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.

Pre Code Confidential #20: SAFE IN HELL (Warner Brothers 1931)

“Wild Bill” Wellman  gave us some of the wildest movies of the Pre-Code Era: THE PUBLIC ENEMY, NIGHT NURSE, FRISCO JENNY, HEROES FOR SALE, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD. But for sheer, unadulterated sleaze, you can’t beat SAFE IN HELL, chock full of lust, murder, shady characters, and a marvelous performance by the virtually forgotten Dorothy Mackaill.

Scantily clad Gilda Karlson (Mackaill) is a New Orleans prostitute, and there’s no doubt about it right from the get-go! We see her lounging around as she takes a call from her madam (Cecil Cunningham) to go out on a job and show a john a good time. That john turns out to be Piet van Saal (Ralf Harolde), the man she was caught in flagrante delicto with by his wife, leading to her current sordid life. Piet tries to rekindle that old flame (for a price, of course), but Gilda turns him down flat (“You don’t think I’d drink with you, you son of a…”). When Piet gets too aggressive, Gilda whips a bottle of hootch at his head, knocking him cold,  and scrams just as his apartment catches fire. All this, and we’re only about ten minutes in!

The cops have a description of Gilda leaving the scene and, just as she’s about to take it on the lam, her seafaring beau Carl (Donald Woods) shows up at the door, newly promoted to officer and dying to get hitched. Gilda confesses all, including how she’s been paying the rent while he’s been away, and Carl almost walks out, but when they hear sirens wailing outside, he helps her escape. Carl smuggles her by crate to the Caribbean island of Tortuga, where there’s no extradition treaty. Gilda checks in under an assumed name, and the couple hold a DIY wedding ceremony in an abandoned church. Carl has to depart for the sea once again, leaving Gilda at the hotel amongst a bunch of leering thieves and cutthroats:

The boys: (l-r) Gustav von Seyffertitz, Victor Varconi, Ivan Simpson, Charles Middleton, John Wray (with Clarence Muse in the background)

Since she’s “the only white woman on the island”, these seedy horndogs all try to hit on Gilda, without success. Worse of all is Mr. Bruno (Morgan Wallace ), the island’s jailer and resident hangman, whose lust for Gilda knows no bounds. In fact, the only people kind to her are hotel proprietor Leonie (Nina Mae McKinney) and porter Newcastle (Clarence Muse ), both of whom are black – and may be the only decent people in the film besides love-struck Carl, which was pretty much unheard of in 1931! Carl’s letters to Gilda from sea are being diverted to Bruno, and Gilda, suffering from boredom and longing for Carl, finally exits her room to party with the criminals, drinking and smoking with abandon!

Having blown off some steam, while still remaining faithful to Carl, who should walk into the hotel but a very much alive Piet van Saal! Seems he escape a fiery fate and had his wife cash in on the insurance policy, only to abscond with the loot and head to Tortuga. Gilda’s now free to return to The Big Easy, and wires Carl to give him the good news. Bruno, not wanting her to leave, gives her a gun for protection, knowing full well carrying firearms is illegal. The hangman then goes to get a warrant for her arrest, but once again van Saal gets far too aggressive, attempting to rape Gilda, who shoots him dead (this time it’s permanent!). A trial is held, and it looks like Gilda will get off on self-defense, but Bruno insists she won’t get off on the gun charge, giving her six months in his prison farm, where she’ll do his bidding. Rather than letting Bruno get his slimy hands on her, Gilda bursts into court and states she shot van Saal in cold blood, and she’s convicted. Carl returns from sea, but it’s too late, as Gilda is led to the gallows.

Miss Mackaill is not only sexy as hell, but a fine, natural actress. She was a star in the silent era in such films as THE MAN WHO CAME BACK, THE MINE WITH THE IRON DOOR, CHICKIE, JOANNA, and THE DANCER OF PARIS. Sadly, many of her movies are considered lost today. She had a pleasant voice, good looks, and tons of acting talent, but after losing her contract with First National (which merged with Warners), she was relegated to smaller parts at large studios and bigger ones at the indies. Dorothy Mackaill retired from the screen in 1937, later moving to Hawaii, living at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel as their star in residence. Her last acting roles were a couple of bits on HAWAII FIVE-O before dying of liver failure in 1990.

SAFE IN HELL, with it’s steamy plotline and wicked characters, is a film that could only be made in the Pre-Code Era. Dorothy Mackaill’s performance is top shelf stuff, and Wellman doesn’t pull any punches. Like I always say, they didn’t call him “Wild Bill” for nothing!

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