By Arthur Flynn
Many directors and actors believed that it would be impossible to work with child actors. Many refused to take on such assignments. An extreme exception to this rule was Bugsy Malone with all the parts played by children. Not a single adult appeared on the screen.
The 1976 British film was written and directed by Alan Parker. Although it featured a background of gangsters, Parker lightened the subject matter considerably for the children’s market. In the United States the film received a G rating.
Parker took a big chance and chose to direct several unknown young faces in the film. To find Fat Sam, Parker visited a Brooklyn school and asked for ‘the naughtiest boy’ in the class. The teachers were unanimous in selecting John Cassisi. Parker spoke to him and immediately gave him the role.
The film introduced actor Scott Baio as Bugsy Malone. It also featured 13 year old, Jodie Foster as Tallulah. Some of the roles were played by child actors, many had never acted before. These included Florrie Dugger as Blousey Brown, Martin Lev as Danny Dan, Paul Murphy as Leroy Smith and Sheridan Russell as Knuckles. At the time of filming all the cast were under 17.
The £575,000 film for the Rank Organisation was produced by Alan Marshall and David Puttnam. The production team was headed by cinematographers Peter Biziou and Michael Seresin, editor Gerry Hambling and musical director Paul Williams who composed a lively set of songs.
Bugsy Malone was Alan Parker’s first feature film. The idea for the film indirectly came from his own children. When he travelled with his own four children to a cottage in Derbyshire at weekends, he began telling them a story called Bugsy Malone. When the idea for a film emerged his eldest son suggested children should be cast as the ‘heroes.’ All the children’s guns shoot cream.
The story was set in New York City and loosely based on events in New York and Chicago from the early 1920s to 1931 during Prohibition. It covered the exploits of real-life gangsters like Al Capone and Bugsy Moran as dramatised in the cinema.
Freewheeling hero Bugsy Malone finds himself in the middle of a gang war between Fat Sam and Dandy Dan. As things hot up, Bugsy corals a bunch of down-and-outs to fight the cause, while trying to impress Blousey Brown, a new girl in town desperate to make it as a singer.
The film was a huge hit at the box-office particularly with children. The following are a sample of the reviews: ‘Parker’s script is as sharp as a wise guy’s suit, his attention to period and general detail a constant joke. He coaxes scarily poised performances from young performers.’
‘The songs and set pieces are still fresh and infectious and most of the child cast are mesmerizingly good.’ ‘One of a kind, totally clever gangster parody with music and kids.’ ‘A minor masterpiece of its time.’
‘I only wish the British could make adult movies as intelligent as this one.’
This was to be the start of a lucrative career in cinema for Alan Parker. Clearly he had a good eye but also a good ear as he successfully blended in the musical numbers such as ‘My Name is Tallulah’, So You Wanna Be A Boxer’ and ‘Down and Out’, all served with gusto.
Amongst the children Jodie Foster was to go onto a successful career as a child and adult actor.
The film was nominated for a number of BAFTA including Best Newcomer for Jodie Foster, Best Supporting Actress for Jodie Foster, Best Screenplay for Alan Parker, Best Production Design and Best Soundtrack.
In later years Alan Parker directed two highly successful films in Ireland The Commitments, based on Roddy Doyle’s book, and Angela’s Ashes.
As he had displayed with Bugsy Malone he had a knack of splicing youth and music as he would utilise with Fame and The Commitments. Following this impressive start with children, Parker became a director of full-blooded dramas.