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.