Judge Bill Gibron was once told to take it all off. Similar to these amazing vintage strip show extravaganzas, the results were more unappetizing than arousing.
Big Night at the Burly-Q!
When one thinks about sophisticated entertainment for a high-class clientele, the burlesque review is typically not paramount among the usual showbiz suspects. Opera, ballet, and other fancy-schmancy showcases are far more common for the in-crowd than boobs, butts, and lots of bawdy belly laughs. Yet, believe it or not, there was a time when swells took their special gals to the local risqué revue for a little cultured carnality. Like vaudeville with far more vagina, these sensual showcases of curves, crooners, and comics were variety in name only. The tassels may have changed and the rack relying on them may have been a little more quirky and a lot less perky, but if you were lucky enough to see one of the old school striptease extravaganzas, you glimpsed a part of hoi polloi history. Something Weird Video's release of Hollywood Burlesque/ Peek-a-Boo! is really nothing more than filmed stage shows, down to the chunky chorus girls, atonal song styling, overbroad comic bits, and females of fluctuating fetchingness. Yet the result is another winner, a title that gives us a tacky time capsule look into a heretofore unknown era of urbane unctuousness.
The first thing that will shock you about Hollywood Burlesque is just how little skin there really is. Most acts of the era used more tease than sleaze in getting their pulchritudinous point across. The ladies wore elaborate costumes with several layers of undergarments. Bras went from ornate to slightly see-through, while panties placed jeweled demarcations in strategically explicit places. When they disrobed, a single piece of clothing would come cascading onto the floor, another always in place to prevent any perverted previews. By the time of the big reveal, sequined pasties provided perfect nipple and areola aversion. If you were lucky, the gal would then head offstage to healthy applause, only to return a few seconds later, sans spots. With babes like Joy Damon ("The Happy Little Lassie with the Classy Chassis"), Jenne ("The Modern Tigress," as opposed to the ancient one), and stately, statuesque beauty Hilary Dawn (who looks like a lost star from the white supremacist version of the WNBA), Hollywood Burlesque's teat tricks are a decidedly mixed blessing.
Every single strip scene in this film plays out in a strict, staid fashion. Each Miss arrives onstage and proceeds to prove that, only a few decades ago, rhythm and grace were optional elements for an erotic dancer. Some attempt the infamous "pinwheel tassel act" while others merely lunge back and forth. In between the "not necessarily" nakedness, you get badly choreographed dance numbers, chorus girls who look like drag queen midgets on strike, balladeers who couldn't carry a tune in two buckets, and comedians who redefined the notion of shtick—basically by removing a couple of letters and creating an apropos fecal anagram. Still, there is some kind of antiqued fun to be had here, especially if one does a sort of amorous astral projection and imagines what it would have been like to be seated in the audience, watching it all play out in real time right before your rummy little eyes. If you do, you'll be surprised at how saucy some of the double entendres are and how far out many of the farcical elements go. You'll also weep with wanton joy as creaky cocktail waitresses and brutish barmaids become the "most ravishing beauties in the heavens." Substituting flabby female flesh for forbidden fruit, is part of what movies like Hollywood Burlesque are all about. They exist to remind us how far society has swayed—for both good and bad—since the days when gals were nude, but not rude.
The second half of the double feature is even more telling. Entitled Peek-a-Boo! and advertised as presenting "Venus: The Body Beautiful" this is another floor show as collective snapshot, a chance at seeing how the less "elite" members of the gentlemen's club cabal actually found their fun. One of the things you learn when watching these recorded stage acts is that there is a definite link between the level of enjoyment and the proficiency and professionalism of the performers. Put another way, the crappier the cavalcade of comeliness, the more fun there is to be had. It may sound crass or crude, but there is something inherently hilarious about mocking these physically suspect matrons. Watching them scuttle down in to their skivvies for the attempted arousal of their slobbering spectators is akin to a kind of sexual slapstick. Therefore, Venus and the rest of her vacant vixens are the true highlight of Peek-a-Boo!. Each one is given a name that both tantalizes and terrifies. Suzette is "The French Doll," though once we get a good look at her, a more appropriate label would be "World's First Female Serial Killer." Sherry Winters (who actually could be mistake for a post-pigout Shelly Winters) is "The Yum-Yum Girl." After her awkward act, you'll wonder why appetites are supposedly satiated, not outright suppressed.
The aforementioned De Milo mimic is ridiculously adversative to her nomenclature. Instead of being a shapely, almost stocky representation of natural beauty, our Venny is a walking stick with wayward lumps and bumps. Indeed, unlike past offerings from Something Weird where our burlesque has samples of some sassy, sexy slags, Peek-a-Boo! is like a striptease version of saltpeter. Yet this allows the film to transcend its T&A trappings and actually become a compendium of deliciously depressing variety acts. What a misguided group they are. The comics here take baggy pants pantomime to new, lower levels of laugh whoredom. They'll do anything, sans actually being funny, to get a giggle. The singers are so horrid they are kept off stage until a massive production number (featuring a dancing duo dressed up like a sailor and a hooker…hmmm) mandates more than just a minor handful of onstage personnel. One stares in blissful bewilderment at the level of risqué ridiculousness involved in these productions—the attempted glamour, the false sense of ostentatious and haughty hoi polloi. Try as they might, they can't get past the basic sleazoid certainty that the purpose of this pandering was to make naked girls socially—and commercially—acceptable.
As usual, Something Weird serves up the best monochrome movies they can find, though oddly enough, both films here look more "gray on gray" than black and white. Also, what worked on an oversized screen in a 3,000-seat auditorium has a hard time translating to the small-screen parameters of today's home theater. The 1.33:1 image contains scenarios so far away from the lens that the performers look like pencils in petticoats. On the sound side, there is nothing technically tantalizing about '40s/'50s mono, with its tinny, flat features.
Almost as if to make up for the lack of audio and visual splendor, SWV piles on the Burley-Q bonus features, taking a standard two-hour disc (each film here is about an hour, a perfect preservation of burlesque's "five shows a night" mentality) and bumping it up by another 90 amazing minutes. We are treated to a series of sensational striptease trailers, including the Lili St. Cyr showstopper Her Wedding Night, The A-B-C's of Love, Kiss Me Baby, and the oddly titled Ding Dong. Even better, the DVD provides six bump and grinding short subjects, with names as nominally naughty as Broadway Burlesque, Dancing Dolls of Burlesque (who don't quite cut the rugs you think they will), Fancy Femmes, Girlesk Show, Key-Hole Varieties (sadly, not a single lock look is offered), and Ready for a Take-Off. Again, the diversity of dame disrobing is startling. Some of our ladies look like they've spent hours meticulously primping and preening for their partial to fully topless performances. Others look like the trailer trashy wives of long distance truckers, gals given a sawbuck, a shot of bourbon, and a moth-eaten bathrobe and told to strut and fret their fetlocks upon the stage. Along with a wealth of poster art and publicity photos in two mammoth galleries, this is another stellar compendium of a long-lost performance art.
Frankly, no matter how uncomely these lasses may seem, these movies expose more than just their epidermis. These were some tough and tenacious babes, their reputations made the hard way—by hitting the road and playing the circuit over and over again. They were ripe for ogling and objectifying, and for all their grace and showmanship, for all the fashions and features they used to highlight their femininity, the public still saw them as nothing more than scandals. As with most things in our society, when it comes to sex, the puritan beat out the prurient every time. Though it may not be jam-packed with wall-to-wall attractiveness, Hollywood Burlesque/ Peek-a-Boo! is one vital lesson in Va-Va-Va-Voom! and a tribute to those who dropped blou and trou so that the upper crust could commiserate.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Something Weird Video
• Six Archival Burlesque Shorts
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