Famed striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee published a steamy mystery novel called “The G-String Murders” in 1941, all about backstage intrigue at a burlesque house. The book was a best seller, and so of course Hollywood came a-calling, and William Wellman was assigned the director’s job for LADY OF BURLESQUE, a somewhat sanitized version of Gypsy’s racy tome, though Wellman and screenwriter James Gunn got away with what they could in those heavy-handed Production Code days.
The film opens with the glittering lights of The Great White Way, then takes a turn onto 42nd Street, where benevolent burlesque impresario S.B. Foss (J. Edward Bromberg) has purchased the old Opera House to present his bump’n’grind shows. Barbara Stanwyck plays new headliner Dixie Daisy, and (as they said back then) va-va-voom…
La Stanwyck is some kinda hot in her skimpy Edith Head-designed costume! Dixie sings “Take It Off the E-String, Put It On the G-String” while star comic Biff Brannigan (played by Michael O’Shea ) kibitzes from the wings. Dixie’s got a hair across her – uh, G-string about comics, resulting in some sizzling rat-tat-tat banter between the cynical Babs and on-the-make O’Shea. A police raid on the joint without warning (someone’s cut the red alert light) finds Dixie taking shelter in the basement, where she’s almost strangled by unseen hands.
Back in the dressing room, Dixie and the girls break up a fight between haughty Lolita LaVerne (Victoria Faust) and Dolly Baxter (Gloria Dickson ) over comic Russell Rogers (Frank Faylen ). In comes the show’s former star Princess Nirvena (Stephanie Bachelor, channeling Natasha Fatale!), who wants her old job back. Soon, Dixie finds Lolita murdered, strangled by her own G-string, and the cops, led by Inspector Harrigan (Charles Dingle ) investigate, with all evidence pointing to Dixie! But the coroner’s report states Lolita was poisoned first, suggesting there’s more than one killer on the loose, confirmed when the Princess pops up dead onstage inside a prop sarcophagus…
Barbara’s on top of her game as the been-there-done-that Dixie, and the former chorus girl gets to show her dancing skills and even act in a few burlesque skits. O’Shea, a former nightclub comic himself, is an actor I don’t usually take to, but here he does a great job as Barbara’s foil/love interest. The movie’s loaded with Familiar Faces, including the marvelous Iris Adrian as Dixie’s gin-swilling, gum-chomping pal GeeGee, beautiful Marion Martin as squeaky-voiced Alice Angel, Gerald Mohr as gangster Louie the Jaw, Lou Lubin as ‘candy butcher’ Moe, and Frank Conroy as old-timer Stacchi.
Those of a “certain age” will recall the actor who plays second banana Mandy, Pinky Lee. Pinky was a popular burlesque comic whose catchphrase “Oooo, you make me so mad!” never failed to draw laughs from a crowd. He was a pioneer of early TV in the 1950’s, and hosted a kiddie show airing every weekday afternoon following HOWDY DOODY. In 1955, Pinky went into convulsions caused by a staph infection… and the kids in the live TV audience thought it was part of the act! A few years after that incident, Pinky would return to television sporadically in several comeback attempts, but times had changed, and his career was effectively over. Pinky Lee (real name: Pincus Leff) died in 1993 at age 85.
William Wellman keeps things moving forward at a brisk pace, and the story will keep you guessing – the suspects are numerous! I thought I had it figured out about three-quarters of the way through, but I was wrong, a rarity for me with these sort of things! Those who enjoy backstage show biz stories, historic old-time burlesque, or just a flat-out good film will love LADY OF BURLESQUE. I know I did, and if you’re like me, you probably will, too.