The William Wellman Blogathon: LADY OF BURLESQUE (1943)

This post is part of The William Wellman Blogathon hosted by me!  Be sure to check out the other entries here!


Chances are that if you are a classic film fan you have at some point or another come across the Hayes Code.  Coming into strong effect in 1934, the Hayes Office and their code monitored and censored the subject matter of Hollywood films.  All blunt and open mentions of sex, drugs, and otherwise “less than desirable” behaviors were removed from films and writers, directors, and actors needed to find clever ways to insert their racy material.  Which leads me to LADY OF BURLESQUE, a film made at the height of the Production Code but one that still manages to keep its more mature material thanks to a burlesque tease of its own.

Dixie Daisy (Barbara Stanwyck) is the latest and greatest attraction at the Old Opera House on Broadway.  New owner S.B. Foss has changed the format of the opera house to that of a burlesque revue.  Dixie is the big draw for the crowds, wowing men and women alike with her singing and dancing.  She is also a big draw for comedian Biff Brannigan (Michael O’Shea) who ardently admires her, though she is somewhat less impressed with him.  Biff and Dixie are doing one of their best bits, all about a man who buys a woman-attracting charm in the form of a pickle on a string (infer at your leisure), when Dixie notices a squad of policeman filing into the back of the hall.  Backstage everyone is in a panic as the red light that is supposed to go off when police enter the building has been cut deliberately.  Pandemonium erupts as the police attempt to arrest everyone and Dixie makes her way toward the basement coal chute to hide.  On her way there however, she is grabbed around the throat.  She blacks out but her assailant is interrupted by a policewoman chasing a stage hand.  Dixie comes to but her attacker has vanished.

The entire company is packed off to jail where they are promptly bailed out by Foss.  At a group dinner later that night Foss tries to raise everyone’s spirits by giving each of them stock in the opera house.  Not everyone is mollified however, as Dixie points out that not only has her attacker vanished without a trace but that clearly someone is trying to shut down the opera house.  A few nights later ex-racketeer Louis Grindero comes by the burlesque show and finds his girlfriend Lolita, a stuck up songbird, rehearsing lines with one of the other comics who just so happens to be in love with her.  Louis takes out his displeasure on Lolita, beating her in front of everyone.  The screams from backstage can be heard onstage as well causing Dixie and Biff to ramp up the volume and antics of their performance.

Dixie comes off stage annoyed.  Lolita is already not a favorite among the other burlesque dancers.  Cocky and stuck-up, Lolita can’t seem to get along with anyone except the photograph of her mother she keeps on her vanity.  She has already had run-ins with Dixie, other dancers, and even Mr. Wong across the way.  The girls like to get their dinners from the local Chinese restaurant but Lolita decided it was a good idea to throw a bottle at the men standing by the open window, beaning Mr. Wong leading Dixie to go across to make peace and save their dinners.  The only person who is less liked than Lolita is the Princess Nirvena.  Recently returned from shady circumstances to once again thrill crowds with her act of clothes versus whip and her own version of a Greta Garbo impression, the Princess is someone not even Lolita can tolerate.  And now Lolita is fouling up Dixie’s act with her backstage drama.

Dixie goes upstairs to her dressing room expecting to find Lolita there.  Instead she finds some red wax on a closet door and no sign of the wounded songstress.  Lolita’s cue is coming up and Dixie calls down that she isn’t in her dressing room.  The stage manager comes upstairs to check just as Dixie pulls open the closet door and finds Lolita inside dead, strangled by her own G-string.  Yes, really.

LADY OF BURLESQUE was the first film made after the reopening of Hunt Stromberg’s independent movie studio.  Based on the book “The G-String Murders” by Gypsy Rose Lee, though thought to be ghost written by Craig Rice, this film was written by James Gunn and directed by none other than William A. Wellman.  Contrary to what you might think, Wellman was thrilled when offered the chance to direct by Stromberg.  He had never yet made a film that was a musical and was eager to showcase his range and ability.  Range and ability would be important because LADY OF BURLESQUE was part musical, part murder mystery, and part romantic comedy.

William Wellman offered the part of Dixie to his favorite actress, Barbara Stanwyck.  The two collaborated on five films together and both had great respect and affection for each other.  Wellman always spoke highly of Stanwyck’s talent and professionalism.  Of Stanwyck he would say, “…(She) not only knew her lines but everyone else’s…I love her.”  For her part, Barbara Stanwyck was equally excited as Wellman to play a character so completely different from any that she had done before.  She also was looking forward to showing that her talents extended to singing and dancing as well.  Watch her in this clip and you tell me, is there anything Barbara Stanwyck CAN’T do?

The censors, not surprisingly, were all over this film.  They were very specific about what camera angles could be used, what dialogue could be permitted, and how little clothes the strippers…ahem, I mean…dancers could have on.  Still, Wellman manages to slip quite a bit past the censors from the opening number of “Take It Off The E-String, Play It On The G-String” to Dixie’s bumping and grinding just below the frame.  The dialogue is pretty risqué as well with such lines as;

Man: Did I startle you?  /  Dixie: Are you – kidding?  I’ve been startled by experts.

Biff: When we get around to that date, you’ll have to wear your working clothes.  /  Dixie: I’ll wear a suit of armor, brass knuckles, and hobnailed boots!  And where’s that prop you swiped?  /  Biff: The muff?  I’m gonna have it stuffed and hang it over my mantlepiece.

And let’s not forget the pickle on a string.

LADY OF BURLESQUE was a huge hit and brought in $1.85 million, as well as earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Musical Scoring of a Drama or Comedy Picture.  A lesser known film today it is still great fun, a dark comedy celebrating a dead art form, as by 1942 burlesque had been driven from cities and towns alike by the soldiers of the Legion of Decency.  The movie has a little bit of everything, all filmed with the Wellman touch.  There is never a sense of judgment from Wellman in any of his films.  He simply tells the story that he would like to hear.  The women and other members of the burlesque company are just people going about their daily lives.  We are never given the feeling that we are any better or worse than they are, they just are.  The people who are nasty people are nasty because of who they are as a person, not because of what their job is.  Lolita would be an annoying prima donna even if she was a librarian and Louis would still be a jerk even if he was a respectable business man.  I feel that in another director’s hands there is a chance that the film would take on a feeling of moral high ground or even overly cartoonishness to diminish the impact.  Another director might be tempted to downplay the seriousness of the crimes simply because, well what do you expect when you live that sort of lifestyle?  Wellman and his film are refreshingly devoid of stereotypes, from the burlesque dancers to the Chinese cooks and waiters across the street.  Mr. Wong speaks English without a hint of an accent or incorrect grammar.

Part of what makes this film work is the feeling of enjoyment you get while watching it.  I know it sounds crazy to say that about a film where people are being murdered, but it is true.  Watching this film I felt like Wellman and Stanwyck were having fun, enjoying trying out something new and out of their comfort zones.  Is this the best film that William Wellman ever made?  No, and I doubt he would say it was either.  But I do feel that this is a film that deserves a second look.  LADY OF BURLESQUE showcases some of the best qualities of both Wellman and his favorite leading lady.  And if nothing else, you have a fine excuse to watch Barbara Stanwyck do the Boogie-Woogie.


17 thoughts on “The William Wellman Blogathon: LADY OF BURLESQUE (1943)

  1. Michaela September 10, 2015 / 1:40 pm

    Nice post! I resisted Lady of Burlesque for awhile, if only because I wanted to see it on TCM and not as a poor public domain print, and I rather enjoyed it. It’s an interesting mix of genres, and I think it gets pulled off pretty well thanks to Wellman, Stanwyck, and O’Shea.
    Congrats on your blogathon — looks like you’ll have a swell turnout!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Patricia Nolan-Hall (Caftan Woman) September 10, 2015 / 2:21 pm

    When I suggested “Lady of Burlesque” to my husband some years ago, he commented that it didn’t seem like a Wellman picture. When the movie started and all the scantily clad ladies hit the stage, hubby revised his opinion. Wild Bill’s reputation preceded him.

    Congratulations on what looks to be a great blogathon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging September 10, 2015 / 2:50 pm

      Thank you! Glad your husband enjoyed the film! 🙂


  3. Silver Screenings September 10, 2015 / 4:53 pm

    I’ve not seen this one, but I can tell by the clips you posted that there is nothing Barbara Stanwyck couldn’t do. I can well imagine the material would suffer in another director’s hands, but leave it to Wellman to create the right balance. Thanks for recommending this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging September 10, 2015 / 4:57 pm

      I was pleasantly surprised by this one! I would love to hear what you think of it! Thanks for joining the blogathon! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Judy September 10, 2015 / 4:57 pm

    It’s a shame this one has fallen into the public domain and there are so many rather poor prints about, though at least that means it is easy to get hold of for those of us outside the US. Really enjoyed your review – I agree with you that Stanwyck seems to have a lot of fun in this and it still has a flavour of Wellman’s pre-Codes. Love the backstage atmosphere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging September 10, 2015 / 4:59 pm

      Yes, the DVD copy I have is definitely not the best print quality. Hopefully one day it will find a better release! The backstage drama is definitely a fun part of this one! 🙂


  5. Vienna September 10, 2015 / 6:42 pm

    LOVE this comedy thriller. If only we could get it out on a cleaned up DVD.
    Iris Adrian is a delight as Dixie’s best pal and this surely must be Michael O’Shea’s best role.
    Love your pics and video clips.
    Maybe considered an unusual choice for Barbara but she knew Wellman would make it a must-see.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging September 10, 2015 / 6:54 pm

      I agree! And a cleaned up copy would be ideal!


  6. Summer Reeves September 11, 2015 / 3:00 am

    i adore Barbara Stanwyck, this film sounds right up my alley! Very nice post
    Ciao for Now!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. September 13, 2015 / 12:45 am

    I haven’t come around to watch this one, but I intend to – someday I must conquer all of Barbara’s filmography! And when she is paired with Wellman, she is even better!
    Thanks for hosting this great blogathon. William Wellman certainly deserves all this love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging September 13, 2015 / 12:57 am

      Thanks for reading, for participating, and having such as wonderful post of your own!


  8. Beth Ann Gallagher September 17, 2015 / 6:45 am

    I’m not sure how man times I’ve seen this one. There was a time period when it played on TV fairly often. It’s now been some time since I’ve seen it. I enjoyed your review of it! You’re right it is a fun film and it’s a treat to see Stanwyck sing and dance, I like how you went back to the pickle joke!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nowvoyaging September 17, 2015 / 10:50 am

      Haha yes the pickle is a classic! Thanks for reading. This was definitely a pleasant surprise for me especially since I bought it on a whim!

      Liked by 1 person

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