Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon :: Girls and Gags, Music, Mayhem and Murder with William Wellman's Lady of Burlesque (1943)

Our feature begins long after the opening curtain has arisen for the evening show at the old Opera House, where the viewer promptly gets a front row seat for the current act; and after combining the skimpy outfits with the wild gesticulating by the all-girl chorus it doesn't take a viewer long (-- if the title hadn't already given it away, 'natch --) to realize S.B. Foss, owner and proprietor, is running a burlesque show. But the action really doesn't begin until we move backstage and into the overcrowded dressing rooms, where this well-oiled machine of a company is slipping a few gears as the following acts fritter and frack around, preparing to go on stage next.

Tonight is also the premiere of Foss' new headlining act, Dixie Daisy (Stanwyck), who must avoid the claws of a few demoted co-stars and the romantic overtures of one of the stock comedians, Biff Brannigan (O'Shea). And as several more rancorous subplots and volatile, three-cornered love affairs reveal themselves backstage, Daisy takes the front stage by storm and knocks 'em dead with a sultry rendition of her signature song, "Take Away the E-String, Play it On the G-String." But the evening quickly unravels during a later number, a comedic sketch with Biff and Daisy, when the police raid the theater. Now normally, when a raid is sniffed out, a warning light is flashed backstage so the players can evacuate without getting pinched, but this alarm failed due to sabotage. And during the resultant melee, once the cops make their move and everyone scatters for the nearest exit, Daisy is caught alone in the darkened basement, where someone reaches out of the shadows, seizes her by the throat, and tries to strangle her...

Not quite noir, not quite a comedy, and not quite a musical, but more of a musical comedy noir, the wild and rambunctious Lady of Burlesque is based on an even wilder and more rambunctious mystery novel written by the famed ecdysiast, Gypsy Rose Lee. Born Ellen Hovick in 1911, the author began her showbiz career as a dancer in vaudeville until she realized there was much more money to be made in burlesque, where, after adopting her stage-name, she did just that, revolutionizing the striptease by emphasizing more on the tease and acid-tongued quipping than the actual stripping. Still, at the time, you could only take so much off before you got arrested. And after a successful four year run at Minsky's Burlesque Theater in New York, where she was frequently arrested in many a vice raid, Lee went legit and gave Hollywood a shot in 1937 but her movie career quickly floundered. Undaunted, in 1941, Lee put pen to paper and wrote The G-String Murders, a semi-autobiographical whiz-banger of a whodunit that took place backstage at a burlesque theater, with Lee serving as the de facto narratrix to help the reader navigate through these uncharted literary waters.

Gypsy Rose Lee

Over the years since its publication, many have contended that Lee's book was ghost-written by Craig Rice -- a/k/a Georgiana Ann Craig, who was gaining notoriety for her John J. Malone mysteries at the same time, which combined the usual hard-boiled knocks with some overtly comedic overtones, resulting in something totally surreal (and, according to most reports, highly gruesome). But, this controversy appears to have been quelled lately, with corroborating evidence in the form of correspondence between Lee, Craig, her roommate at the time, and George Davis, an editor for Harper's Weekly, which shows the majority of the story came from Lee with a few suggestions and touch-ups coming from the others.

Hunt Stromberg, meanwhile, was MGM's golden boy producer, who had successfully imported Greta Garbo, oversaw all of Jean Harlow's films, made a star out of Joan Crawford, and who also brought together Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald for their musical extravaganzas and paid William Powell and Myrna Loy's bar tab for the entire Thin Man franchise. But, by 1941, things had soured so badly between Stromberg and Louis B. Mayer the movie mogul let him walk away from an insanely lucrative contract to try his hand as an independent producer. Quickly snatched up by the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers (-- later morphing into United Artists), Stromberg tapped Lee's novel to be his first feature post-MGM. Most insiders found this to be an insane notion, and, speaking frankly, with the novel's more, well ... saucier elements, I don't think this is something Stromberg could have even attempted at any of the major studios. Even without those restrictions, James Gunn's script had to subvert many of the novels bumps-n-grinds to get it past the censors. And to his credit, Gunn still managed to sneak quite a bit past Joseph Breen and his hatchet men.

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"And the next time you girls pull a free-for-all, don’t pull it during my act. Y’know, it’s tough enough doing something artistic for those lugs out there without you and Dolly calling each other by your rightful names!"
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One of Gunn's alterations was changing the protagonist from Gypsy Lee to Dixie Daisy. And to fill that g-string, Barbara Stanwyck does an amazing job of bringing the heat and the snark -- and she looks absolutely fabulous in those Edith Head designed dresses slit to her nether regions. And when she's dancing, evidenced by her dance-off with co-star Pinky Lee, the star absolutely excels. As for her singing, evidenced here and in Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire, well, even though Stanwyck lacked the chops of a classical singer her performance definitely grows on you. It's kinda like Ida Lupino's lounge act in Road House (1948); at first encounter, it sounds kinda shaky and teetering toward not very good; but with each passing verse, as both starlets make the song their own, all doubts are soon flushed. A minor quibble, anyway, because the rest of the package drops a payload that easily obliterates any and all concerns.

Speaking of obliterating, as good as Ms. Stanwyck is, the film is nearly stolen out form under her by co-star, Michael O'Shea. O'Shea was a revelation to me, here. I had only seen his work once before, as the grizzled First Sergeant who gets stuck in the frozen mine-field in Sam Fuller's Korean War actioneer, Fixed Bayonets; and I didn't even realize it was the same guy until checking out his credits. Here, he's hysterical as the swifty comedian and Daisy's punching bag; and the screen just crackles when Biff and Daisy trade barbs and rebukes, clobbering each other over the head with one loaded double-entendre after another as the bodies keep piling up around them.

See, Daisy is initially saved by the timely arrival of a police matron, who scared the killer off. Unsure if the villain was really after her, it was dark after all, and, when combining the events with the sabotage on the early warning system, Daisy suspects that someone was just trying to scare her off in an effort to shut the show down. But this theory takes a backseat when Lolita Laverne (Faust) is caught canoodling with the show's straight-man (Fenton) and has a horrid dust-up with her heel of boyfriend (Mohr), a gangster saloon keeper; an altercation so violent the act on stage has to switch to a song to try and drown it out (-- one of the film's best handled scenes). And when Laverne turns up dead, strangled by her own g-string, a lot of the physical evidence points to Daisy being the killer.

Biff, of course, does his best to throw suspicion elsewhere to save his girl, but winds up in trouble, himself, when the missing murder weapon is found planted in his pocket. And as a wily police inspector (Dingle) tries to sort through all the suspects and motives, things take a more sinister turn when another stripper, Princess Noveena (Bachelor), the least-popular person in the whole show, winds up dead, too, strangled in the exact same fashion.

Before any more bodies turn up, the show is officially shut down. And while a nervous Dixie feels like a loose end that needs to be knotted-off, together with Biff, these amateur sleuths unravel a mystery plot that I don't think even Raymond Chandler could have cooked up on his worst three-day bender:

Turns out the first victim was killed twice, first with poison and then strangled. The first victim also knew Noveena's secret; a secret that allowed her to blackmail Foss (Bromberg) into making her into the new headliner. The first victim had also withdrawn a large sum of money before she died. Money that wound up in the straight-man's pocket. Despite all of this damning evidence, all the physical clues still point to Daisy as the murderer of both women. But who really done it? The jealous ex-boyfriend? The straight-man? The straight-man's estranged wife? The black-mailed boss? And don't discount any of the seedier backstage hands, holdovers from the theater's golden age, whose disdain for burlesque performers is palpable. Or perhaps Daisy was right in the first place: Maybe the motive for the killing is to simply stop the show? Who benefits then? Or maybe, it's a combination of all of the above...

Even though everyone scoffed at Stromberg's folly, Lady of Burlesque went over very well with audiences in 1943 and raked it in at the box-office. Behind the camera, Stromberg brought William Wellman with him from MGM. 'Wild Bill' Wellman was a pretty ideal choice to direct this picture, I think, because he always gave his leading ladies free rein to dump the debutante trappings and be their natural, rough-talking selves. (See also Westward the Women.) Wellman was always good with the concept of camaraderie in his war pictures, where every person -- the wiseass, the newbie, the yokel, the asshole etc. -- were all vital in making the squad tick; and the same holds true when he's dealing with dancers and strippers and comedians. However, Lady of Burlesque kinda falls flat during the musical numbers, where the director's usually fluid style turns way too static, with lots of long shots, as if to make the audience part of the onscreen theater audience -- an experiment that ultimately backfires, but it was part of his overall theme. (More on that in a sec.) This is remedied, somewhat, by inserts of shots from the side-stages, where we see the act in the background or foreground framed with more frantic behind the scenes action to break up the monotony.

Luckily, the film really isn't about the show itself, or even the murders, really, but the thunder and chaos of what happens backstage and the interaction of the players to make the show work four times a day. (It's like a combination of the Keystone Cops and The Muppet Show.) Here, Wellman excels, too, where his usual, voyeuristic key-hole camera really doesn't feel like we're spying on the proceedings but are part of the proceedings, giving you a sense of total immersion; and so, yes, even making the audience part of this overall camaraderie.

And if you'd like to find out whoreallydunit, Lady of Burlesque is in the public domain and available for free on many streaming services or dirt-cheap on a number of DVDs, which is too much of a good thing because a flick with this kind of pedigree, with such a full frontal boom-boom performance by Stanwyck, deserves the full restoration treatment. Regardless of how bad a print you find, stick it out. You're in for a real crackerjack of a mystery musical comedy whodunit with lots and lots of mayhem and eye-candy to sway anyone's cinematic sweet-tooth.

Other Points of Interest:

This post is part of the opening salvo of a week long birthday tribute to Barbara Stanwyck for The Girl with the White Parasol's Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon, and I encourage you all to click on over and read the other, well worth your while entries, please and thank you!

Lady of Burlesque (1943) Hunt Stromberg Productions :: United Artists / P: Hunt Stromberg / D: William A. Wellman / W: James Gunn, Gypsy Rose Lee (novel) / C: Robert De Grasse / E: James E. Newcom / M: Arthur Lange / S: Barbara Stanwyck, Michael O'Shea, Charles Dingle, J. Edward Bromberg, Victoria Faust, Frank Fenton, Stephanie Bachelor, Gerald Mohr


Vienna said...

Terrific review and pictures .Thank you. I love this movie and what a cast. Iris Adrian is adorable as Barbara's pal,and Marian Martin too.
It plays like a B movie, but as you pointed it, it had William Wellman directing and Barbara taking the lead.
It's an absolute delight

Vienna's Classic Hollywood

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

Nice post. Loved your description that it was "more of a musical comedy noir," than any of the three genres alone. Stanwyck started off as a dancer, so she does well there, but as you noted, there is something a tad lacking with her singing voice but it is strangely endearing by film's end. Loved the Edith Head costumes--Stanwyck could wear anything well.

Caftan Woman said...

What a fabulous choice for the blogathon! I always get a kick out of "Lady of Burlesque".

When I first showed this movie to my husband he commented that it didn't seem like a Wellman type of movie, but when he saw all those scantily clad gals he changed his mind.

Aubyn said...

This was an absolutely great review, Kelso, paying full tribute to every aspect that makes Lady of Burlesque unique and engaging. I know that I forgot the specifics of the mystery plot about 20 minutes after watching it. What stuck with me was the clear-eyed affection and wry amusement that Gypsy Lee and Barbara Stanwyck had for the burlesque life. You really do get a feel for that way of life, all the frustrated ambitions, all the petty aggravations, and all the camaraderie.

I really enjoyed your tip of the hat to Wellman. I agree that he has the right kind of touch for this material. Doesn't condescend, doesn't leer, and totally willing to treat his leading lady like one of the guys.

Fantastic start to the blogathon!

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

Wowsa! Another Stanwyck movie I haven't heard of before that I will definitely track down. Thanks for the in-depth review!

Judy said...

Great review of this Wellman film - I must agree that Stanwyck and Michael O'Shea are both fine in it, and enjoyed all the information you have put together here! I saw this a while back on one of those washed-out PD DVDs, which unfortunately had such a quiet soundtrack that I had to stand right next to the television to try to hear the dialogue, so I totally agree with you that it could do with a proper restoration. I also definitely agree that this film is really about the backstage happenings rather than the murders themselves.

W.B. Kelso said...

Thank you all for the kind words. Much appreciated. This is probably my second favorite Wellman flick and in the top 5 for Ruby. It's just so much damned fun from beginning to end.

As for a decent print, I purchased a digital copy through Amazon. The audio is great throughout but the picture varies drastically from reel to reel. I think some has put a somewhat restored version out on DVD but I haven't had the chance to look at it yet.

And Aubyn, thanks for throwing out such a wide net. Proud to be part of this opening round. Keep it up, folks. Gonna be a great Blogathon.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed "Lady of Burlesque", especially after watching Barbara dancing the jitterbug, doing the Russian dance, and doing cartwheels. Yes, it was actually Barbara doing all of this, not a double!

Silver Screenings said...

I'm another one who hasn't seen this but, happily, I've found it on a free movie app. Thanks for reviewing this and prompting me to see it. :)

W.B. Kelso said...

When Daisy, Biff and Pinky have to break into an impromptu musical number to drown out the fight backstage is my favorite scene in the whole movie. That dance-off is amazing.

Danny said...

I watched the movie a few years back and it didn't do much for me until O'Shea starts hooting at Stanwyck across the rooftop. She gives him a look and dresses him down so handily it made me sit up. Stanwyck's electricity is rarely more powerful than what she gives her. Good review, it made me want to settle in for a rewatch ASAP. :)

W.B. Kelso said...

It's the relationship between those two that really kicks the film several notches above the material. Stanny honestly met her match with O'Shea, toe to toe and barb for barb.

FlickChick said...

Great post - really well done. I love Stanwyck in this role - just further proof that the woman could do it all.

JES said...

This is such a great review on so many levels. Really appreciated all the Gypsy Rose Lee backstory, which I hadn't known of before. It's been years since I saw this, and I'm pretty sure I wasn't really, y'know, watching while it was on. So it's going straight to the queue (as, I suspect, will all the other Stanwyck flicks covered by blogathoners).

(And "Laverne turns up dead, strangled by her own g-string" is a sentence -- and a plot point -- I would love to have carried off myself!)

W.B. Kelso said...

Again, thanks for all the compliments, folks. Love the film, and it was a blast to share with you all.

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