The Vaudeville of “The Other Side of the Wind”

That’s Benny Rubin in the middle!

We naturally watched the long-awaited released of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind on opening day (November 2) and were delighted when it it turned out not only to be up to Welles’ usual standard, but one of his greatest films, easily in a category with Citizen Kane and Chimes at Midnight, with certain things in common with F for Fake. Wherever he is, I hope he is smiling at the posthumous vindication.

Books can and will be written about this incredible film, but we wanted to point out a few overlaps with the usual (original) content areas of this blog, some vaudeville and sideshow elements. As is well known, Welles loved show biz history and lore as much as he loved theatre and cinema. He himself was an amateur magician and master of ceremonies. Hence, amongst the dozens of Old and New Hollywood players Welles cast in the film are a few who are of special note for lovers of the variety arts. For example, vaudeville vets Benny Rubin and Georgie Jessel are both in the film. Rubin actually has a pretty decent part, as an agent named Abe Vogel; he pops in and out in several scenes throughout the movie. Jessel pretty much gets just one showy shot — a few lines spoken in close-up. For a few seconds, we are overwhelmed with Georgie Jessel. There are also two little people in the film, one of whom is the famous “Little Angie”, Angelo Rossitto from Freaks; I haven’t yet ID’d the other one; soon as I do I’ll update this post.

Also not irrelevant is the central presence of John Huston, whose father Walter Huston cut his teeth in vaudeville.  And Huston’s character’s name is Jake Hannaford, a possible nod to the great circus and vaudeville performer Poodles Hanneford. In one joyous scene, the fictional Hannaford family’s illustrious theatrical backstory is told, stretching back to the 19th century stage, sounding something akin to the Barrymores or Booths.

Also present in the film is celebrity impressionist Rich Little, a typically brilliant casting gesture on Welles’ part. Little originally had one of the biggest roles in The Other Side of the Wind, which may sound pretty screwy, but Welles obviously wanted him there for the meta aspect of his impressions of old Hollywood movie stars as one of the voices in the chorus. But Little left the set before his part was finished and it was probably for the best. He left to take some nightclub engagements and claims he would have come back to finish his part, but the episode clearly gave Welles the excuse he needed to flush Little out of the film. Little is no actor; existing clips show that he was out of his depth here. You can still see him in several shots of the film as an anonymous party guest, but his original role was recast, with film director Peter Bogdanovich now in the part. And this was really for the best, because not only is there the meta aspect of Peter Bogdanovich being a New Hollywood director himself, and the friend and benefactor of Welles, but he’s also a much better actor than Little, AND he does great, funny impressions. It’s the best of all worlds and now lends a meaning and poignancy to the film it wouldn’t have otherwise had, at least not to the same degree.

At any rate, the belated release of this incredible movie came as a badly needed affirmation to offset the awfulness of the times. And naturally, in my ingratitude I want more: now give us The Deep, Don Quixote, and The Merchant of Venice!

To find out more about vaudeville and show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

And for a broader appreciation of The Other Side of the Wind see Lance’s Werthwhile Classic Movie Diary.