Here’s one for all burlesque fans. We caught this 1973 tv movie the other day and must share news of its existence. Written by Dory Previn (whom we only just heard about and are rapidly becoming a fan of) and produced by Hugh Hefner, The Third Girl from the Left tells of a historical moment I’ve always been curious about; the moment when the burlesque art form “died” in New York. As I’ve written, the burlesque INDUSTRY died in the 1930s when Mayor LaGuardia cleaned up Times Square. But for a time (decades in fact) nightspots continued to feature floor shows with burlesque style chorus girls. In places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City of course that type of thing NEVER died. But about two thirds of the way though the 20th century, it died in New York, to be replaced with topless titty bars. Though The Third Girl from the Left was made in 1973, it appears to be set a few years earlier, circa 1967, and that sounds about right. (Clues: a cinema is showing You Only Live Twice and it simply feels more like the 60s than the 70s).
Adding to the poignance and the meta symbolism of the moment is the casting in the lead roles, Kim Novak and Tony Curtis. Both were major stars of the 1950s who seemed to be going to seed; this was the first tv movie for either of them. Novak, who was 40, plays an aging chorus girl (her character is 36), still gorgeous, fit and statuesque, who is nonetheless on the way down and out. For 13 years she has been the semi-kept woman of a successful entertainer played by Curtis. (They should have made him a comic a la Lenny Bruce. In the film he is a singer, he really sings, and he is a terrible singer.)
Curtis disses her royally. He’s always out of town, and when he is, he bangs whoever’s around. In the film, it’s none other than Barbi Benton (Hef’s squeeze at the time). As a kind of revenge, Novak hooks up with a much-younger hippie but hunky grocery delivery boy played by Novak’s real-life partner at the time Michael Brandon. They briefly hatch implausible plans of running away together, going back to school, and living a vastly different life. But it proves a fantasy, a bubble. Curtis comes back and there is an ugly confrontation. Brandon washes out and Curtis rather lamely finally makes a long overdue marriage proposal — too little, too late. The final moment, typical for the time, is the freeze frame on an uncertain future for Novak, not unlike the one at the end of Sweet Charity. Terrific telefilm and one of Novak’s best performances.