum and the hobbits of those movies were played by "normal"-sized actors, and various old and new types of special effects--from forced perspective to CGI--were used to portray them as being much smaller in stature.

A perfect example of what has changed (what has gone wrong?) for Little People is "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2005), Tim Burton's recent remake of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory". I suppose he wouldn't consider it a remake so much as a "re-imagining" or something, but it's still a remake to me. Anyway, rather than cast a bunch of Little People as Oompa Loompas he did the politically correct thing and cast only one--Deep Roy. Then he used computer generated special effects to allow Deep Roy to play ALL 165 Oompa Loompas in the movie (there were only about eight in the original). An impressive feat, but also a lot of potential lost jobs for all the Little People looking for work in Hollywood.

Maybe I'm thinking too much...


  1. yes...you always think too much...but always fascinating. Keep up the posts. Mrs. Monsterdad69

  2. i hadn't thought about this. you're exactly right though...

    i loved the station agent.