The Lady of Burlesque

Director: William A. Wellman

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

The Lady of Burlesque The supporting cast in The Lady of Burlesque (1943) is a delight all round. Victoria Faust plays Lolita La Verne, the obnoxious burly-q who causes cat fights & eventually becomes a murder victim.

She's good in the role so it's surprising to discover she never had much of a film career; three films consecutively less significant than The Lady of Burlesque are the sum of it.

Stephanie Bachelor plays the Princess Nirvena, stuck-up bitch with a fake Russian accent & alarming pretentions. She'll climb down off her high horse for a second or two if there's free liquor.

She's something of an adversary to Dixie (Barbara Stanwyck), & not above blackmailing the theater's owner (J. Edward Bromberg) if that's what it takes for her to stay a headliner.

Marion Martin is superb as the ditzy blonde romantic burly-q Alice Angel, Dixie's pal. When Gypsy Rose Lee left Ziegfield Follies in 1933, Marion replaced her.

The Lady of BurlesqueIn Hollywood Marion was typecast as a stripper though she'd never been one, & often cast as a golddigging ditz, when in real life she was intelligent, shy & kindhearted.

The Lady of Burlesque finds Marion again playing the usual ditzy stripper, but she is kindhearted this time; far from being a golddigger, she's in love with the burlesque clown.

Said clown is played by Pinky Lee, a great talent who actually had been a baggy-pants clown in burlesque shows, so conveys exactly what they were like on stage.

Michael O'Shay is the leading man Biff "Irish" Brannigan, attempting the seduction of Dixie though she's having none of it -- for a long while at least.

He's tepid in his first film as leading man, but it really is a story about the gals, so it's good of him to not try to upstage anyone, supposing he was capable of it. He's playing a burlesque clown, too, but Pinky Lee completely upstages him in that department.

The full force of the Hays Office's production code held sway at this time so we don't really see anything that approximates a stripper act. In Stanwyck's opening number she carries a fur coat with her on stage & tosses it off stage as the closest thing to taking-it-off.

The Lady of BurlesqueYet the tone of the backstage interactions have a ring of authenticity, as the stripper memoirs of the era speak both of the close-knit community like unto a family, as well as the catfights & jealousies; the desires to break out of burlesque into legit theater, & the joys of being part of this insular & self-protecting community.

The novel the film is taken from, Gypsy Rose Lee's The G-String Murders (1941), has Gypsy herself as a character, & she haunts this script & this performance even without her name being retained for the character.

Although the novel was ghost-written by Craig Rice, Gypsy's own input insured a startling realism for backstage doings, & some of that definitely makes it into the film.

There's no question but that Stanwyck was a great actor & she makes Dixie Daisy an absolutely credible personality, a strong personality you can believe would indeed be a central figure without being too pushy about it in any group of burlesque queens.

She usually plays a harder character than this, & it's wonderful to see her being a good natured sweet soul with a winning smile & a lot of smarts that she'd never apply to anything but good. Stanwyck really did start out her career in burlesque, & no doubt contributes to the overall verisimilitude due to that experience.

The Lady of BurlesqueMany today think burlesque was all stripping, but it was much closer to vaudeville than that, & singers & commediens were also required.

The comedy routines we see are authentic. The opening "follies" with all the women parading was also authentic, & the terrible, terrible, terrible delivery of the baritone singer doing Sammy Cahn's "So This is You" is only as good as burlesque's male singers were expected to be.

So while the bump & grind was missing from the girls' acts because of the Hays office, The Lady of Burlesque is otherwise a nice window into burlesque of the early 1940s.

When there's a police raid without there having been even a pretense of a strip act in a stripper show, we just have to go along with that & imagine more occured on stage than got filmed. In general, it's the relationships & the sheer desire to do the shows that come off as real.

The Lady of BurlesqueWhen Dixie sings "Take it off the E-String (Put it on the G-String)" the fact that she's kind of a bad singer lent to the authenticity. Despite that Stanwyck's no singer I enjoyed her efforts hugely. She did surprise me, though, in being a damned great dancer & when she leapt on the floor acrobatically I gasped in wonder.

Knowing that someone's gonna get killed lends a degree of suspense to the otherwise lighthearted backstage story. The resolution of the crime is pretty silly if you think about it too long, & there was no inevitability of it being one person instead of another. But that's rather cleverly done, how everyone could've done it.

The real strength of the story, however, is in sustaining the backstage atmosphere & eccentric characterizations of burlesque people. I found it so convincing that I half expected more than just Pinky Lee to be real burlesque people, but they were mostly character players playing their roles well.

The film does have a couple of harsh moments & these mostly surround the emotionally disturbed gangster Louis (Gerald Mohr). When he beats up his girlfriend backstage, no one comes to her aid because he carries a gun after all. But I felt bad; these girls protect each other but that time they didn't try.

Then when Louis is cornered by the police & convinced they're going to hang the murder on him, he completely comes undone, with a shoot out & awful climax for him that makes the largely upbeat Lady of Burlesque grim enough to qualify as film noir.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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