Judge Christopher Kulik wondered why this film wasn't re-titled Raiders of the Lost Striptease. It would have been a bigger hit.
Sometimes being a nice girl is too much to bare!
"Ladies and gentleman, may I have your attention please! The film you are about to see is based on really true events that actually happened. We know you are a sophisticated audience, and what you are about to see is some mature story. In 1925, here was this real religious girl, and by accident she invented the striptease. This real religious girl. In 1925. Thank you!"—Prologue
I know that prologue is both awkward and sloppy. What's more, it tries to pass The Night They Raided Minsky's off as a true story. (Wishful thinking!) This forgotten 1968 musical comedy is the sophomore effort of Oscar-winning director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist). Now it's on DVD courtesy of MGM, though does it hold up after 40 years?
Facts of the Case
As the prologue suggests, this film is indeed about a young girl named Rachel Schpitendavel (Britt Ekland, The Man With the Golden Gun). She's a runaway. She's Amish. She comes to N.Y.C. to become a dancer. As it turns out, she will inadvertently make history at Minsky's, a popular burlesque theater, which is under the watchful eye of "naval inspector" Vance Fowler (Denholm Elliott, Raiders of the Lost Ark). Fowler wants to clean up all the lewdness by raiding the bawdy theater as soon as possible.
One of the theater's acts includes comic duo Raymond Paine (Jason Robards, Magnolia) and Chick Williams (Norman Wisdom, Last of the Summer Wine). Both take a liking to our young newcomer, though Paine wants her to do something more exciting (and titillating) than dancing out stories from the Bible. So, he contrives a plan with the theater's owner Billy Minsky (Elliott Gould, Ocean's Thirteen) to present her as Mademoiselle Fifi, an exotic French dancer. Not only will they become famous, but they will also give Fowler the finger in the process.
While I've heard the film's title for years in numerous publications, this is the first time I sat down to watch it. The prologue made me queasy at first, but what follows is a richly detailed valentine to the old days of 1920s burlesque courtesy of producer (and co-writer) Norman Lear (All in the Family). Story and character development take a backseat to silly, on-and-off stage shenanigans as well as musical performances evoking a time long since forgotten.
It must be made clear that The Night They Raided Minsky's took a rocky road during production. Slated to start in 1967, it would take a year before the cameras starting rolling; what's worse, the film's original stars—which included Tony Curtis and Alan Alda—bailed out early on. The budget ballooned to $3 million, a staggering amount for the time, the most expensive ever done in New York. However, the biggest blow came when co-star Bert Lahr (best known as the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz), became seriously ill and died during production.
Then came the editing, which lasted nine months. Evidently, it was so exhausting for Ralph Rosenblum that he later published the series of events in his book "When the Shooting Stops…The Cutting Begins." First cuts were reportedly deemed as trash, and endless snips surmounted to something entirely different. While I was watching the film, it still seemed too choppy and messy, with the inclusion of vintage silent footage rather overbearing. It may add to the setting, but the film could have benefited more from the zany antics of its spirited cast.
Jason Robards excels as Paine, a quick-thinking and talkative comic who treats real life almost like one of his stage shows. Plus, his odd-couple chemistry with Norman Wisdom is inventive and inspired, with their stage performances among the film's highlights. The rest of the cast give it their all, even if their characters are seriously underwritten. Harry Andrews (Superman), Joseph Wiseman (Dr. No) and Denholm Elliott are all noteworthy; even Britt Ekland overcomes her miscast Bond Girl reputation with a performance as sweet as sugar.
Sadly, Lahr's death had reduced him to only a handful of scenes (as Professor Spats, the Minsky's doorman) in the finished film, but he's more than a welcome presence. His best line comes when Robards is confused as to Ekland's source for her dances: "You know what the Bible is, Paine. It's a book civilians read on Sundays!"
At its best, The Night They Raided Minsky's is a colorful, wonderfully whimsical period piece…and thus should be enjoyed solely on that level. Kudos must be given to cinematographer Andrew Laszlo, costume designer Anna Hill Johnstone, the production designers, the art-set decorators, the makeup…practically the entire crew for their research and dedication in re-creating 1920s New York in all its burlesque, jazzed-up glory. Part of this was no doubt due to real-life owner Morton Minsky, who served as technical advisor. In fact, the film's look and style is so astonishing that I'm surprised no Oscar nominations were doled out.
That all being said, MGM's treatment of the film on DVD is lacking. Sporting a 1.85:1 Anamorphic transfer, the film shows its age, with Laszlo's camerawork coming off as too fuzzy in several scenes. Black levels are a bit too strong at times, and the colors (one of the film's primary visual drawing cards) are dull and muted more often than not. Overall, the picture is clean, however, with grain and specks kept to a minimum, though I'm sure more restoration was possible.
Sonically, things are much better. MGM offers a DD 2.0 Stereo track which is more than satisfactory, with the brilliant music score by Charles Strouse (Annie) emerging mostly unscathed, including the film's title song. Mono tracks are also available in English and Spanish, with subtitles in both of those languages, as well as French.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What keeps The Night They Raided Minsky's from being a great film is the story, which gets lost early on in favor of music and dance numbers. Not that I'm complaining about the numbers themselves—which are marvelous—but the characterizations are left behind the curtain and the ending is so abrupt, it doesn't complement the technical goodies.
Rachel's character is the most confusing, as she wants to maintain her Quaker background, and yet doesn't seem to mind working at a sleazy theater. There is a scene where she tells Raymond that she won't make love to him unless there is a sign from God…and the "sign" revealed is so arbitrary and nonsensical that I slapped my head in disbelief when she bought it. I understand that Rachel is meant to be innocent and naïve, but come on, how could she not see that Minsky and Paine are using her? Or that all Paine wants is a nice roll in the hay? Ekland is still adorable; I just wish her character had a bit more intelligence.
Finally, I don't know what MGM was smoking distributing this film as a completely bare-bones disc (there's not even a theatrical trailer!). I understand that Minsky's is one of the more obscure catalogue titles, but Friedkin has always been up to recording commentaries and doing interviews. I would imagine he would have had plenty to say about this film and its troubled production. Britt Ekland refers to this as her "favorite film," and I would have loved to hear some enthusiastic recollections from her. Even Norman Lear, the creative force behind-the-scenes, is still alive. What's the deal?
Footnote: Minsky's was originally rated "M" (for mature) by the MPAA, but then re-rated to PG for home video. Recently, due to its DVD debut, the MPAA has re-rated the film again to PG-13 for "suggestive content and brief nudity." First of all, the nudity (concluding Ekland's striptease) is more than brief…hell it's so quick that you can miss it within the blink of an eye. Second, the "suggestive content" mostly consists of sexy dances and bedroom talk, none of which warrants the new rating. There is no profanity, violence, or sex of any kind. Here again, another example of the MPAA's moronic rating practices.
Despite the lack of fully-developed story and characterization, The Night They Raided Minsky's is a cheery, infectious, and delightful romp. It may be not much more than an obscure relic from the late '60s, though it has more style and substance than most of today's films. Highly recommended!
The film and its creative crew are free to go. MGM is found guilty of a sorry DVD release and the court threatens a raid of their vaults if they don't shape up soon.
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