When last I left you, I was reviewing The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, starring Barbara Stanwyck, among others. This week, as luck would have it, I have another Stanwyck flick for you: Lady of Burlesque.
Unlike the previous film, where she spent most of her time being catty, superior, and take-charge, in this film Stanwyck is exactly the same but she sings and dances. The tagline on one of the film posters proclaims “Mirth! Murder! Melody! Mystery! and Girls! Girls! Girls!” That’s a quick summary for sure; here’s one that’s a little longer:
Dixie Daisy (Stanwyck) has just come to the theater of S. B. Foss (J. Edward Bromberg) with her friend Gee Gee (Iris Adrian) in her continual climb towards Broadway. She’s paired in performance with a comic side-kick, Biff Brannigan (Michael O’Shea), who continually pesters her about making their partnership more permanent.
The current line-up features an operatic singer, Lolita La Verne (Victoria Faust), who has a gangster boyfriend name Louie who beats on her, as well as a sweetheart in the cast (but he’s secretly married to another gal, Dolly). Lolita’s as unpleasant and snooty as you might expect. When the songbird is found dead in the closet of the dressing room, there’s no end to the suspects, with the cops finding murderous motives for practically everyone, even the head of the restaurant next door (Lolita whanged him with a liquor bottle earlier in the evening).
The next night another gal gets strangled, the “Princess Nirvena” (Stephanie Bachelor). The “Canarsie Cossack” (as Dixie calls her) is found in a prop wardrobe onstage, and once again the cops round up the cast for questioning. During the ruckus, they discover Louie (Gerald Mohr) in the prop room, give chase, and he takes the ultimate escape route via leaping from the catwalk without a net.
When we do learn the real identity of the murderer (after he nearly kills Dixie), it’s a fine Whodunnit moment of tying up loose ends.
Campy by today’s standards, this is a good example of a studio working with the Hays Code. Even in the skimpy, midriff baring outfits Stanwyck and other ladies wear, no belly-buttons appear. The scripted innuendo is mild (both onstage and off), the folks in the dressing rooms are always robed, and the violence is brief and/or happens off camera.
When most people think of burlesque these days, they picture girls (and sometimes boys) getting their be-spangled kit off in front of hooting crowds. While this was certainly part of it, “burlesque” really means send-up or parody; a classic burlesque show often more closely resembled Vaudeville. Comics, singers, large dance numbers, even animal acts. Picture The Ed Sullivan Show with skimpier costumes, and you’ve pretty much got the idea.
The film is based on the story The G-string Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee, one of the few stars to actually rise out of burlesque to achieve wide recognition. For the unaware, a G-string is the thing a burlesque peeler leaves on. If you want to know what the origins of the “G” might be, it’s debatable. The prevalence of the G-string, however, is the reason one of Stanwyck’s songs in the film is “Take It Off the E-String (Put It On the G-string)”.
If you would like to watch Lady of Burlesque yourself, The Internet Archive has two versions available for FREE:
This is the one I watched first.
This version claims to have better picture quality, though on my screen it looked only marginally better. Due to the copyright falling into Public Domain some time ago, there are a number of second-and third-generation prints floating around.
The sound is clear in both of these versions.
If you would like to take a gander at some entertaining oddball acts, there are plenty available at The Internet Archive. Here’s a few I enjoyed:
The Schaller Brothers, a trampoline act that appeared on “Cavalcade of Stars”.
This clip is a little combo from Soundies, featuring some gymnastically inclined tapdancers, a pantomime horse act, the Glen Miller Modernaires, and a group of Marimba players. An odd mix, but a very high-quality print.
Another combo clip, this one titled “An All-Colored Vaudeville Show”. There is not an ounce of political correctness to be had (check out the musical notes behind Adelaide Hall, for a start), but the performers are all highly talented. It’s also a very clear print.
If you want more peelers, browse “burlesque” in the Prelinger Archives.