Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Lady of Burlesque (Hunt Stromberg/United Artists, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I ran Charles and I another double-bill from archive.org which attempts to reproduce what you might have seen at a cheap movie house in the mid-1940’s, including an excellent Warner Bros. cartoon called Claws for Alarm, in which the odd (to say the least!) couple of Porky Pig and Sylvester the Cat hole up in a haunted hotel called the Dry Gulch Inn and are menaced by a giant spider, phantom cats and such an overall air of silhouetted stylization we almost expect it to be called The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: The Cartoon Version. It also included a reasonably amusing Robert Benchley short called How to Be a Detective (the funniest gag was when Benchley instructs a police sketch artist to do a drawing showing a combination of facial features that supposedly mark someone as a criminal — and of course the resulting sketch looks like Benchley); it wasn’t as good as Home Movies, the Benchley short on the previous episode, but it was still fun. The “features” were the 1943 film Lady of Burlesque, produced by Hunt Stromberg after he left MGM and became an independent producer releasing through United Artists; and Mr. Wong in Chinatown, third in a series of six second-iteration Monogram “B” films featuring a Chinese super-detective obviously inspired (to put it politely) by Charlie Chan and played by Boris Karloff, who like Chan series star Warner Oland had played Dr. Fu Manchu (making Charlie Chan at the Opera, in which Oland starred as Chan and Karloff had a featured role as a red-herring suspect, a “doubles” movie).

Lady of Burlesque has long been a quirky favorite of mine — it’s not a great film but it has the greatest actress of all time, Barbara Stanwyck (that’s my opinion, based both on her intense emotionalism and her incredible range as a performer, encompassing melodrama, soap opera, romantic comedy, screwball comedy, musicals and film noir — no other actress of the classic era played so many different types of parts and only one, Meryl Streep, has since), starring in an oddball script by James Gunn based on a novel by Gypsy Rose Lee called The G-String Murders — which would have been a better title for the film given that G-strings are actually the murder weapon the killer uses to strangle two of the strippers who perform at the Opera House, which at the turn of the previous century used to be just that. Only the neighborhood deteriorated and so did the theatre’s offerings, until in the film’s 1943 presence it was a burlesque house operated by producer S. B. Foss (J. Edward Bromberg), who comes off as considerably nicer and more fatherly than most burlesque producers, either in other movies or in real life. Naturally Gunn and director William A. Wellman had a big problem getting a movie about burlesque, in which the lead character is a stripper (in the book the lead was actually called Gypsy Rose Lee, but for the film she became “Dixie Daisy,” t/n Deborah Hoople, and is played by Stanwyck in her best hard-bitten manner.

She gets to sing a song called “Take It Off the E-String (And Play It on the G-String),” and the voice — Stanwyck’s own (she’d previously sung in the 1932 film The Purchase Price and the 1941 comedy Ball of Fire, in which she’d done the swing hit “Drum Boogie” with Gene Krupa and his band — and done it at least as well as Irene Daye, Krupa’s singer when he made the original record two years earlier) — is a bit nasal and a bit flat, but works superbly as belonging to the kind of person we’re told she’s playing. The part doesn’t offer her that much depth — she’s basically shown in the first half of the movie doing her act and fending off the romantic advances of the show’s leading comic, Biff Brannigan (Michael O’Shea, who also played Jack London in Stromberg’s biopic of the author), while in the second act, after the murders start happening, she’s the implacable voice of vengeance, determined not only to find out who the killer is but nail him herself. Naturally she’s getting no support from the official police, represented by Inspector Harrigan (Charles Dingle), the sort of movie law-enforcement person whose whole approach is to browbeat all the potential suspects until one of them gives up and confesses.

Though it’s not one of Stanwyck’s great movies — it’s not Ladies of Leisure, Ladies They Talk About, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity or The Strange Love of Martha Ivers — it’s solidly entertaining and director Wellman gets the seedy atmosphere of the theatre just right. (It’s possible the graininess of the prints of this public-domain film adds to the overall tackiness of the surroundings.) Where the film falls short of what it could have been is that there isn’t much depth to the characterizations, and Michael O’Shea is so insufferable we have a hard time reading Stanwyck finally yielding to his advances as a happy ending. According to imdb.com, Gypsy Rose Lee based the character on her friend, comedian “Rags” Ragland — and judging from what I’ve seen from Ragland’s MGM films (he was well on his way to a major career as a character comedian in supporting roles when he died suddenly in 1945, breaking the heart of his former vaudeville partner Red Skelton) Lady of Burlesque would have been a better film if they could have borrowed Ragland from MGM to play the role. For all his zaniness, Ragland also had a streak of pathos which this part could have used; O’Shea, one of those odd actors who tried to fill James Cagney’s shoes and failed miserably (when I watched him as Jack London I was wishing Hunt Stromberg’s budget could have stretched for Cagney in the role!), is just offensive. There are some interesting supporting characters, including Princess Nirvena (Stephanie Batchelor), a burlesque performer who poses as a Continental royal and blackmails Foss into giving her a job because years before they had an affair; she’s the second victim, after Lolita LaVerne (Victoria Faust).

It’s not a particularly impressive mystery because there aren’t that many suspects — Lolita’s estranged husband, a gangster who roughs up one of the girls while a performance is going on (and Brannigan and his comic partners have to speak their lines louder to try to drown out the violence!), and the quirky character who turns out to be the killer [spoiler alert!]: “Stacchi” Stacciaro (Frank Conroy), the theatre’s prop man, who worked there when it still presented grand opera, was himself a star baritone who lost his voice, had been married to one of the other singers (Brannigan finds the key clue in an old Police Gazette that has a photo of her in what passed for undress in the 1890’s) and was determined to close down the burlesque house when he discovered that his granddaughter was working as one of the strippers. First he arranged for a police raid — and incidentally cut the cord to the special phone line Foss had installed so the people he’d bribed at the police department could warn him in advance when their fellow officers were about to stage a raid — and then he starts knocking off the strippers. He thinks he’s accomplished his aim when Foss decides that protecting the lives of his performers is more important than trying to stay open, but Dixie — in the sort of intense emotional moment that Stanwyck played so superlatively well but of which she gets only one in this film — pleads with him and her fellow strippers to keep it open, reasoning that if they shut down the theatre because of the murders, the killer will win. Of course, it’s also part of her plot to trap the killer into attacking her and thereby revealing himself.

Lady of Burlesque isn’t a great movie but it is solidly entertaining (despite Michael O’Shea’s insufferability as the leading man), and Stanwyck is oddly moving during her big speech in which, as part of her plea to keep the theatre open, she tells her fellow strippers that she came to New York hoping to land a job in a Broadway show and leave burlesque behind her, but now she’s not so sure because she feels a sense of community with her fellow performers. One imdb.com reviewer pleaded with Hollywood not to do a remake of Lady of Burlesque — he was already incensed enough by the remake of Stanwyck’s Christmas in Connecticut with Dyan Cannon (fourth of Cary Grant’s five wives) starring and Arnold Schwarzenegger directing — but a modern-dress version might not actually be a bad idea, especially given that what pass for “strip clubs” nowadays are considerably sleazier than the rather decorous Production Code version of classic burlesque we get here!