Strip, strip, hooray!
It's hard to image it, but there was a time when the striptease artist was considered one of the classiest acts in all of entertainment. Now we are not referring to the joyless jiggler who straddles a metal pole in some isolated dive for a few dollars every day. Mentioning original glamour gals like Lili St. Cyr, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Tempest Storm in the same breath as trailer trash giving hard-up he-men a preview of their next gynecological exam is blasphemy. During the '40s and '50s, a night out for a burlesque show was good, clean adult amusement. There was no question about corrupting youth or affecting the children. There were no suggestions that people were being exploited or degraded. Big, beefy breadwinners everywhere came home after a hard day of larding the bacon they brought with them and wanted to take their subservient honeys out for a night of laughs and lighthearted fun. And with its combination of dirty jokes, inoffensive blackout skits, and scantily clad ladies, the local strip show was the swanky avenue of the in-crowd. It calmed and cured what ailed the paternalistic society. It is only in the last few years that the fight for the right to bare all has turned most exotic dancers into militant mercenaries, only in it for the tips and the lap-dance power trip. All the artistry and show-woman-ship is gone. In its place are varying degrees of attractiveness and hygiene. If you long for the days of professional peek-a-boo, the luxuriant and lovely fan dance, and the timeless bump and grind, then run out and immediately pickup Something Weird Video's two-disc set entitled The Best of Burlesque. With two complete strip-show movies and nearly 100 shorts, trailers, stag loops, and publicity pics, you'll be in pasty heaven.
Facts of the Case
This two-DVD set contains several items of interest. But the full-length features consist of the following films:
A Virgin in Hollywood: Darla Sloan is an ace reporter for a backwater burg newspaper. The editor, the swarthy, self-proclaimed "big bad wolf" Mr. Hanson, wants our innocent Miss to head out to Hollywood to get the scope on the poop that goes on there. Her saucy, sexy exposés will be front-page news (even when they end up printed on page four?). Upon arriving in Tinseltown, she buys a map to the movie stars' homes. While on a fame hunt, she stumbles, literally, across a cheesecake photo shoot. The lens man offers her his card, which she begrudgingly accepts. Before you can say "Stop the Presses," she's modeling for the mook. She then gets invited to a burlesque show and witnesses several scenes (some even in ersatz 3-D). Hoping to spice up her love life (and her byline), she goes on several disastrous personal ad dates, including one with a jokester, a drunkard, and a dirty old man (who only stays awake during a racy floor show). Darla ends up in a lingerie demonstration, where she gets into a catfight with the star model over who'll wear Pierre's premier push-up bra. Darla's boss shows up to save the day (and get a little on the side).
Too Hot to Handle: After the narrative-heavy high jinks of Ms. Sloan and her skip through the seedy side of cinematic Sin City, you'd think it couldn't get any better than said dopey pulchritudinous Pilgrim's progress. Then it gets a lot better. Too Hot to Handle is a classic burlesque show in the old-school, theatrical-presentation sense. No attempt has been made to hide the fact that this is just a stage performance captured on film. The "plot," so to speak, is a series of separate scenes made up of strip teases, songs, novelty skits, and jokes. Featuring such implausibly named performers as Patti Wagon, Novita, and Melodee Lane, the dance numbers range from straightforward skin suggestions to "themed" exotic interpretations. Comedians Manny King and Harry Savoy really crack things up with M.C./tenor Leon DeVoe. But the true star of the show is a bawdy female comedian named Jean Carter. Her rousing rendition of the naughty nonsense song "Hot Nuts" will have you thanking whatever god you believe in for the invention of DVD. It all ends with "French Pickup" Patti Wagon doing a provocative prostitute patty cake. Grrrrr!
Something Weird Video has done it again. Just like they did last summer with their two-disc (sold separately) tour de force release of classic VD/live baby birth road show films, they unearth another treasure trove of forgotten cinema that gives you goose pimples for what passed as pleasure in the past. Burlesque, like its close kin vaudeville and the more mainstream variety show (a television staple that is today as scarce as a dial set), was once a mighty show business force. And viewing the material included on the new Best of Burlesque DVD will have you in copious zany tears of body bearing joy. If it has been a long time since you've actually been entertained by something—mindlessly, effortlessly, thoroughly, and totally entertained—then this is the digital delight you've been waiting for. Containing two full-length features, mini movies (10-minute strip shows), comedy skits, trailers, loops, 3-D sequences, clips, and a couple of glorious girl-filled galleries, this is an addictive and seductive Pandora's Box of pulchritude. On this set you'll see everything from classic stars to unknown entities, professional stage extravaganzas to backroom quickies. You'll hear jokes so corny that Fritos could be fashioned from them and comedy routines so clockwork you can almost tell the time. As a glimpse into the world of dinner shows and adult nightlife, this DVD is priceless. It's a tempting, teasing time capsule back to when femininity was celebrated (and yes, exploited) as a true art form.
Now, before you run out to buy this disc thinking you're about to grab a few dozen dreamy dolls dropping their dungarees for the sake of some epidermis exposure, you better be a little more savvy in your understanding of stripping. Burlesque was never about the flesh only. It always focused on the overall package, the gals and the guys, the singers and the silly men. Unless fashioned into a loop for private or peep show viewing, the actual exotic dancing was incorporated into the complete flow of the show (sometimes in all aspects of it). And the title "striptease" is actually a very accurate statement about how these dance numbers functioned as flesh feasts. If you consider modern stripping as the equivalent of the sex act itself, then the old-fashioned bump and grind is all harmless foreplay. Taking it a step further, it corresponds to heavy petting. There is very little "bare second," and everything is above board or reproach. Watching so many examples and differing ideals of the theatrical taunt teaches you that there were certain aesthetic elements always included in an act. Unless they were ethnic, the women almost all wore elaborate ball gowns, flashy with sequins and glitter. Long, luxuriant arm gloves were optional, but usually part of the ensemble. Multiple layers of ever-revealing lingerie (perfect for suggestive covering removal) helped to elongate the final reveal (and the routine). There was never any pelvic nudity. Indeed, the farthest the ladies would ever go is a g-string and pasties. In keeping with the stage show mentality, the films contained very few if any close-ups in the filming, and the medium shot was held static to make sure all the dance moves were recorded.
When it comes to the shimmy and the shake, these well-choreographed routines really spark up the sexuality and scale down anything salacious. Lili St. Cyr is a good example of this ideal. More a walking fashion shoot than a bravura grind gal, she exudes grace and charm as she slithers all over her fanciful boudoir sets. Tempest Storm, on the other hand, is all bosom and flaming red mane of hair. When she moves, she has a very arch, long-limbed style that is apparently utilized to support her heavy hooters. Some gals do a backside butt shot, bending over to give the audience an almost eye full while others accentuate their act with jumps, kicks, flips, and splits. The purpose behind such exaggerated actions is obvious: these are women as living, breathing pin-up gals, giving men who used to fantasize about their wall hangings a real-life replica. Positions are purposefully implemented to make the women appear alluring, sensual, athletic, and limber. In many ways, like fake breasts, collagen lips, and a perfect hourglass figure, the bodywork of the classic striptease artist was preserved and presented to emulate feminine beauty and allure in classical conceptualization. That is why you will see large women, zaftig women, thin women, and muscular women as part of this set. While these dames strived to be the most brazen or the bawdiest, they also maintained the fantasy of womanly wonder for generations.
The long-form films here are the last of a rare few actual burlesque movies still available. It used to be that producers of these touring show packages would ramble into a major city, locate a film crew, and set up an extra, after-hours demonstration to record for posterity and pecuniary profit, which is why many of these movies look like third-row-center exercises in composition. Occasionally, the concept was opened up so that the burlesque ideal could be incorporated onto some manner of clothesline conceit (skimpy plotline strung across 60 or 70 minutes to which stripping and stupid humor was added). The examples offered here by SWV incorporate both perspectives. A Virgin in Hollywood, a ripe chunk of pre-feminist cheddar cheese, offers a strange, sexist plot about an editor trying to increase his star reporter's "experience" before he plays sexual harassment games with her. While not mentioned outright, the way he ogles, makes suggestive remarks, and basically undresses the Miss with his eyes, you know he wants it (and her) bad. He apparently just doesn't want it this "green." This narration-heavy hokum works best when Sloan (Dorothy Abbot) shuts up and lets others do the talking and/or dancing. The burlesque numbers are basically rote, and the comedy is saved for her personal ad mystery dates, not the baggy pants Punches shown in the "staged" material. Perhaps the best moment in the entire movie, sandwiched between Mr. Sophisticate the practical joker and the fullback-sized drag queen, is when Darla asks her friend "Do you ever get the feeling you've swallowed an electric vibrator?" Yow!
On the other end of the enjoyment spectrum is Too Hot to Handle. This fantastic film will make you giddy with delight as it keeps your jaw firmly unhinged. Many of the classic burlesque comedy routines have been captured here, including blackboard number games (in this case, our chiseling comic tries to show Jean Carter that 7 x 13 = 28?) and the old standby, the man on the street interview. And while many of the ha-has are as old as dino dung and about as fresh, you'll find yourself genuinely laughing at lines like "when I was young, I used to have 'it.' Now that I'm older, 'it's turned to 'if.' Soon it'll be 'when.' On the other hand, you look like a 'perhaps.'" Some may find the limp-wristed lunacy of Harry Savoy a little unsavory (his broad, lisping "I'll give you such a slap is more flaming than Joe Besser ever was), but Mannie King is pure comic gold (even if he is also mining a little politically incorrect ethnic shtick). His hem-and-haw description of the gals, filled with blank entendres and fractured facial gestures is gold, and his timing in the skits is impeccable (the laugh track tells us so). Savoy does the classic bit of blackboard shtick, but his acquired taste talents grow tiresome. And when Leon DeVoe launches into the title song like a man possessed, you get to witness a little crooner pugilism, as the beefy bumbler fights every single line for its melody.
Jean Carter, though, is the true feature refreshment of this film. She is the kind of Joan Blondell brassy broad who exemplifies one of the missing aspects of nightclub entertainment: the classy lady of lewd comedy. Highly reminiscent of Rusty Warren and all the other risqué acts that incorporated filthy material (jokes, songs, or both) in a sly manner to satisfy standards, you witness real show business history when she does her numbers. Her statuesque hardness (she is more of a linebacker than a showgirl) keeps the carnality from getting out of hand, and her tough dame façade also downplays the possible shock value. But when she gets onstage, bucket of peanuts in her arms, and croons the classic "Hot Nuts," all bets are off. Suffice it to say that it has to be seen to be believed. Like most of The Best of Burlesque, it inspires piles of smiles and gaping mouths of disbelief.
But aside from these two priceless films, we are inundated with more bonus and extra excitement than we could ever imagine. Beginning with Disc One, we are treated to five 3-D short subjects, three preview features (basically stage show sequences announcing future extravaganzas or up-and-coming stars), and nine mini showcase films (each between seven and twelve minutes long). The dimensional material is faded and uninspiring. Occasionally, things appear to have depth. But more times than not you'll just get severe eyestrain and a dull headache. The preview features offer a rousing reveille about applauding for your favorite girl (the set design, in which the lead lady/singer sits on a giant upturned hand, is delicious) and a parade of faux buxom babes. But the real star of this disc's extras is the showcases. These mini-strip performances offer all manner of lower budget burlesque fare, from straight dancers who do little cloth removal to over-the-hill hags who take off more than you'd ever want them to. Especially interesting is Sepia Sirens, featuring a cast of color, and Tops in Burlesque, which supposedly highlights the future stars of this business.
On Disc Two, however, the real fun begins. We are treated to 19 trailers (over 40 minutes in total) for striptease movies. It's interesting to note how these films were marketed, playing up both the pulchritude and the baggy pants aspects of the shows. A series of shorts is next that features many of the big names from the mythos. There's the rather harsh, model-like Lili St. Cyr, who was as famous for putting her clothes on as for taking them off. Tempest Storm's enormous chest heaves and quivers as she goes about her long, lanky gesturing. Sally Rand shows why the fan dance was such a showstopper, and there are a couple of examples of 50/50 acts (women dancing with "male" partners—actually puppets fashioned over one side of their bodies) to indicate the level of invention in these dance routines. Indeed, the best part about seeing so many members of the exotic hoofer sorority is to notice the similarities, the blatant rip-offs, and the ripe differences between their acts and their styles. Some want to retain their feminine grace. A few feign actual artistic temperament. But the majority just want to gyrate like the fleet is in.
There are separate examples of blackout skits, the straightforward striptease, and variations on both. Burlesque ballyhoo in the form of still photos, posters, and pin-up galleries are also included, and there is an insightful interview from 1993 with Lili St. Cyr in the enclosed pamphlet. She discusses getting her start in the business, her hatred of making movies, and the difficulty in finding excuses to take off your clothes onstage "in an artistic way." With nearly seven hours (seven hours) of burlesque material here, Something Weird provides a literal history of the genre, giving both the finest and the most humdrum examples of the art of the striptease and glories of Girlesque. A must for every fan of exploitation and film history, this is a rare opportunity to witness the body beautiful as it taunts nature and man in erotic displays of the female form. Venus may have had no arms, but these examples of modern loveliness are sure to keep you amused, bemused, and confused for hours.
If there is one downside to this DVD, it's that the transfers are all less than stellar. Most have print issues, usually at the beginning and end. Once they get started though, much of the monochrome is clean and clear. The color sequences have multiple scratches, and dirt and damage is present on almost every clip. Overall, it's safe to say that this collection is the best possible presentation of some of the rarest, most image-impaired material in the history of skinema. It is decent but deceptive and not up to SWV's usual standards. Also, there is one additional note on the red/green goofiness. Anyone hoping the 3-D would lead to some lurid eye-popping delights should really know better. Dimensional representations are usually so devoid of depth as to suggest negative space, and, sadly, such is the case here. Once in a while, a bubble or a backdrop will seem to move toward or from the screen. But mostly, the 3-D is a novelty without functionality, period.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
About the only negative thing one can say (aside from the print quality issue) is that the wait for another helping of bursting-at-the-seams busts will be an intensely hard one. While Varietease and Teaserama are out there to satisfy your strip sweet tooth, here's hoping that SWV loads up another couple of digital delights to tantalize and titillate us real soon.
It's hard to encompass in simple words how delightful and devious this double-D DVD from SWV truly is. As a historical artifact to a long-lost entertainment art form, it is not comprehensive, but still shimmers with golden moments and incalculable pleasures. And strangely enough, when you cast aside all the camp value and the kitsch appeal and merely watch these movies, shorts, and loops as actual pieces of performance, you'll see just how talented and tough these glamour gals really were. Remember that the world of amusement was far more localized in their time. No national stage existed for them to perform on (not like the fledgling field of television would have given them a crack at the big time), so reputations needed making the hard way; by hitting the road and playing the circuit over and over. For women like St. Cyr and Storm, Blaze Starr and the indomitable Gypsy, fame came at the price of five shows a night, drunken, disrespectful audiences and a less-than-flattering personal reputation. These women were ripe for ogling and objectifying, but that's really where the mainstreaming ended. For all their grace and showmanship, for all the fashions and features they used to highlight their femininity, the public still saw them as strippers. If people back then had a crystal ball capable of seeing the pole jockeys of today's "gentleman's clubs," they may have thought twice about branding these beauties as wanton women. But just like with most things in our society, when it comes to sex, the puritan beats the prurient every time. Though it may not be jammed packed with wall-to-wall attractiveness, as an artifact from a previous era in entertainment, The Best of Burlesque is one vital lesson in Va-Va-Va-Voom! Do yourself a favor and savor the striptease all over again. You will be glad you did.
The Best of Burlesque is hereby acquitted of all charges. Something Weird Video is charged with less-than-stellar transfer issues, but the overwhelming pleasure and point of this collection leads the court to be lenient. Case dismissed.
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