Bump’N’Grind: LADY OF BURLESQUE (United Artists 1943)

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.

CLEANING OUT THE DVR Pt. 5: Fabulous 40s Sleuths

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It’s time again for me to make room on the DVR! This edition features five Fabulous 40’s films of mystery and suspense, with super sleuths like Dick Tracy and Sherlock Holmes in the mix for good measure. Here’s five capsule reviews of some crime flicks from the 1940s:

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WHISTLING IN THE DARK (MGM 1941, D: S. Sylvan Simon): The first of three movies starring comedian Red Skelton as Wally Benton, aka radio detective ‘The Fox’. Skelton is kidnapped by a phony spiritual cult led by Conrad Veidt to devise “the perfect murder”. Ann Rutherford and Virginia Grey play rivals for Red’s affections, while Eve Arden is her usual wisecracking self as Red’s manager. Some of the jokes and gags are pretty dated, but Red’s genial personality makes the whole thing tolerable. Fun Fact: Rags Ragland (Sylvester) was once the Burlesque comedy partner of Phil Silvers.

Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) Lionel Atwill (Professor James Moriarty)
Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) Lionel Atwill (Professor James Moriarty)

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (Universal 1942, D: Roy William Neill): Basil Rathbone IS Sherlock Holmes in this fourth entry in the series. All the gang from 221B Baker Street are along for the ride (Nigel Bruce, Dennis Hoey, Mary Gordon) as Holmes tries to foil a plot to steal a new bomb sight (for the war effort, don’t you know) by his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty. A secret code holds all the answers. That Grand Old Villain Lionel Atwill plays “The Napoleon of Crime”, and it’s terrific to watch screen vets Rathbone and Atwill engage in a battle of wits. In fact, it’s my favorite Universal Holmes movie because of the pairing of the two. Fun Fact #1: Rathbone and Atwill also costarred in 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Fun Fact #2: Kaaren Verne (Charlotte) was the second wife of another screen villain, Peter Lorre!

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TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE (RKO 1945, D: Anthony Mann): Ann Rutherford’s back as a female cab driver who helps an amnesia victim (Tom Conway) piece things together in this early effort from director Anthony Mann. Unlike Mann’s later films, the tone’s light and breezy here. There’s lots of plot twists to keep you guessing, and Conway and Rutherford have good onscreen chemistry. Cracked Rear Viewers will recognize supporting players Lester Matthews (The Raven), Jean Brooks (The Seventh Victim), and Jane Greer (Out of the Past). Hollywood’s favorite drunk Jack Norton does his schtick in a bar scene (where else?). Fun Fact: Actor Dick Lane (reporter Haley) later became a TV sports commentator in the 50’s, announcing pro wrestling and Roller Derby matches!

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DICK TRACY MEETS GRUESOME (RKO 1947, D: John Rawlins): Chester Gould’s stalwart comic-strip cop (personified by Ralph Byrd) goes up against gangster Gruesome, who uses a paralyzing gas to commit bank robberies. Boris Karloff is Gruesome (of course he is!), and adds his special brand of menace to the proceedings. (At one point, Dick’s aide Pat exclaims, “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear we were doing business with Boris Karloff!”) Gould’s trademark quirky character names like L.E. Thal and Dr. A. Tomic are all in good fun, and the Familiar Face Brigade includes Anne Gwynne, Milton Parsons, Skelton Knaggs, and Robert Clarke, among others. Fast moving and fun, especially for Karloff fans. Fun Fact: Boris played many gangsters early in his career, including a role in the 1932 Howard Hawks classic SCARFACE.

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THE THREAT (RKO 1949, D: Felix Feist): Convict Red Kluger (Charles McGraw) busts out of Folsom Prison and kidnaps the cop who sent him away (Michael O’Shea), the DA (Frank Conroy), and his former partner’s moll (Virginia Grey again). The police go on a manhunt to capture Kluger and save the others in this taut, suspenseful ‘B’ crime noir.  Quite brutal and violent for it time, with McGraw outstanding as the vicious killer on the loose. A very underrated and overlooked film that deserves some attention. Highly recommended! Fun Fact: Inspector Murphy is played by Robert Shayne, better known as Inspector Henderson on TV’s SUPERMAN.

Enjoy others in the series:

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