Friday, April 26, 2013

Lady of Burlesque - 1943

Director:                                      William Wellman
Screenplay:                                James Gunn
        Based on the novel G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee
Producer:                                     Hunt Stromberg
Original Music:                            Arthur Lange (score)
Cinematography:                        Robert de Grasse
Costume Design
            for Dixie Daisy:                 Edith Head
            for other cast:                   Natalie Visart                

Dixie Daisy                          Barbara Stanwyck
Biff Brannigan                     Michael O’Shea
S.B. Foss                            J. Edward Bromberg                  
Gee Gee Graham                Iris Adrian
Dolly Baxter                         Gloria Dickson
Lolita LaVerne                     Victoria Faust
Princess Nirvena                 Stephanie Bachelor
Inspector Harrigan               Charles Dingle
Alice Angel                           Marion Martin
Officer Kelly                         Eddie Gordon
Russell Rogers                    Frank Fenton
Mandy                                  Pinky Lee
Stacchi                                 Frank Conroy
The Hermit                           Lew Kelly
Sandra                                 Claire Carleton
Janine                                  Janis Carter
Louis Grindero                     Gerald Mohr
Sammy                                 Bert Hanlon
Joey                                      Sidney Marion
Moey                                     Lou Lubin
Comic                                    Lee Trent
Comic                                    Don Lynn

Hunt Stromberg Productions
Released through United Artists
  on May 1, 1943
91 minutes

This is a movie about dames, dolls, tomatoes, hep cats, hoofers, mugs, songbirds, crooners, candy butchers, and hard-boiled hoods.  And strippers.  It's also about four-shows-a-day, grouch bags, pickle persuaders, gazeeka boxes, saloons, blackout cues, police raids and plush-lined g-strings.  And murder.   

However, one word on the above list that you definitely will not hear in the movie is “strippers.”  You also will not hear the words “strip” or “striptease”.  The subject matter was a little too risqué for the Breen office – the censors who enforced the Motion Picture Production Code.  The women in "Lady of Burlesque" are “dancers”, some of whom do “specialty” numbers.
Gypsy Rose Lee
The movie is based on the book, The G-String Murders, written by Gypsy Rose Lee.  She was the most famous and successful burlesque entertainer in history.   She was in show business from childhood – we’ve all seen “Gypsy” which was based loosely on her life story – and she was in the striptease business from the 1920’s into the 1950’s.    

Her act was lighthearted and playful; she mixed comedy and sex, showing very little skin and using much more tease than strip.  She was as well known for her wit and intelligence as for her beauty and her talent as an ecdysiast.   She hobnobbed with the glitterati and the literati – Noel Coward, W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Picasso. 

She began a new phase of her life when she began to write
   “When Gypsy Rose Lee was in Hollywood, Walter Winchell asked her to do a guest column while he was on vacation.  She said she would.  Two days later she picked up a paper and read a column signed with her name.  She had never seen it before.  Seems that an energetic publicity man from Twentieth Century Fox had heard the conversation, whipped out the column, and promoted a raise for himself for having such a bright idea.  As Gypsy says, ‘He thought I would be strictly small-time making with the words.’
    Her next chance came (when) Winchell took another vacation.  Gypsy bought a typewriter and a stack of paper, fired all the publicity men, and wrote the column in half an hour.
    The typewriter was still working, stacks of paper were left, and Gypsy suddenly discovered she had lots left to say.  So she wrote the first two chapters of The G-String Murders.
    Her friends read them and said, ‘Bravo!”  One of them – Janet Flanner, The New Yorker’s Genêt – did better than that.  She brought them to Simon and Schuster.”  from the afterword, “A Note About the Author” in The G-String Murders. Simon and Schuster. 1941.
Photo by Eliot Elisofon.  1941.  @Time Inc.

The G-String Murders was published in 1941.  The novel is about a stripper named, coincidentally, Gypsy Rose Lee who gets involved and helps to solve a series of murders in the burlesque theater where she is appearing as the star of the show.
Needless to say, author Lee wrote with some authority and the book was a hit critically and commercially.  In her review in the New York Times at the book's publication, Janet Flanner wrote:
   “…here is a new, brisk literary style, written in her native mascara language by Gypsy Rose Lee – in person…She did not write this book once.  ‘I wrote it three times,’ Gypsy says, ‘with a Thesaurus.’   She knows this milieu the way Sinclair Lewis knows Main Street.”   

Historically it has been asserted that the book was fully or in part ghost written by Craig Rice (pen name of mystery writer Georgiana Ann Craig), though no evidence exists and both Lee and Craig denied the claim.

I have not read any Craig Rice mysteries, but I believe that G-String Murders could have been improved with a little ghost writing, or by a strong editor. There are a lot of characters and it is a little hard to keep them straight at times.  The plot is entertaining up to a point, and that point would be the final two chapters when the murderer is revealed and captured.  I’m still not exactly sure who killed who or why.  It’s as if the writer (whoever she was) was working overtime to out-convolute Raymond Chandler.  (I’m still trying to figure out who killed the chauffer in The Big Sleep, even after re-reading the novel and watching two movie versions a few times.)

In 1943 the novel was made into “Lady of Burlesque”, starring Barbara Stanwyck and directed by William Wellman.  A few changes were made between the book and the movie.  The main character has been renamed Dixie Daisy, and a few other character names are different.  Music has been added of course.  In all I think it is big improvement over the book.  The film is a lot of fun.  The murder mystery aspect does drag on a bit; there is some repetition in the police investigation scenes.  But, the characters are colorfully drawn and the romance between Biff and Dixie is adorable.
Biff (Michael O'Shea)  works his way into Dixie's heart by giving her a stuffed toy dog to keep her company when he isn't  around.  It's adorable!!

And there is the wonderful, incomparable Barbara Stanwyck, who looks like she is having some fun with the role.  Her early show biz background was as a chorus girl and burlesque performer --she even did a strip tease at one time (in silhouette), so she must have been familiar with this world.  Her singing is merely okay, but she had some serious dancing chops.  And as for portraying a woman who was gutsy, intelligent and could take care of herself, there was no one better. 
front cover of 1943 re-issue/film tie-in

And, as I said above, there is no stripping or any reference to removing clothes on stage.  The performances are so chaste and modest that one wonders what in the world the audience is whistling and hooting about.  Bumps and grinds are left to the imagination and to the reaction shots of the observers.   As author Frank T. Thompson said in his book, William A. Wellman (Scarecrow Press, 1983), one has to take the fact that daring stuff is happening purely on faith."
book jacket back cover

Some things are common ground between the novel and the movie.  They both capture the seedy, tawdry glamour of the burlesque theater – the dressing rooms seen through a haze of cigarette smoke and clouds of body powder, the tables cluttered with make-up, an empty cold cream jar used as an ash tray, the hard-working performers sweating for laughs and applause and dreaming of getting out of the grindhouse and into a Broadway show, the backstage friendships, affairs, and rivalries.  And the murders…well, probably most theaters don’t have murders occurring often.  Let us hope.

After the opening credits the film starts by introducing us to the locale.  The camera looks at Times Square in the background, and the titles tell us the time is before the blackouts of  WWII....

The Old Opera House beckons, promising "Girls-Girls-Girls" and "Laffs-Laffs-Laffs".  

We meet the manager, S.B. Foss as he talks to Moey the candy butcher, or in other words the guy who handles the lobby concession.  Music lures us into the theater where the show is most definitely on.  In the clip below you get a real flavor of the atmosphere – the dancers are bored and trying to stay interested by cutting up or waving at their fans in the audience, adjusting their costumes, chewing gum, one is blowing an errant Veronica Lake style strand of hair out of her face.  The straight man/crooner takes the stage and warbles, slightly off-key, the song “So This is You.”  We also get a glimpse of what goes on backstage....

We soon meet the star, Dixie Daisy as she bursts onto the stage for her opening number.  It’s the highlight of the movie

 Dixie has arrived recently with her friend and colleague, Gee Gee, from Columbus, Ohio.  Dixie has been promised a star build-up by Mr. Foss, and she seems to be on her way.  That is, until a series of events occur which seem to indicate someone has a grudge against burlesque performers and wants to close The Old Opera.

A police raid is called by a mysterious someone and the performers are arrested.  While trying to escape through the basement, hands reach out from the darkness and try to strangle Daisy.  She gets away, and later tells her story to the rest of the gang.  They tell her she must have imagined it - who would want to kill her?  Or kill anyone? 

Soon the stripper who is least popular with her co-workers is found dead – strangled with her own g-string. 
Kind of hard to see...but she really, really does have a g-string around her neck.   Victoria Faust plays murder victim Lolita LaVerne.  

There are plenty of suspects, including her gangster boyfriend, her married lover, his wife, and pretty much everyone else.  Another murder later (g-string around the neck, natch) and The Old Opera is about to close down, but brave Dixie rallies the troops and the show does go on. 
Dixie adding her two cents to the investigation.  (Charles Dingle as Inspector Harrigan - seated second from Right)

Stephanie Bachelor as stripper...I mean dancer Princess Nirvena, with Bert Hanlon as Sammy the stage manager.  

 Dixie solves the murders while still having time for a blossoming romance with the lead comic, Biff Brannigan.

Biff Brannigan played by Michael O'Shea, with Dixie.  

I mentioned Stanwyck’s dancing talent.  Here is a clip where she does a snappy jitterbug with comedian Mandy, played by Pinky Lee, not to mention splits and a cartwheel.  Boy, was she ever nifty on her pins!  The actors are on stage doing a comedy routine when they are interrupted by a fight which has broken out backstage between Lolita and her bootlegger boyfriend, Louis "The Grin" Grindero.  In order to cover up the sound of screams Dixie, Biff and Mandy have to improvise a number reprising Dixie's solo and which turns downright acrobatic.   

Stanwyck wanted choreographer Hermes Pan who had worked on most of Hollywood's most successful musicals (including those of Fred Astaire) to arrange her dance numbers.  However he was working at Fox Studios and so was unavailable.

Since I’ve mentioned Mandy – the actor who played him was really known for the schtick you see him go through in the movie.

Born in 1916, Pinky Lee started in vaudeville in the late 1920’s  and later moved to burlesque as a  “baggy pants” comedian, known for his garish checkered outfits, oversized bow tie, tiny hat, and his frenetic, over-the-top, song and dance “a little seltzer down your pants” routines.   His voice was high pitched and Lee said that his pronounced lisp, insured with Lloyd’s of London, was not a stage affectation but was a natural family trait.  His verbal trademark was sputtering, “Oooooh, you make me so MAD!” 

“Lady of Burlesque” was his first film.  In 1950 he started on tv with his own thirty minute comedy variety program.  In 1954 he starred in “The Pinky Lee Show" which was a children’s afternoon program with a live audience of mostly pre-schoolers and their mothers.

  Marvel Comics brought out the Stan Lee scripted “Adventures of Pinky Lee” monthly comic book in 1955.

  Lee was forced to retire when he collapsed on stage from a severe infection.  The studio audience thought it was part of his act and continued to applaud until the show was halted and he was rushed to a hospital.  He recovered, but television executives were leery of taking a chance that he would do an encore on another live show. 

Lee had a hard time finding work, but eventually returned to the stage in nostalgia type vaudeville shows.  He died in 1993. 

Pinky Lee was the prototype for Pee Wee Herman in the 1980’s.  Both of these actors are examples of the man-child type of performer who is full of monkeyshines until he is flummoxed by the arrival of a mature, attractive woman and he then either dissolves into a simpering puddle or runs away.  It’s an act that goes back to The Three Stooges and Joe Besser, Harpo Marx, Joe Penner, silent movie actors such as Harry Langdon, and probably back into the mists of pre-recorded history when the first hairy caveman stepped out of the chorus of the Cro-Magnon Follies and squirted water into the face of a fellow player. Frankly, it’s an act that baffles me.  Mincing, lisping halfman/halfchild perfomers are kind of creepy.   

In “Lady of Burlesque” Mandy is in one of the weirdest scenes, one that fits into the censorial attitude of pretending that the burlesque show has nothing whatsoever to do with sex.  When Biff throws Mandy a g-string to start his collection, one of the other comics tells Biff that he had better explain to Mandy what that little piece of glitter is.  Mandy giggles and says, “Oh, ho, as though I don’t know!  Of course I know.  They wear it around their waist…and they have to….well they have to….ooooh,  you make me so MAD!”  He works there and he wouldn’t know what it was?  Only if he lives in a universe created by censors.
Pinky Lee (L) with Sidney Marion (R)

At the end of the film, Mandy ends up with Alice, another of the “dancers”, played by Marion Martin.  Alice is a naïve, baby-faced, baby-voiced performer and can match Mandy lisp for lisp.  They make the perfect couple.
Marion Martin as Alice Angel, with Pinky Lee as Mandy
S.B. Foss, the manager of the burlesque house, is played by actor J.Edward Bromberg.  He is another of the character actors I like very much.  He was born in 1903 in Austria-Hungary, what is now Romania.  In the U.S. from the age of five, he eventually studied acting; started in the Greenwich Village Playhouse, and in 1926 appeared on Broadway in the first of many productions.  Because of his short, heavy-set stature he was known primarily for character roles, but was respected as a versatile actor with a wide range. 
He began making movies in 1935, and (for horror fans) appeared in 1943 as Professor Lazslo in “Son of Dracula.” 

In 1950 Bromberg became yet another victim of the communist witch-hunt hysteria.  He was accused (by either of the directors Edward Dmytryk or Elia Kazan) of being a Red.  Bromberg refused to testify when called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  Hollywood blacklisted him but he eventually found stage work in England, however the stress he was under is believed to have contributed to his death in 1951.  He was forty-seven years old.
J. Edward Bromberg in "Son of Dracula"

William Wellman would seem an odd choice to direct a relatively minor film like this, and a musical at that.  He was well-known as a "man's director" of several action films, like "Public Enemy" 1931, "Wild Boys of the Road" 1933, "The Call of the Wild" 1935, "Beau Geste" 1939, "The Story of GI Joe" 1945, and "Battleground" 1949.  However, he also directed the melodrama "A Star is Born" and the Carole Lombard comedy "Nothing Sacred", both in 1937.    

He also made the intense, dark Western “The Ox-Bow Incident” in 1943 – it was released in the same week as “Lady of Burlesque.”   It was a difficult project to get produced, several studios turned it down when Wellman brought it to them.  One story is that he had to promise to do two other movies of the studio’s choosing in order to get “Ox-Bow” made.  Whether that is true or not, his instinct was correct.  The movie is about men falsely accused of murder in the Old West and is a brilliant study in lynch nob mentality.  It stands up today just as well as in 1943 when it was nominated as one of the best pictures of the year.  And, we also have the charming and funny “Lady of Burlesque.”    
Dana Andrews (L) and Henry Fonda (R) in "The Ox-Bow Incident"
By the way, Wellman also worked on the script for the film, “A Star is Born.”  The story is (supposedly) very close to the real life story of Barbara Stanwyck’s first marriage to actor Frank Fay.  Fay had a very successful career when he married new-comer Stanwyck.  Her star climbed while his fell.  The movie was so close to reality that studio lawyers were called to go over the script to avoid libel action. 
Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea with William Wellman on the set of "The Great Man's Lady" 1942.

Wellman and Stanwyck had a mutual admiration society going, each said the other was one of their favorite professionals to work with.  He was “Wild Bill” and she was “Stany”.  He was known as a hard-drinking, masculine and very tough guy’s-guy, as well as a difficult director for many actors.  Fellow director Raoul Walsh stated that “(Wellman’s) idea of humor would be watching a parachute fail to open.”*   For the most part he did not like actors and especially had little time for actresses who he felt needed the time and hand-holding he could not, or would not, provide.  Stanwyck was an exception.  Wellman complimented that she was “brilliant” and “could do anything.”  She was probably one of the few actresses, or actors, who could work with his no-nonsense style. 
                 *Thompson, Frank T. William A. Wellman. Scarecrow Press. 1983. pg. 203. 

Barbara Stanwyck did not have an easy childhood.  Born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn in 1907, she was orphaned in infancy when her mother was killed in an accident and her father abandoned his family.  After a series of foster homes, Ruby finally dropped out of school and joined her older sister on the road.  Millie was a dancer and Ruby picked up her routines while getting an education in show business.

When she went for an interview for a switchboard operator job, she went to the wrong building and ended up in a dance audition.  She worked her way up from the chorus to bigger and better jobs, and got a name change in 1926.  She landed an acting role on stage in a play called “The Noose” and the producers changed her name to Barbara Stanwyck because ‘Ruby Stevens’ sounded too much like burlesque
with Rex Cherryman in "The Noose".  
In 1929 she auditioned for director Frank Capra.  His initial reaction to her was negative – she was irritable and walked out on him.  However, after seeing a film clip of her stage performance in “The Noose”, he changed his mind and insisted to the producer that she be hired.  Capra said

Underneath her sullen shyness smoldered the emotional fires of a young Duse, or a Bernhardt.  Naïve, unsophisticated, caring nothing about make-up, clothes, or hairdos, this chorus girl could grab your heart and tear it to pieces.  She knew nothing about camera tricks; how to “cheat”, how to restrict her body movements in close shots.  She just turned it on – and everything else on the stage stopped.
        Dickens, Homer. The Films of Barbara Stanwyck. Citadel Press. 1987

She went on to become one of the most respected, versatile and accomplished actresses of all time.

"Lady of Burlesque" is one of her movies which is not seen often.  It is available on VHS and on DVD, but there are a lot of really bad prints out there.  Perhaps someday it will receive the restoration it deserves...golly, maybe even the Criterion Collection treatment. Until then we have to make do,  Look for it, its worth it.    

For years the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscars) had two categories for musical scores – "Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture" and  “Scoring of a Musical Picture.”   In 1957 the two categories were combined into one, simply “Best Score.”

"Lady of Burlesque" was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of “Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture”, score by Arthur Lange.  It lost to “The Song of Bernadette” of all things.   

In 1943 there were fourteen other movies nominated for "Drama/Comedy" score, and ten nominated in the "Musical Picture" category.  Let’s look at the other films nominated alongside “Lady of Burlesque” –
  “The Amazing Mrs. Holliday”
  “The Commandos Strike at Dawn”
  “The Fallen Sparrow”
  “For Whom the Bell Tolls”
  “Hangmen Also Die”
  “Hi Diddle Diddle”
  “In Old Oklahoma”
  “Johnny Come Lately”
  “The Kansan”
  “Madame Curie”
  “The Moon and Sixpence”
  “The North Star”
  “Victory Through Air Power”

“Casablanca” lost????  Freakin’  “Casablanca”??!!  I suppose it’s too late to demand a recount.

Among the ten movies nominated under the category “Scoring of a Musical Picture”:
   “Thousands Cheer”
  “The Phantom of the Opera”
The winner in this category was “This is the Army.”  Well, it was 1943 after all. 

There were ten songs nominated as “Best Song” in 1943.  The winner? --  You’ll Never Know, from “Hello, Frisco, Hello.”  Ok, it’s a very pretty tune.  Among the losers? – That Old Black Magic, from “Star Spangled Rhythm.”  Oy. 

Back to “Lady of Burlesque.”   The song,Take it off the E-String, Play it on the G-String is delightful, and is the only really good thing in the score.  The other song  –  So This is You— is a pretty soggy and entirely forgettable example of a sappy love song.  Both of these were written by Sammy Cahn and Harry Akst.  Nominated 23 times for an Oscar and winner 4 times, Cahn was the lyricist for such songs as Come Fly with Me, Call Me Irresponsible, My Kind of Town, and hundreds of others.  Harry Akst wrote music for Broadway, the movies and tv from 1929 through 1962; some of his best known songs are – Baby Face, Am I Blue? and Dinah

The other snippets heard in this film are uncredited and range from standard popular songs of the day such as, Temptation and Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider, to folk songs such as the Russian Oche chyornye (trust me, you know it, it’s the one Russian song everyone can hum) and older hits like, Ireland Must be Heaven for My Mother Came from There  which was written in 1916.

"Casablanca" LOST????????

Just in case you are under the mistaken impression that strangulation by g-string would be unlikely, nay, almost impossible – just take a gander at this news article from in 2012:

      New Zealand seal pup nearly strangled by a sexy g-string.
When a young seal was spotted with something red and stringy wrapped around its neck near a stretch of New Zealand coast known as "Lover's Leap," it wasn't clear what the pup had gotten into (a bag? a net?) or whether it would survive.  But rescuers who hiked in to save the seal were surprised to find it had nearly been done in by.... a G-string.  Unable to reunite the thong with the owner who'd left it behind, the Department of Conservation came up with a cheeky solution - auctioning off the scanty-panties and donating the proceeds to charity.  The sale brought in about $107, which probably won't cover much, but then neither would the G-string.  No word on the saved seal pup, but we bet it'll steer clear of  Lover's Leap from now on.  

There was also a picture of the g-string by itself, but it looked so disgusting that I did not reproduce it here.  Really.  I mean, if you think the picture of the seal with the g-string wrapped around its neck is unattractive, the shot of the ratty, thread-bare g-string alone is appalling.  

Oh, alright.  Here it is.

Have a comment about this post?  Please, be my guest.  Indulge yourself.  I would love to hear from you.  Click on "Comments" below.   Thanks!  


  1. Hi, i came upon you blog while looking for a review of Curse of the Undead, and i gotta say, its great, keep it up!

  2. Thanks for the comment, it's much appreciated. Sometimes I'm not really sure who is out there looking at this stuff. 2 questions for you: What do you think of the movie "Curse of the Undead" and is that an Iron Man outfit in the photo?

  3. Well, i enjoyed the movie a lot, it was funny and it had solid performances, now im on the lookout for more weird west films but they are not easy to find, outside the well know ones, and yeah, its Ironman, drawed by french artist Moebius.

    1. I can write up a more in depth opinion on the movie later if you want, it would be nice to discuss this little movie with someone, since none of my friends know it/has any interest in seeing it.

  4. Fede_Uru - if you would like to comment further about that film, or any other, please do. That is what I was hoping for with this blog - that people would agree/disagree with me and present their own viewpoints. Thanks!