Bright Lights Film Journal

Short People Got / No Reason

Watching the last of the sophisticated and sassy Lubitsch box, ONE HOUR WITH YOU, I’m suddenly, painfully, anguishedly aware of the heavy burden the short guy “wimp” characters bear in all matters of pre-code l’amour. The benefits of being tall–and able to sing–are tremendous in comparison to the short guys played by Charlie Ruggles, Roland Young, Charles Butterworth, and Tyler Brooke. Maybe it’s tall guy guilt, but I found the uneven distribution of power in the seduction quadrangles of HOUR offensive to short people! You can’t slim down to be taller, or take a pill to grow or hang from a branch. Those poor bastards are socially scarred for life, from the get go. No wonder they’re all craven and wild-eyed from unfulfilled desire. Little rat fuckers…

I found myself clocking how many hours I must have spent in the cinema, watching Young or Butterworth or Ruggles bust moves and flatter away and get nowhere in pre-code cinema. It’s never funny (at least it hasn’t aged well, at least to me), it seems to be necessary as reassurance and/or shading, to highlight the good qualities of the hero by having a schmuck around to bear all the odious ones, like Danny DeVito in TWINS.

It’s fine but it’s not fine, it’s damaging. We learn by seeing, and kids like me grow up thinking it’s okay to have short people hit on your wife, because hey, you’re tall and so what? And short people learn that they’re meant to be terse and acidic and bald and never get the girl. Movies teach us that short people are meant to squirm with longing and gradually turn venomous, after which their Napoleonic codes get so complex that James Bond must sometimes be sent in.

All the short guys in these films are rich, otherwise they wouldn’t even be in the romantic quadrangle in the first place; they buy their way in. And then when the hero steals their hottie wife away, these rich short guys hire detectives, and shack up with the maid. Man, you see that on the streets all the time, the little investment bank guys with their maid-cum-wives…

I guess for the end product of short people venom, we look to the book of Hitchcock, as we should for everything. Claude Rains in NOTORIOUS is the nadir of the short guy crisis. As the Nazi aristocrat Sebastian, Claude Rains is hiding out in South America with his mom and a nuclear cabal; and so he can’t help be suspicious when his lifetime love (Ingrid Bergman) decides to magically appear and marry him. Rains squirms with wry self-deprecation in the presence of the taller and very luminous Bergman. That’s to be expected, but what’s heartbreaking is how Rains shows us glimmers of a genuine romantic hero; he lets his character dare to think tall. It’s ten times harder to bear because you know what’s coming. Oh cruel Hitchcock! And cruel world and cruel world! We file and label and judge and dismiss when heaven is right there onscreen. Are not short people just as worthy of love as the tallest? And all of us mere food for worms, and all one, once the masks at this mass masquerade are removed? Aren’t we all just a cosmic puppet show put on by god to amuse himself in the empty cosmos? So would a finger puppet master be nicer to one of his fingers than another, just because that finger was shorter?