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Case Number 21103: Small Claims Court

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Behind The Burly Q

First Run Features // 2010 // 98 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // April 12th, 2011

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All Rise...

Judge William Lee will get behind the BBQ.

The Charge

The story of burlesque in America.

The Case

Their names were on marquees of packed theaters from the Great Depression until the 1940s, but the headliners of the American burlesque scene quickly fell into obscurity. Behind the Burly Q is a remembrance of a forgotten showbiz form and a loving tribute to its stars. The documentary by Leslie Zemeckis grew from the research she was doing for another project but her admiration for the ladies that brought glamour to the striptease is evident.

The film is a little all over the place but a quick history lesson at the start places burlesque in its particular period in American culture. Reaching back to the mid-nineteenth century, there was the influence of English satire and farce. Then in the early twentieth century, there were the vaudeville variety shows that eventually were looking for new angles to their act. There were the sideshows at carnivals and even the World's Fair that enticed audiences with their lineups of exotic beauties. Then there was the Depression. Many young, pretty women were unemployed and people still craved entertainment. A cheap ticket to the burlesque provided escape from real life with a show that included singers, comedians, acrobats and strippers. Burlesque was perceived as a low form of entertainment but in its heyday the houses were full of men and women. Burlesque companies worked theater circuits that took them to a different city each week. In New York, the Minsky brothers nurtured a thriving business in their theaters.

The majority of the interviews Zemeckis conducts are with the women of burlesque. Many of the big stars from that time share backstage stories, including Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm, Candy Cotton, Joan "the Sexquire Girl" Arline, Kitty West and many others. Their back-stories are quite similar as most of them found work in burlesque to escape abuse or poverty. Their anecdotes reveal that it was hard work and the circuit was grueling, not so different from circus life. While the women instantly come to mind when we think of burlesque, the film reminds us that they were just one part of the whole entertainment package. Comedians were a big part of the show so Alan Alda (son of Robert) and Chris Costello (daughter of Lou) give us their recollections of their famous burlesque-performing fathers. We also meet Renald von Muchow who was one half of a male acrobatic duo that had a long career in the biz.

Since classic burlesque is largely forgotten, the subject seems ripe for a thorough documentary treatment. At 98 minutes, Behind the Burly Q seems rushed and unfocused which is unfortunate because Zemeckis has gathered enough material for a film that would keep viewers' attention for a longer running time. The film is roughly organized by topic, either an aspect of the business or a person that everyone has an opinion on, but it jumps everywhere in the timeline. The interview subjects contribute short sound bites at a time so it takes a while before we are familiar with each performer, her particular history and act. Sometimes there is just too much information being presented. At one point, there is a newspaper clipping about a suicide that passes across the screen while the interview subject is talking about a different incident. During a sequence when various women mention the good money they were making (hundreds of dollars each week) one of them says something like she earned $1.50 after 20 shows but there's no elaboration on this starkly contrasting statement. There are a few sequences focused on a single performer (Lili St. Cyr, for example; Sally Rand, for another) but they just feel like teases for a longer piece on each.

The story of burlesque deserves a place in the annals of American entertainment history but its classic period is mostly forgotten because of its bad reputation. Zemeckis deserves credit for shining the spotlight on this seedy slice of the entertainment pie in such an adoring manner. It is fortunate that these performers were able to tell their stories before it was too late. For viewers with a casual understanding of burlesque, the film helpfully paints the picture of the entertainment form that bridges the genres of vaudeville and modern striptease. It's certainly a truer presentation of the form than the nostalgia-fueled new treatments, which are tainted with too much influence from contemporary porno, and strip shows.

The picture quality on this DVD is disappointing if compared with commercial films but it's still just acceptable by the standard of independent documentaries. Archival film footage is scratchy and soft. The video interviews vary from being occasionally grainy and soft to looking otherwise very clean with strong colors. The source music selections work well with the film and they're nicely mixed into the background soundscape. That helps when trying to hear the sometimes-indistinct audio of the interviews.

A bounty of bonus material is included on the disc. The "Reunion" (7 minutes) shows highlights from a 2006 gathering in Las Vegas of many surviving burlesque performers. In "Behind the Scenes" (7 minutes), Zemeckis talks briefly about the genesis of the film. The 22 minutes' worth of "Director's Bits" are interviews and research that Zemeckis couldn't fit into the finished film but are too dear to her to simply be deleted. "Ephemera" (5 minutes) looks more closely at the handmade costumes of the dancers. Multiple text screens present a timeline of burlesque that is useful for getting to know a general history of the act. A photo gallery and trailer round out the extras.

The Verdict

In consideration of its good intentions and service to the community, this disc is free to go.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 70

Perp Profile

Studio: First Run Features
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (CC)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Historical

Distinguishing Marks

• Featurettes
• Bonus Footage
• Interviews
• Photo Gallery
• Trailer


• IMDb

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