“I wasn’t naked. I was completely covered by a blue spotlight.”
–Gypsy Rose Lee
The roots of modern theatrical burlesque can be found as early as the mid-nineteenth century, emerging first in the deceptively-straitlaced Victorian period in England, and then traveling across the Atlantic to American shores not long after. The concept of burlesque did not start out with the same connotations that have been assigned to it over the years. It was originally a theatrical variety show: a mixture of comedic and musical commentary on class issues and the entertainments of the day, humorous recreations of the work of noted playwrights (Shakespeare was a particularly popular source for material), and attractive, minimally-clothed young ladies. But even though humor was ostensibly the main goal of each show, at its heart, burlesque was always about sex–not the actuality of it, but more the suggestion of it. In a time when Victorian morality dictated women fully clothe themselves from head to toe in public, here were girls who wore flesh-colored tights on stage to give the appearance of nudity. And audiences loved every minute of it.
The Americans, in tried-and-true fashion, put their own spin on the burlesque show, replacing the satirical and parodic bon mots that populated English burlesque with lowbrow humor and slapstick episodes interlaced between saucy dancing vignettes. Stripping was not originally part of either nation’s version of the show, but throughout the 1920s and 30s, especially in the United States, striptease eventually began supplanting the other elements of the burlesque show, becoming the big draw for most performances. Burlesque was about putting on a show–an illusion of illicit behavior, a promise that was never fully fulfilled. At least, that was the original intent. Over the years, however, the “tease” gave way to blatant, bawdy bump-and-grind numbers that eschewed comedy and entertainment in favor of pure titillation.
In the 1930s, concerns about indecency led to crackdowns on theaters featuring burlesque acts–most notably in New York City, where mayor Fiorello LaGuardia embarked on an ultimately successful personal crusade to close down all burlesque clubs in the city, including the popular Minsky’s. Within two decades, the art of the show was largely forgotten. “Burlesque” became something of a dirty word, indicative of seediness and tastelessness (in fact, LaGuardia went so far as to ban the use of the term in public). Later, the proliferation of pornography in the free-swinging 1960s further spelled the end of burlesque’s relevance in the entertainment landscape. But in the past decade or so, interest in burlesque has been revived due to the emergence of new burlesque clubs and troupes and the growing popularity of stars such as Dita von Teese and Immodesty Blaize. This new generation of performers pays generous homage to the tradition of burlesque in a relatively faithful way, complete with the lavish costumes, healthy mix of upbeat musical numbers and torrid torch songs, winking humor, and artful stripteasing that marked their forebears.
Back in its early twentieth-century heyday, the undeniable shining star on the burlesque circuit was Gypsy Rose Lee. Lee and her sister, June (later billed as screen star June Havoc), prodded by their ambitious mother, had a singing and dancing act as children, which they performed on the vaudeville circuit. When June, in an effort to escape their mother’s control, left the act at age 15, Lee moved into the world of burlesque (spending a few years at Minsky’s in the process) and revolutionized the art of the striptease. She played her performances as an act of seduction, enticing the audience with a sultry glance here, a teasing glimpse of skin there, all while infusing the production with sly wit and humor. She was, in short, a sensation.
Lee eventually tried to parlay her burlesque fame into a movie career (billed under her real name, Louise Hovick), but was ultimately unsuccessful on the big screen. She turned to writing books in the early 1940s and, all told, published three works in her lifetime: pulp novels The G-String Murders (1941) and Mother Finds a Body (1942), and her memoir, Gypsy (which was the inspiration for the musical and 1962 film of the same name). G-String and Mother are murder mysteries featuring a fictionalized, same-named version of Gypsy Rose Lee solving crimes with the help of her comedian sidekick and love interest, Biff Brannigan.
In 1943, The G-String Murders was adapted into the film Lady of Burlesque, with the original intention that Lee herself would star in the lead role (though the screen adaptation would change the protagonist’s name from “Gypsy Rose” to “Dixie Daisy”). Given Lee’s track record as an actress (read: virtually nonexistent), it should come as no surprise that such plans did not ultimately come to fruition. But considering the very “B” nature of this particular picture, it is surprising to realize who actually starred in the final product: popular leading lady Barbara Stanwyck.
At the time Lady of Burlesque was filmed, Stanwyck was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. The former Ruby Catherine Stevens had been a star since the pre-Code days of the early 1930s, and she had already racked up two Academy Award nominations for Best Actress, for 1937’s Stella Dallas and 1942’s Ball of Fire. Her filmography was filled with hits such as Meet John Doe and The Lady Eve (both in 1941). And more major successes, in 1944’s Double Indemnity and 1948’s Sorry, Wrong Number (both of which brought her additional Oscar nominations), were just around the corner. Arguably, Stanwyck was entering the apex of her career in 1943.
So why, at this point in her life, did Stanwyck decide to do a low-budget, no-frills “B” production? And for that matter, why did William A. Wellman–a noted director and Academy Award-winning writer who helmed such classics as Wings (1927–the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture), The Public Enemy (1931), Nothing Sacred (1937), and the original 1937 version of A Star is Born (for which he won the Oscar for his writing)–take on directing such a small-time picture? Well, by all accounts, it appears that the making of Lady of Burlesque was like a vacation for these two. For her part, Stanwyck, who was widely recognized for her ability to win over just about everyone she ever worked with, was pleased to have the chance to be directed by the notoriously difficult Wellman again (over the course of their careers, Wellman eventually directed the actress five times, and she later called him one of her favorite directors that she ever worked with). As for Wellman, he had just completed a difficult shoot for the 1943 film The Ox-Bow Incident, an atypical Western he had fought to be allowed to direct for more than three years. In the end, Lady of Burlesque provided the opportunity for a relatively lighthearted, easy shoot, thereby giving both its director and its star a much-needed “break.”
While by no means the best or even the most unique of Stanwyck’s many film roles–after all, she had already played a burlesque star named Sugarpuss O’Shea in Ball of Fire two years earlier–it’s nonetheless an interesting diversion. The movie is a murder mystery set in the backstage world of a popular burlesque theater. Dixie Daisy (Stanwyck) is the headliner at Broadway’s Old Opera House. One night, the theater is unexpectedly raided, and while trying to escape the cops, Dixie is strangled from behind, but survives when the attack is interrupted. Dixie later finds the body of one of her costars, dancer Lolita La Verne, who has been strangled with a G-string. The subsequent murder of a second dancer leads Dixie, her best friend Gee Gee Graham (Iris Adrian), and comic Biff Brannigan (Michael O’Shea), on a hunt for the killer before the show is shut down for good.
Stanwyck is, per usual, a charming presence in the film. She brings a vulnerability to the tough-talking Dixie that gives the character more depth than was likely called for in the script. You have to hand it to the actress–even in a middling picture such as Lady of Burlesque, Stanwyck doesn’t just phone in her performance. She’s the liveliest part of the picture, and she is what ultimately makes the movie worth watching despite its other issues. Also worth noting is the performance of Adrian, a prolific actress perhaps best known for her appearances in several live-action Disney films over the years (among them 1968’s The Love Bug, 1975’s The Apple Dumpling Gang, and 1976’s The Shaggy D.A. and Freaky Friday), who is quite appealing in the role of Dixie’s friend and confidant, Gee Gee.
The movie suffers, however, in the casting of Stanwyck’s male lead. This film marks Michael O’Shea’s debut, and his relative inexperience shows in every single one of his scenes with the much more capable Stanwyck (O’Shea’s film career was, in the end, quite limited–he found most of his success on the stage and later in television). At the time the movie was being cast, the Hollywood Reporter indicated that Joseph Cotten was being considered for the male lead, which to me seems like an odd choice for the role, at least in retrospect. Still, it would have been interesting to see him opposite Stanwyck in this role and to see if he could have brought anything to a thinly-characterized part (Stanwyck and Cotten would later star together in 1951’s mystery The Man with a Cloak).
The Hays Office likely had palpitations when it came to adapting Lee’s book for the screen and, in fact, they registered several objections to the script. First and foremost, the book’s title, The G-String Murders, could not be used for the movie. Additionally, some of the bawdier jokes had to be excised from the film. Furthermore, the Hays folks objected to the use of the titular item as the murder weapon, claiming that using a feminine undergarment in such a manner would likely be considered “offensive” by a certain segment of the public (it stayed in the picture anyway). And finally, the striptease scenes could not show “excessive” amounts of skin, nor could blatant bump-and-grind motions be shown on camera. Still, though the movie is quite tame (at least in comparison to the things filmmakers can get away with in modern film), director Wellman manages to convey the spirit of the naughty dance moves through reaction cuts to the audience during the hottest parts of the number (and yes, you can practically see the drool on the men’s faces).
Despite the limitations imposed by the Code, the movie manages to convey a realistic depiction of the goings-on behind the scenes of the burlesque industry. The relationships between the performers–the friendships and petty jealousies that develop between women fighting for attention and sustained popularity on the stage, the rivalries between comedians, the tension brought on by the fear of being raided and shut down at any moment–are deftly laid out on the screen. The film truly captures the atmosphere of the burlesque theaters of the early 1940s, an uncertain time when success and longevity were far from guaranteed.
Believe it or not, Lady of Burlesque was nominated for an Academy Award … for its score (by Arthur Lange). The film features two songs co-penned by Sammy Cahn, “So This is You” and the hilariously suggestive “Take It Off the E-String, Play It on the G-String.” However, the movie really didn’t have a shot in hell of actually winning–it was up against some heavy competition, including Max Steiner’s score for Casablanca, and ultimately lost to Alfred Newman’s score for The Song of Bernadette.
Stanwyck is not the best singer in the world, but it’s hard to take your eyes off of her once she gets going, isn’t it?
Lady of Burlesque has long been in the public domain, so there are quite a few cheap copies of the film floating around out there. And the entire movie is available on YouTube, so if you’re interested in (almost) seeing Barbara Stanwyck bump and grind in skimpy costumes, there is ample opportunity for you to do so. Overall, though it’s far from a masterpiece of film, there is a certain amount of entertainment to be found in watching this movie. In a strange way, it reminds me a bit of 1995’s Showgirls–decent talent (Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Gershon) mixed with inexperienced performers (Elizabeth Berkley), all taking on a not-great script, set in a world of dancing in little to no clothing, with a bit of “dirty deeds” thrown in for good measure. Okay, so maybe it’s stretching it a bit to compare the two. But then again, these movies do share the same “cultish” quality, and (let’s face it) the copious consumption of alcohol does greatly enhance your enjoyment of each film …