Today is the birthday of film director William Wellman (1896-1975). Responsible for many masterpieces, today we celebrate one we thought would be of especial interest to our readers: 1943’s Lady of Burlesque.
Based on Gypsy Rose Lee’s surprisingly well written first book The G String Murders (1941), the brilliance of this story is that it straddles (Nyah! That’s what I said! “Straddles!”) murder mysteries and backstage soap opera, with the added twist that it gives us one of our few glimpses into period burlesque by Hollywood.
And there is big irony here. Gypsy had left burlesque in 1937 to come to Hollywood as an actress. There was a hue and cry and outrage by the public. The studios backpeddled and did what they could to shovel her striptease past under the rug. They only stuck her in a few pictures, and they made Gypsy go by her given name, Louise Hovick. And then United Artists goes and makes this picture which is TOTALLY about burlesque! (The other irony is that by 1943 the burlesque industry, i.e., the circuits and the New York showplace theatres was for all intents and purposes already dead).
Granted, we don’t see anybody get naked. Barbara Stanwyck plays the Gypsy stand-in, and she’s terrific in it. Her leading man Michael O’Shea is a big dud, but another saving grace is the presence of real life burlesque comic Pinky Lee in the cast. As a mystery, it’s so-so, the joy is in the journey, it’s just full of great little details and relationships and characterizations that bring this historical scene back to life. For most contemporary variety performers it’s really the dream. That huge theatre, and we’re the only show in it! Those huge dressing rooms!
To learn more about show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.