Irving Klaw's full color "musical variety show" Varietease (1954) is introduced by commedian Bobby Shields, promising "six of the loveliest dolls direct from Paris. Paris France!" As he keeps talking he has only praise for the four dolls from Paris, as these two girls are beautiful, & here she is now that sultry siren of the southland, Bettie Page. Who certainly is the equivalent of two, four, or six of the loveliest Parisians.
Bettie does a classic harem dance or bellydance, completely wholesome, a sort of "dance of the seven veils" which can be found referenced even in ancient literature of the goddess Inanna.
Here's history's greatest pin-up girl being no less appealing in motion. She has several silken scarves dangling from her shoulders down her back, & these she removes one by one, giving a vague impression of a strip act though she's obviously not stripping.
Anyone hoping for porn will be annoyed, but anyone who thinks it is porn is certifiable. It's a very beautiful pin-up girl's somewhat amateur dance, as endearing as it is sexy. And does Bettie ever know how to wink at a camera.
We're next taken backstage for a trumped up "behind the scenes" look at Lili St Cyr, who purportedly hasn't been let in on our presence, & begins to get out of her street clothes & do her hair, preparing for her act to come later.
In between other acts we'll be seeing, Lili will bit by bit complete what amounts to a skit in her supposed dressing room, with plenty of striptease that is all tease & no strip, suitable for the parents at Disneyworld.
Cass Franklin is up next, an obscure entertainer who tells a bad joke that nevertheless made me grin, & then introduces his singing partner, the equally obscure Monica Lane.
The image of this duo suits them to Lawrence Welk, & are a reminder that burlesque didn't come out of prostitution but out of vaudeville, & when vaudeville died those comics who weren't good enough for radio or television clung to whatever lingered of vaudeville, meaning was the burlesque clubs. Quite a number of comics, singers, & novelty acts persisted in burlesque.
Franklin & Lane do an innocent stand-up bit then get down to their actual talents as singers. If you like the Lawrence Welk's idea of good singers, then they're really not bad. They sing a jitterbug number that'd have everyone in the old folks home tapping their toes. They'll return in the second half of the show to sing two more numbers. Those will be worse than this first number except Monica whistles for a bit. Whistlin' girl singers is kind of rare.
A baggy-pants clown then does a very little joke, a funny "bebopper" song, & a rather funnier dance, followed by part two of Lili's "backstage" parading, & then the dance team of Peppe & Roccio in a maximumly hoky Latin-styled routine, like a horse-faced flamenco girl dancing with a faggy bullfighter.
It's so kitschy it's a joy. When the guy's hat falls off it's obviously not intentional, but he never misses a step. He does miss a step when he trips over the cape he'd already tossed to the floor (he should've taken a clue from the bluresque queens who when discarding parts of their costume did not do so in a manner that left garments scattered on the floor.)
In the second half of this hour or so of variety entertainent another dance team will come out, Baro & Rogers. They do a ballroom number that starts out serious but then turns into an almost scary comedy act that is a lot better than I'd expected, almost as if Lucy Recardo got to dance with Ricardo Montelban & she kept falling & tripping & making him miss his mark as well.
It's hard to imagine this sort of entertainment was ever regarded as adults-only. It's all so very innocent by today's standards. You can see in everyone's faces a desire to entertain. I'm sure most of them hoped to break out of burlesque into something bigger, movies, television, something.
Comedienne Christine Nelson is a short-haired beauty who does a little comedy then bursts into a really great old-fashioned vaudeville number, "I'm a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride."
She's by no means a stripper, but burlesque had several standard components that rarely varied, & the "talking woman" was one of the requisit standards. Very rarely as with burlesque superstar Rose la Rose the stripper had a talking woman act, but in most cases the talking woman was a comic or a comic foil to the emcee or the baggy-pants clown. Christine, however, is much more an authentic stand-up comic than usually required of the talking-woman.
She seems like someone who cut her teeth in the Borsch belt or did Yiddish theater before the war. Christine had a minor acting career in series television through the 1960s. I rather liked her old-fashioned stand-up routine, consisting largely of one-liners strung together as a sort of a s tory: "If all brides are beautiful how come there are so many ugly wives?" or "He put his head on my shoulder. Up until then I didn't know it came off."
With all these wholesome acts it hardly seems like Varietease is the right name for this show. But next up is "Chris La Chris," obviously imitating the name of the famed Rose La Rose. La Chris is an exotic dancer with ostritch plumes sticking out for a tail, & a spangled swimsuit.
She seems like someone who may have studied serioius dance. It's another act that even the Disney chann el would feel no need to censor, & could almost make one nostalgic for such an age that this would be regarded as risque.
Shelley Leigh is a stand-up comic who steals Henny Youngman's best-known lines but happily he's gone quickly & Lili does part three of her backstage routine, now wearing a nice evening gown. And if watching someone brush her hair is your thang, this is fetish central.
We're heading for something more genuinely for freaks & fetishists. As prelude, a tepid dance in evening gown is performed for a young man on a set arranged as a cafe.
The young man afterward claims if he were a woman he could do that good. She tells him to go in her dressing room then & pick out a dress. "Okay" says he, then there's a break while Bobby Shields sings "Broken Toy" in a really, really, really bad attempt to sound like Eddie Fischer, who himself sounded bad enough.
The guy in the cafe scene then returns as Vicki Lynn, female impersonator. He's not a completely awful imitation burly-q but if no one told you it was a guy, you'd either figure it out in two or three seconds or wonder how anyone that hard & homely ever got a job as an exotic dancer. The act concludes with him whipping off his wig & lighting up a cigar. And sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar.
Bobby returns promising to sing "Broken Toy" again but this time as Bill Kinney of the Inkspots would & as other singers would do it. He does an absolutely awful job of it, which I guess was supposed to be funny, hard to tell. Cut to backstage again, Lili St Cyr sure is trying on a lot of stuff, & pardon me if I'm fastforwarding more & more, a half hour of these acts having been fun but an hour is too much.
It livens up when we finally get to see Twinnie Wallen doing the can-can & cartwheeling. The can-can is a dance that should be done with a whole line of can-can dancers but Twinnie is as exciting as one gal alone can make it.
And though we see a lot of pantie, I remember as a child going to Disneyland & having to sit through a floorshow in a restaurant, in which, indeed, pantie-showing can-can dancers were considered wholesome enough for Disney family fun. If this is what dirty-old-men were after when they went to stirp clubs, how undirty can dirty-old-men be I ask ya?
Twinnie's dance ends with one of the most surprising bits I've ever seen as she lays flat on the floor & runs around herself as though her legs had come off. After that it's time at last for Lili St Cyr (nee Willis Marie Van Schaack), the reputed star of this show who we've now & then glimpsed backstage.
Today Varietease if tracked down by anyone, it's for Bettie Page, whose reputation has grown & grown with each decade since her heyday of the 1950s. But during the late 1940s & the 1950s, Lili had the more extravagant reputation. One of her husbands, actor Ted Jordan, wrote a notorious biography of Marilyn Monroe that revealed Marilyn & Lili had had a secret affair. Toward the end of her life she'd become one of those hermit cat ladies.
With such notoriety, Lili has star billing on this production largely of forgottens & unknowns. Since there's been nothing much in the risque department from anyone up to now, I wondered if at least Lili St. Cyr was going to turn out to be a "real" stripper. Her most famous act was a "taking a bubble bath" scene in which bubbles hide her nakedness, & her "maid" helps her put her clothes on. Varietease does not go for that famous act, though.
She's wearing layers so the first stuff to come off reveals nothing. She trips at one point, no budget for a second take, I'm sure that annoyed her. She plays peek-a-boo from within the curtain pretending she's naked but she's still wearing the long gown.
It looks silly, but savor it even so, for this is legitimately how the never-really-stripped striptease was performed, creating the illusion that the clothes really are coming off if only the baldies in the front row could see through the folds of the curtain. At last she unzips it down the side & is soon in red bra &am panties, again hiding in the curtains.
In the face, Lili looks her age, well into her forties, but has a nice junoesque body. She can't dance serioiusly but she's a very, very skillfill performer of a certain kind, the teasing kind.
She immediately goes into a second number which has some exotica music, dimmed lighting, & a big divan. We're about to see a "climax" for this variety hour that honest to christ pays off nicely; it's damned cool, & reveals why she had a reputation for creating an air of mystery & mysticism.
Posing & draping herself off the divan is more aesthetically appealing than was the curtain-peeping striptease she started with. The lighting, the poses, is dramatic & powerful, so that in the end, she does make an impact equal to Bettie's. She seems really an apsara or Buddhist star-nymph, bringer of wisdom to monks & sages. When she's finished, the lights come up, & the whole of the variety show is over.
For the most part I liked this show for its naivete, for Bettie Page, for the stand-up of Christine Nelson, & for those crazy kitschy dancers Baro & Rogers, & Peppe & Roccio.
Most of the rest I could take or leave, & was outright bored for a bit in the middle, but in the end Lili St. Cyr pulled her ass out of the fire & became a highlight of the show as well. It's still so odd to think this was once regarded as "adults only" stuff.
Something Weird Video has included a commentary track for Varietease with a lot of interesting remembrances by an aging producer of the good ol' days of making burlesque movies.
The commentary track is definitely worth listening to & the film short enough to bare watching twice in a row so the commentary won't intrude on first-viewing.
Varietease is part of a trilogy of variety-hour programs, the others being Teaserama (1955) & Striporama, with considerable overlapping of performers.
The negative for Striporama (1953) was too deteriorated for Something Weird Video to salvage as a feature, though personally I think they should issue it in dvd even so, just being honest on the packaging that it only survives in poor condition & only partially restorable.
A fragment of Striporama starring Bettie Page was imperfectly restored for inclusion as an Extra with Varietease.
It's a self-contained comedy routine mostly featuring two comics with a large poster of Bettie in their apartment, about which they speak endlessly with adoration. The shadow of the soundboom follows them around the set the entire time.
They do some lame but charming comedy material & eventually convince one another that if they sleep with Bettie's picture under the pillow, she'll appear to them. They crowd into a bed together, her picture under pillow, & sure enough!
They rise from the bed when Betties calls to them. This is the one & only time Bettie speaks in any of her 1950s films. She converses with the vaudevillian clowns for a while, posing for them sweetly, & encourages them to join in a group hug.
The two comics cling to her lovingly only to be awakened by a third guy who comes through the door & finds them standing in the middle of the room clinging to one another with their eyes closed.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl