Lili St. Syr! Tempest Storm! The Legendary Bettie Page! All are present in this DVD packed with pulchritude from Something Weird. Judge Bill Gibron wonders what more a flesh fan could want.
Delectable damsels in daring dances
Varietease begins with a smarmy MC of sorts—a guy named Bobby Shields—introducing us to the evening's entertainment. Then featured femme Bettie Page does a nudity-free Dance of the Seven Veils (she only manages four). Next up is the headliner, Lili St. Cyr. Known for doing a reverse strip act (she would often appear in underwear and then put on, her clothes), the amazing Lili does four separate sequences donning and doffing her clothing in various states of desirable undress. She is never really totally nude—not even at the end—but that is not the point of this highbrow bodkin revue. Page then presents the elaborate act cards, doing a few mini-moves along the way. She announces the bubbleheaded human oddity named Christine Nelson, who makes a few lame jokes before belting out a middling comic number about marriage. We get a baggy-pants comic telling jokes about be-bop, a frightening female impersonator, and the supposedly sophisticated dancing of Barrow and Rodgers. Add in some more songs, a set of droopy-drawered French Can-Can dancers, and the final reveal of Lili's legendary lungs (complete with pasties) and you've got a true meshing of vaudeville with vice.
Things are slightly different in Teaserama. Page, now a featured performer, gets three numbers (all, sadly, sans nudity). She even works with lead lovely Tempest Storm in one of the more vivacious sequences. Fans of Car 54, Where Are You? will instantly recognize Gunther Toody himself, Joe E. Ross, as one of the crude comics. There is some talent crossover as our sullen, slender transvestite from Varietease is the prominently featured female impersonator here. Perhaps the biggest selling point for fans of flesh is the amount of innocent nakedness offered. Ms. Storm is all about skin and she shows off her hefty rack with regularity (pasties present, as always). A gal named Cherry Knight also shows off her stack, while a dish named Trudy Wayne offers the most "exposure" of them all. With more manic dancing (from Peppe and Roccio, also a part of Varietease's varieties) and far fewer insipid songs, Teaserama is more about the strip and less about the show. Even the humor seems more on the dishy, dirty side. This makes the presentation more potent—and more prurient.
It has to be said up front that this type of movie, more or less the filmed stage act as it was presented to audiences of the day, may not be the most admirable way to experience the best of burlesque. The jokes are all timed for crazed crowd reactions while the musical numbers are a mere trifle, meant to give the dancers time to change their complex costumes. Bettie Page aside, the typical dancers were bottom of the barrel beauties whose routines could best be described as "saunter, strip and quickly scuttle off." Still, there is something endlessly fascinating about this old-fashioned flesh fest. Perhaps it's the notion of glitz and glamour mixed with just the slightest scent of seedy sleaze. It could be the novelty of seeing dancers disrobe without the complementary gynecological exam. Maybe it's the overall concept of the "tease." Since stimulation of the mind is as important as the prompting of the privates, watching these laid-back lovelies, primped and preened to within an inch of their skin's structural level, merely move for our benefit fills a lot of those longing, lustful needs. Granted the rest of the anarchic antics are wimpy window dressing for the eventual exposing of breasts, but the general burlesque ideal was one of entertainment and erotica in a safe and classy setting. That is definitely captured here.
Yet the question remains, will a modern audience find anything of carnal concern here? The answer depends on one's willingness to drop the cynicism and tune in to what Varietease and Teaserama are trying to do. The comics are crap, no doubt about it, and the dance acts can really drone on. From a singing standpoint, a couple of the numbers are mildly amusing. Monica Lake attempts to warble a wounded tune called "Riding on Manhattan Way" while our MC mimics famous crooners. Sadly, the voices all sound the same. Truth be told, you need to be heavily into Ms. Page, Ms. Storm, or Ms. St. Cyr, and be wiling to view your object of desire in less-than-preferred parameters to completely get lost in this type of entertainment. The stripping is indeed skillful and the ladies are almost always lovely to look at. Still, burlesque was not into sexual fulfillment—it was designed to titillate and tempt. It hoped to heighten the floor show in the theater of your mind, as well as surge the urges lying "down" deep inside your limited libido. Sure, in 2006 these acts look positively tame. However, back when pornography was a social sin and fornication was for procreation, a glimpse of gam or a peek at some pert personal pillows was the height of honorable horniness.
It is also clear from a single viewing of this joyful jiggle fest why Tempest Storm was a major striptease marvel. With flaming red hair framing her perfectly painted face, she is a statuesque stunner with a chest that deceptively defied gravity. In one of Teaserama's more memorable sequences, we witness the intricate infrastructure that keeps Ms. Storm's lady lumps in their various stages of solidness. Bettie is there, hoisting up the bustier and binding the body foundation. Looking at the amount of lingerie Tempest trades in, one has to wonder if the fashion industry purposely catered to complicating the undergarment. The performances by over the title treat Bettie Page, on the other hand, are just middling excuses to see the idol of millions kibitzing around. Her hoofing skills are quite limited and the lack of bare bodkin means that you will see more in her expansive photographic portfolio than in any of the featured sequences here. As ever, Bettie comes across as sneaky and shy, effervescent and excited, proving why she has remained a viable vice queen for all these years. The rest of the entertainment is merely routine, with the emphasis on movement, not musical numbers. For both Varietease and Teaserama, you will have to judge for yourself if this kind of corporeal curio is your cup of tempting tea.
Beyond all the boobs, however, there is another, far more fascinating reason to buy this definitive DVD. Longtime icon of the industry, one of the original 40 thieves, that Mighty Monarch of the Exploitation Film, producer David F. Friedman, sits down with SWV founder Mike Vraney to give what is basically a two-hour-plus lecture (read: full-length audio commentary for both films) on the history of the skin flick biz. Dave is a man with a mountain of anecdotes (his book, A Youth in Babylon, is a highly recommended account of how he came to be a grindhouse God) and he spends little time addressing the elements in either film. Instead, Vraney gets the gent to "expose" his influences and dish his memories, and once he gets started, the tantalizing tales come pouring out. Dave has done everything: he made softcore and hardcore porn, sold sex manuals during the intermissions at road shows, produced dozens of definitive exploitation epics, and worked as a carnival barker. Indeed, Friedman's roots are in the traveling amusement business, and his flim-flam savvy is on full display here. He discusses such unknown novelties as the "candy routine" and offers his own opinions on Irving Klaw (who created these strip pics) and his oddball oeuvre. People who prefer Page may feel a little underwhelmed by her presence here, but anyone curious about the history of America's other entertainment industry will thoroughly enjoy Friedman's frank discussions.
Besides, these movies look good in their detailed, digital presentation. Rendered from original negatives, these primary-colored cavalcades literally glow in their 1.33:1 full-screen radiance. Certainly, there are scratches and dirt a'plenty, and a couple of sequences aren't as fresh and new as others. But when you can literally see the piles of pancake makeup worn by Tempest Storm or count the sequins on Lili St. Cyr's gown, you know you're seeing some of the best possible prints of these cinematic novelties. As for bonus features, SWV has little to offer beyond Friedman's fine narratives. There are trailers for the films, and a couple of scenes copped from the final film in the Page burlesque trilogy, the long-lost Striporama. Fans of Miss Bettie will definitely enjoy her long, luxuriant bubble bath (in an odd Egyptian setting), but her baggy-pants cameo with a couple of decidedly squalid comics leaves a lot to be desired. There is also a peep show loop that has our star bouncing around in various stages of sexiness. As a matter of fact, if you already own each of these DVDs separately, there is no need for the double dip. The material offered is all the same (even down to the standard gallery of exploitation art) and there is no significant difference in the technical quality.
Indeed, the pure purpose of this single unit re-release of Varietease and Teaserama is to promote Ms. Page and play directly into her about to blossoming fan base. Interestingly enough, there is very little difference between a walking, dancing Bettie Page and the sexual symbol sitting motionless in that endless collection of her cheesecake photos. Like an animated men's magazine, Bettie remains an enigma for all the reasons we find her fascinating and refreshing. There is a mystery and mischievousness in those wild, wicked eyes and her sunny smile hides a less-than-healthy feminine curiosity in the ways of wantonness. With a mane of black locks that seem to suggest experience and elegance, and a body almost perfectly proportioned for posing (Page is one of the few models who looked idyllic in each and every position she attempted), her continuing legacy is completely logical. She may be notorious and a current cultural novelty, but Bettie Page will always be our ethereal pin-up queen. Long may she reign.
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