Even before the term “B-movie” was coined, theaters relied on a steady stream of cheaply produced films like The Sideshow. While city movie palaces could bank on a Charlie Chaplin feature filling its seats for a month or more, neighborhood theaters would change “programmers” three or more times weekly. The demand for these inexpensive but entertaining films drew entrepreneurs like the brothers Jack and Harry Cohn, who turned their film distributing company into Columbia Pictures.
When The Sideshow was produced in 1928, Columbia was one of several struggling companies located on Gower Street or “Poverty Row,” near Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. These studios made gimmicky, low-budget pictures that bordered on exploitation fare. After two or three days at one theater, a film would move on to another theater and then at the end of its run be shelved and forgotten. It wasn’t until Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) that Columbia became recognized as a major studio and the Cohns could answer their phone without fear of creditors.
Despite its humble origins, The Sideshow is a remarkable film, noteworthy for its largely forgotten cast and crew and its rare presentation of a little person in a sympathetic and adult role. Although he’s not in the credits as a headliner, “Little Billy” Rhodes has a large part in The Sideshow as the circus owner. In a career that spanned 40 years, Rhodes appeared in some 50 films and television shows, including The Wizard of Oz (1939) and two Three Stooges films. His size, however, condemned him to comic or fantasy roles. Only in The Sideshow did he get to play a hero — albeit a tragic one.
Rhodes’s personal history is elusive. He was born near Chicago in 1894 or 1895. Like other performing little people, he worked the vaudeville circuit, before beginning his movie career in Universal Pictures’ Oh Baby! (1926). Along with most of the show business little people in California in 1939, Rhodes appeared in The Wizard of Oz. He played the Barrister Munchkin.
If Little Billy Rhodes is remembered at all, it is for his appearance in the first (and only) “all-midget western,” The Terror of Tiny Town, a 1938 quickie that has become a cult favorite. Produced on average-size sets, this film trades on the stature of its performers for its supposed humor. In one scene, a cowboy enters a saloon by walking underneath the swinging doors.
Rhodes continued working infrequently in pictures, appearing with Danny Kaye in The Court Jester (1946) and as Grumpy the Dwarf in George Pal’s Cinerama spectacular The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962). He also worked in television, appearing in several Red Skelton television specials in the 1950s.
Jerry Maren, who appeared in The Wizard of Oz as a member of the Munchkins’ Lollipop Guild, said in a recent interview that Rhodes “was not friendly to the little people.” If Rhodes harbored resentment of his size, and of other little people, it was probably exacerbated by comments like those of a Variety reviewer, who seemed more concerned with deriding little persons in general and Rhodes in particular, than in discussing the merits of The Sideshow:
“It has a midget as a circus boss and trying to make a hero out of a freak is one of the impossibilities in films…. Regardless of what this midget does as the circus boss, his good-heartedness, his broad-mindedness, every flash of him repudiates the whole impression. There’s no interest when he falls for the shapely girl acrobat. It is hopeless, but not pathetic, only impossible. A midget giving serious orders to groups of huskies, any one of whom could put him in a side pocket, never registers. His attempt to be impressive is all wrong.” (Variety, February 20, 1929)
Rhodes was a member of the Masquers Club, a Hollywood fraternal organization that counted John Ford, Lionel Barrymore, and John Gilbert among its number. The Masquers staged charity revues and operated a clubhouse with a private bar. Fellow actor Maren reported that Rhodes was known as a heavy drinker, and the other members of the Masquers were always willing to buy him a round or more. According to Maren, “he used to get into fights while he was drinking.”
Ironically, Rhodes’s final film appearance was as “The Drunken Man” in The Embracers (1966), directed by Gary Graver, who also photographed Orson Welles’s final unfinished film, The Other Side of the Wind. Rhodes died of a stroke in Hollywood on July 24, 1967, and is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City.
Marie Prevost, the female star of The Sideshow, was the queen of the programmers in the late 1920s. Between 1925 and 1929, Prevost graced 22 quickies, with titles like Other Women’s Husbands (1926) and Man Bait (1927). A native of Ontario, Canada, Prevost worked as a chorus girl in New York before starting her film career at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Company in 1916. Prevost’s photogenic appearance and flair for comedy led to a contract at Universal Pictures, where she played flappers in films like Moonlight Follies (1921). In 1922, she moved to Warner Bros., where she made three pictures with director Ernst Lubitsch: The Marriage Circle (1924), Three Women (1924), and Kiss Me Again (1925). Prevost also made several films for Cecil B. DeMille’s production company, including the delirious The Godless Girl (1929), a Christian morality play involving collegiate atheists and the flogging of a bound juvenile delinquent (Prevost) by a sadistic reform school matron.
Although she continued to work steadily, Prevost’s billing declined during the 1930s. Convinced that producers were put off by her weight, she undertook a drastic diet, often going without food for several days at a time. Weakened by this regimen, Prevost died of heart failure caused by malnutrition and alcoholism in 1937 at her Hollywood home. She was 38 years old.
The Sideshow was the last of seven Prevost films directed by fellow Keystone alumnus, Erle C. Kenton. After providing gags for Sennett’s one-reelers, Kenton was given the opportunity to direct the 1919 Ben Turpin comedy No Mother to Guide Him. He continued to direct at Sennett until a better paycheck drew him to Universal in 1924. He directed features until 1951, when he turned to television, directing episodes of Topper and Amos and Andy. His most notable films include The Island of Lost Souls (1933) with Charles Laughton, and Pardon My Sarong (1942), an Abbott and Costello send-up of the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope Road pictures.
When The Sideshow completed its initial run, the master print was shelved at Columbia’s warehouse, where it remained untouched for seven decades. In 1989, Sony purchased Columbia and, with the formation of Sony Pictures Repertory in 1990, the vaults were finally opened. Archivists discovered and preserved the print of The Sideshow, which — because it had been forgotten — wasn’t damaged and hadn’t been edited for television. Much of the film looks as good today as it did in 1928.
Presented at SFSFF 2005 with live music by Jon Mirsalis