Lady Of Burlesque

LADY OF BURLESQUE, directed as a lark by William A. Wellman, gave his favorite leading lady Barbara Stanwyck free rein to be slinky and make with the wisecracks in a tamed-down but still quite fun adaptation of a popular pulp mystery, “The G-String Murders”, written two years earlier by striptease princess Gypsy Rose Lee. A backstage murder mystery with comedy and music, it had the Production Code spoilsports caution producer Hunt Stromberg “Specifically, we are concerned about the prominent use of the object known as the ‘G-String’ as a murder weapon. It is our impression that the use of this extremely intimate female garment will be considered offensive…”.  That’s right, we don’t want to scandalize anyone during something gosh-golly like a World War.  Fledgling screenwriter James Gunn, cagey rascal Wellman and the game dames in the cast still managed to keep it saucy enough to take audiences minds briefly off the serious work the year of 1943 presented. *

I went into show business when I was seven years old. Two days later the first comic I ever met stole my piggy bank in a railroad station in Portland. When I was 11 the comics were looking at my ankles. When I was 14 they were…just looking. When I was 20 I’d been stuck with enough lunch checks to pay for a three-story house. Naw, they’re shiftless, dame-chasing, ambitionless…”

‘Dixie Daisy’ (Stanwyck) is the star attraction bump’n’ grinder at a burlesque house. Along with ducking out when the cops stage a raid, fending off advances from lovestruck comic ‘Biff Brannigan’ (Michael O’Shea) and trading either advice or insults with the other tough cookies in the dance line, she’s one of the targets of a strangler, who does his or her grudge on two of the ‘numbers’, using a g-string for the deed. Suspicion falls everywhere, and there seem to be reasons for half the cast and crew to have it in for both the victims and those yet untouched.

Lively interplay between the ladies is the strong suit, with Stanwyck (her 5th time working with Wellman) leading the pack. Winningly, as the star she doesn’t hog the spotlight, but works generously in the ensemble, giving the supporting ladies their turns to shine. At 35 here, she sandwiched this treat between Oscar nominations for 1941s comedy hit Ball Of Fire, playing a sassy club performer named ‘Sugarpuss’, and the ’44 classic Double Indemnity, where her seduction quotient would be rather less frivolous. She displays the sharp comic chops she’d showcased in Ball of Fire and The Lady Eve, has sprightly sexiness with a svelte figure and, being a former chorus girl, was able to deftly unlimber boogie woogie, splits and cartwheels, all in high heels and decked out in skimpy costumes done up by Edith Head. Head’s elaborate creations for the gaggle are naughty-silly getups, often favoring animal themes. Even if toned down by the Code, the show gets away with as much as it can. You can almost hear battalions of battle-bound Marines hooting their approval. It was the debut film for Michael O’Shea. **

The reviewer for “Photoplay” sniffed “There’s an air of vulgarity about the film that is bound to offend some and bore others. Who cares about trampish, vixenish, blackmailing, husband-stealing femmes who give their all via a burlesque stage?” Considering all the gams on view here, it’s a good bet plenty of gal-sick GI’s and sailors cared. Grosses came to $5,200,000. Arthur Lange’s score was nominated for an Oscar. Unfortunately, the film was one that slipped into the dreaded “public domain”, so locating a decent copy entails sleuthing. As of the summer of 2020 (speaking of bleak years that need relief), the best one available seems to the DVD issued by Image Entertainment.

Backing Barb, other wiggling, teasing, hair-pulling and lipping-off comes from Victoria Faust (‘Lolita La Verne’), Iris Adrian (‘Gee Gee Graham’), Stephanie Bachelor (‘The Princess Nirvena’), Gloria Dickson and Marion Martin.

Besides O’Shea, the other fellas in the cast include Pinky Lee (a bit much), Charles Dingle, J. Edward Bromberg, Frank Conroy (chilling that same year as the leader of the posse/lynch mob in director Wellman’s The Ox-Box Incident), George Chandler and Gerald Mohr. 91 fun minutes.

* The adaptation was the first screen credit for James Gunn, only 22 at the time. He later specialized in hard-boiled crime sagas and did a good deal of work on TV (crime stuff & westerns) before passing at just 46 in 1966. Not related to the later James Gunn, who put his mark on Guardians Of The Galaxy and The Suicide Squad, though coincidentally he was born the same year the older Mr. Gunn left.

Though at 52nd place for the year not a major hit, the grosses were still more than enough to show a profit. While war films dominated ’43, a good number of cheerful favorites helped lighten the payload: Coney Island, This Is The Army, The More The Merrier, The Gang’s All Here, Thousands Cheer, Stormy Weather, Heaven Can Wait, Stage Door Canteen, Hit The Ice, Girl Crazy and Hello, Frisco, Hello.

** Edward Francis Michael Patrick Joseph O’Shea had five brothers who all became policemen, but he broke family tradition, dropped out of school at 12 and went to vaudeville, touring with famed boxer Jack Johnson’s show.  During Prohibition he became a comedian, and emceed at speakeasies. Then he put together his own dance band, “Michael O’Shea and His Stationary Gypsies”, and later broke into radio. That led to the stage, and success there brought him to Hollywood. He had some leads (notably Jack London, where he met Virginia Mayo, whom he married), and later did work on TV. Not enough already, he became a C.I.A. operative. O’Shea died of a heart attack in 1973. He was 67.

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