How often do you get to use the words "G-string" and "murder" in the same sentence? Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees, who does it in this review of a Barbara Stanwyck flick, is still coming down from the high.
"Burlesque is a surprising business."
Was there anyone who could play a tough dame like Barbara Stanwyck? As Walter Matthau once noted, among her roles were "five gun molls, two burlesque queens, half a dozen adulteresses, and twice as many murderesses…and when she was bad, she was terrific." Of course, she also successfully played society ladies (East Side, West Side), self-sacrificing mothers (Stella Dallas), and even a missionary (The Bitter Tea of General Yen), but she brought a conviction to her more hard-boiled roles that would be difficult to better. Lady of Burlesque shows off Stanwyck's brilliance in tough-gal roles by placing her at the center of this solid backstage mystery based on the novel The G-String Murders by famed striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee.
The dressing rooms of S.B. Foss's burlesque house are rife with feuds and jealousy, both professional and romantic. New featured dancer Dixie Daisy (Stanwyck) has already gone claw to claw with singer Lolita La Verne (Victoria Faust), whose prima donna airs are causing frayed nerves. Despite this little contretemps, Dixie is a sensible kid and usually manages to keep the peace while simultaneously fending off the advances of comedian Biff Brannigan (Michael O'Shea, It Should Happen to You). It's just plain bad luck that Dixie is the one to discover La Verne murdered, strangled with that badge of the burlesque dancer's trade: her G-string.
Naturally, Dixie comes under the suspicious eye of Inspector Harrigan, but she's far from the only person in the company to have had a beef with the unscrupulous La Verne. Not only is there La Verne's violent boyfriend to consider, but as the investigation continues, it uncovers blackmail, a betrayed wife, and $10,000 in stolen money—enough motives for half a dozen murders. Then the body count starts to rise, and the mysteries multiply…and so does the danger. Will Dixie be the next victim of the G-string murderer, or will she find a way to unmask him—or her—before it's too late?
A number of critics have categorized this film as a comedy, but in fact it's a good old-fashioned mystery, with the comedic moments coming from the onstage routines performed at the burlesque house and from the sparring between Dixie and the amorous Biff. The colorful backstage characters also add a sometimes astringent humor, as the burlesque girls alternately snap at each other and show sisterly support. The burlesque-house setting is really what makes the film distinctive (besides, of course, Stanwyck's star power): It gives the film both a risqué fascination and a gritty realism. On the one hand, there's the side the audience sees—a parade of beautiful flesh and lightweight comic routines—but on the other hand, we see the hard life these entertainers have as they create the illusion of harmless fun.
The setting is also a great way to introduce a lot of distinctive characters. The dancers themselves cover a lot of types, ranging from big-hearted dim bulb Alice (Marion Martin, Black Angel) to brassy, loudmouthed Gee Gee (Iris Adrian, Roxie Hart) and aloof, faux exotic Princess Nirvena (Stephanie Bachelor), who seems to be establishing the prototype for Natasha of the Bullwinkle cartoons. Dixie herself is actually the most mature and stable of this motley lot, showing a more serious-minded quality than in her similar role of Sugarpuss O'Shea in Howard Hawks's Ball of Fire from two years before. Dixie, you must understand, has ambition: She doesn't intend to stay in burlesque. Thus, practicality is her byword, which is why she refuses to get waylaid by romance and keeps swatting away the persistent Biff. Despite her feisty independence, however, she has a strong protective urge, and this is part of what motivates her to try to identify the mysterious figure that's endangering her fellow dancers.
As a mystery, the film holds its own, with lots of solid red herrings and a solution that comes as a real surprise—without cheating the audience. The final confrontation in the dark between Dixie and the killer is genuinely spooky. Like the plot itself, the acting from most of the cast might be described as serviceable—more than adequate, but not really transcending the genre, except in the case of Stanwyck and O'Shea. The two make an enjoyable team: Dixie with her sassy, seen-it-all wariness, and Biff with his irresponsible yet good-hearted charm. He's the kind of fellow who'll stick his date with the bar tab but will go out and buy her a present the next minute. Other characters adding flavor to the backstage stew are Foss himself (J. Edward Bromberg, Son of Dracula), the beleaguered boss of this shaky enterprise, and stage door keeper Stacciaro (Frank Conroy, The Ox-Bow Incident), who, like so many theater veterans, has a story of fleeting success and slow decline. As Inspector Harrigan, Charles Dingle (The Talk of the Town) is maddeningly quick to leap to conclusions and accuse characters at the drop of a hat, but that provides all the more incentive for Dixie and Biff to try to identify the real killer(s).
The Roan Group's disc is one of several different releases of this film, and although I haven't seen the other DVDs, I'd say that this one is a decent bargain. The case insert boasts that this is a new digital transfer with newly restored sound and picture, and although it looks like the source print was in pretty poor condition, overall the results are satisfactory: The black-and-white picture shows nice depth and richness, but there is a great deal of speckling, discoloration, and even some skips in the film. The sound quality is better than that of the visual presentation: It's free of hiss and presents the dialogue clearly, although the music tends to sound a bit muddy. (The musical score for Lady of Burlesque was actually nominated for an Oscar, but I found it unmemorable, even taking into account the limitations of the restoration.) The sole extra is a "Film Background" text feature that lost credibility right away by misspelling the film's name; it gives one screen "page" each to discussion of the film, Stanwyck, and director William Wellman. For those who know anything about the careers of Stanwyck and Wellman, this extra is entirely disposable. I was also miffed that the scene selection menu offered no visuals, animated or otherwise; chapters (many of them quite long) are identified only by titles. And, to return briefly to the issue of credibility, the cover actually features a photo of Stanwyck in costume for an entirely different film—1941's Ball of Fire. To be sure, the midriff-baring style is very similar to the sexy Edith Head costumes Stanwyck wears in Lady of Burlesque, but I do think someone should have caught this error.
Nevertheless, for the low price at which Roan is offering this disc, I don't hesitate to recommend it to fans of Stanwyck or of classic whodunnits. The authentic backstage setting sets this mystery apart from others in the genre and lends a distinctive atmosphere to the proceedings. And honestly, isn't it worth the price of admission just to see Stanwyck do splits and sing that immortal ditty, "Take It Off the E-String, Play It On the G-String"?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Roan Group
• Film Background
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