The original music hall number "Burlington Bertie" was popularized by male impersonator Vesta Tilley in 1900. It was written by Harry B. Norris & regards an young wastrel apparently of the gentry (most likely disinherited).
This original Burlington Bertie, the lyrics informed, had a Hyde Park drawl, & a name which by the by is gamblers' slang, indicating that he spent his days at the track -- although the Hyde Park race track was moved, in 1865, to Knightsbridge. The song made light of a type of aristocrat who had no land, lived by his wits, was little more than a well-dressed hobo nevertheless convinced of the superiority of his breeding.
In 1915 a parody of the song was written by William Hargreaves for his vaudeville wife, Ella Shields (she divorced him in 1923). She had a record hit of it about that time, though she sang only four verses & the live version she performed on stage went on much, much longer.
Instead of being an aristicratic wastrel, this version of Bertie has him a penniless fellow who cheerfully purports to be living a ritzy life. He effected the manners of a dandy or "toff" though in reality destitute, his tux second-hand & ragged.
In the new version Bertie says he is "like a toff," meaning an ostentatiouis young man which is the sort of character Vesta Tilley meant, but this new Bertie is much more likeable because not really trying to fool anyone, & certainly not young. He merely puts a rose-tinted lens on a life of failure & lack.
She made this new version very popular, & kept it throughout her long career as her signature song. Vesta Tilley's version was largely usurped, but she also had a long-lasting career as male impersonator. If she was a little annoyed to have had the character identified with Ella, she did at least have plenty of other characters to play, with special liking for dressing up as a military man.
Ella's version was later to be sung by Betty Grable in Mother Wore Tights (1947) & by Julie Andrews in full Bertie drag in the movie Star! (1968). Others have done it since, even in a play of recent vintage, about Ella's life. It additionally inspired Irvin Berlin's "A Couple of Swells" intended to be sung by two homeless women in tramp drag. In the character of Bertie Ella also popularized the Irving King drinking song "Show Me the Way to Go Home."
In the poorly preserved short subject Burlington Bertie of Bow (1936), we are blessed with a small record of Ella Shield's stage performance in male drag, which she had done since the 'teens & would continue to do until near the very end of her life, having in fact collapsed on stage while singing this song in 1952, dying three days later never having regained consciousness.
Ella's short film shows her on a music hall stage singing her famous number. The introductory natter is lacking, & she begins right off with the verse: "I'm Burlington Bertie/ I rise at ten-thirty/ And saunter along like a toff/ I walk down the Strand/ With my gloves on my hand/ And I walk down again with them off.
"I'm all airs & graces/ Correct easy paces/ Without food so long I've forgot where my face is/ I'm Bert, Bert, I haven't a shirt/ But my people are well off you know/ Nearly everyone knows me/ From Smith to Lord Rose'by/ I'm Berlington Bertie from Bow."
There are actually many verses but for the film Ella sings only three of them, as she struts back & forth & tips her tophat. Beginning with the second verse, lyrics popping up on the screen for a sing-along with cinema patrons of the era, though it's not that melodic a story-song & it must've sounded just awful if audiences really started singing.
This footage was incorporated into the documentary A Little of What You Fancy (1968) about the history of the British music halls, mixing new footage of '60s entertainers with archive footage.
The sing-along Burlington Bertie of Bow originated as a short-subject separately released, apparently to promote Men of Yesterday (1936). The lyrics were not superimposed in the feature film version. Performances from this film were also excerpted for the short subject Camp Concert (1941), including Will Fyfe singing "Glasgow Belongs to Me."
In its entirety Men of Yesterday was a serio-comic tale of Major Radford (Stewart Rome) veteran of the first world war attempting to organize a reunion of English, French, & German veterans to promote world peace. The major becomes suicidally depressed when his pacifistic dream seems unachievable, until his old orderly in the war (Sam Livesy) tosses in with him to make the reunion a reality.
The Pathetone short subject Miss Ella Shields: "The Ideal of Ideals"; sometimes titled Miss Ella Shields, Sweet Adeline (1933) preserves for posterity the most famous male impersonation act of the era, from a woman who did this act for fifty years.
She doesn't actually seem at all male, no more so than did Julie Andrews in Victor Victoria (1982), but is just a pleasant looking woman with her hair slicked back wearing a tux.
Julie Andrews was a fan of Ella Shields, recorded Ella's signature song "Burlington Bertie from Bow" in 1962. They even performed together in the same review in 1948, so it would seem Victor Victoria was in fact an homage to Julie's friend & mentor.
She was already in her fifties when she made this film but still a very handsome woman. Laughing she hurries center stage on a set tricked out like a hotel lobby, answers a phone, & says, "Yes, I want a line. Sweet Adeline," giving herself a cue to sing just that song, with ragtime era verve.
This little film was one of the "Pathetone Weekly" series, regarded as a "cinemagazine" which claimed to be dedicated to the amusing & the strange, emphasizing comedy & novelty musical numbers. Episodes were made from 1930 to 1941, but directors were never credited.
Ella Shields in male drag as an office worker does another music hall number in the three-minute short I'm Not All There (1930).
Arguing with another person (imaginary, off stage), & wearing a straw hat & round black-rimmed glasses (looking a lot like Harold Lloyd), "he" bursts into a half-sung narration of being the smartest but also the looniest man in town.
It's very much in imitation of Ella's signature song "I'm Burlington Bertie from Bow," but instead of pretending to the good life (while being obviously a tramp), this character is kind of the opposite, pretending to lunacy for the sake of unexpected rewards.
Thus, "They call me Looby. Looby/ Nothing but a great big booby," & Looby proceeds to catalog all the perks of life when people believe you're mad. Amusing, slight, interesting for capturing a bit of a musical comedy act of a type that flourished in music hall days.
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