Lady of Burlesque (1943)
In 1943, Barbara Stanwyck donned spangles and lace to star as Dixie Daisy, the titular “lady of burlesque.” This mildly goofy murder mystery seems an odd choice for the star, who by this point had been nominated for two Best Actress Oscars, (Stella Dallas (1937) and Ball of Fire (1941)), and was the highest paid woman in Hollywood.
So why did Stanwyck make this relatively low-budget film without other big name stars? TCM suggests it was just for fun, which does make sense. Maybe she’d enjoyed playing the wisecracking dancer from Ball of Fire and wanted to dip back into that world.
Or maybe she wanted a lighter film after making two dramas in a row (The Great Man’s Lady and The Gay Sisters) in 1942. She also may have wanted to work with Oscar-winning director William Wellman again. He helmed dozens of great films, including Wings (1927), A Star is Born (1937), Nothing Sacred (1937), and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). Lady of Burlesque was Wellman and Stanwyck’s fifth and final film together after Night Nurse (1931), So Big! (1932), The Purchase Price (1932), and The Great Man’s Lady (1942), so she certainly knew what he was like as a director.
Whatever the reason, we’re lucky Stanwyck decided to play Dixie! She turns what could have been a forgettable film into something special.
Lady of Burlesque is based on the 1941 novel The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee, of Gypsy (1962) fame. Lee was a very well-known burlesque performer who brought humor and sophistication into her act. Burlesque was usually more of a “bump and grind” show, so Lee’s “intellectual” version stood out and she became a huge star.
Lee parlayed her success into five movies in the late 1930s, though she never made it big in Hollywood. But she did perform a version of her famous act in 1943’s Stage Door Canteen, which you can watch below.
Fun fact: after her stint in Hollywood, Lee continued working on the stage in burlesque and on Broadway, wrote two murder mysteries, and published a memoir in 1957. The latter was adapted into a stage musical and then the 1962 film starring Natalie Wood as Gypsy and Rosalind Russell as her formidable stage mom.
Lee’s first novel, The G-String Murders, was published in 1941 and almost immediately made a splash in Hollywood. An item in Hollywood Reporter claimed that David O. Selznick optioned the rights and planned to test Lee for the role of Dixie.
But eventually the independent production company United Artists bought the novel and producer Hunt Stromberg took the helm. This was his first independent movie after years at MGM.
Lady of Burlesque is a mostly faithful adaptation of the book, though it was sanitized thanks to the Production Code. For example, the working title was “G-String Murders,” but the Production Code Administration requested a change when a state censor board objected. Later, Stromberg had to fight to keep G-strings in the movie at all, even though they are very important to the plot.
Still, Lady of Burlesque is one of the seedier, less glamorized depictions of backstage life from this era, which most of the reviews of the movie recognized and praised. And it’s pretty great to watch Stanwyck strut her stuff and have a wonderful time doing it.
To the film! We open on a shot of New York City:
Then we arrive at the Old Opera House, which now operates as a burlesque theater. We only leave the theater once for a quick trip to a restaurant–otherwise the whole movie takes place in the Opera House.
But this wasn’t how the film originally opened. According to AFI, the movie started with Dixie Daisy (Barbara Stanwyck) and her friend Gee Gee (Iris Adrian) in Columbus, Ohio on the burlesque circuit. The pair were supposed to drink tea and then read the tea leaves in their cups to discover a horrifying prediction: a journey and violent death. Then Dixie would receive a telegram from Foss inviting them to the Old Opera House in New York. But the scene was eventually cut. And I understand why. Not necessary.
Instead, we open at the Old Opera House where Dixie Daisy, the “darling of burlesque,” leads the group of striptease artists and comics delighting the raucous crowds. The first number features a parade of lovely ladies serenaded by a handsome singer. It’s similar to many other “Beautiful Girls” numbers (see Busby Berkeley’s work, Singin’ in the Rain, Easter Parade, Ziegfeld Girl, Cover Girl, etc.), but this one has a wry sense of humor.
Instead of gorgeous girls strutting in perfect time as a man sings his earnest adoration, this number adds a dose of reality. The singer is bored and barely paying attention, the girls are a little rough for wear and look as though they’d rather be anywhere else. No one is trying particularly hard–after all, this is probably the third or fourth time they’ve performed that night. And unlike in so many other backstage musicals, there are no big time producers in the audience waiting to discover the next star, or dreamy lovers yearning for a glimpse of their beloved. It’s just drunk guys hooting and whistling. So the performers check their cuticles, blow their hair out of their faces, and barely keep up with the choreography. There is nothing romantic about this job.
The difference between this scene and the perfection of the other “girls on parade” musical numbers is hilarious. Well done, Lady of Burlesque!
Eventually, Dixie Daisy makes her appearance through a paper heart (which seems like an inefficient and expensive entrance for multiple shows a day). Like the real Gypsy Rose Lee, Dixie adds humor and a wry smile to her striptease, and the crowds love it. She sings the humorous ditty, “Take It Off the E-String, Play It on the G-String” as she grins and dances.
Fun fact: although Stanwyck is probably most famous today for her comedic performances in The Lady Eve (1941) or Ball of Fire (1942), as well as her dramatic roles in Double Indemnity (1944) or Stella Dallas (1937), she started her career as a dancer. (She could do anything!) So this role is a homecoming of sorts.
Teenaged Ruby Stevens, as Stanwyck was known until she appeared in a Broadway play in 1926, performed as a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies in the early ’20s and danced at other nightclubs and speakeasies until she made the leap to acting. So the universe of this movie may have seemed awfully familiar to her, though she was worlds away from it by this point in her career. As I mentioned, she’d already been nominated for two Best Actress Oscars and was the highest paid woman in Hollywood.
Anyway, during Dixie’s striptease, all she removes is her fur muff, to reveal a smaller muff, and then an even smaller third muff…this movie couldn’t show anything very scandalous thanks to the Production Code. So it’s all suggestion and audience reaction.
A comic named Biff Brannigan (Michael O’Shea) watches Dixie from backstage, and we learn that he has a crush on her. But she doesn’t want anything to do with him. She’s fallen for comics too many times and knows they aren’t trustworthy. But he won’t take no for an answer. So now we have our romantic subplot.
Fun fact: this was O’Shea’s feature film debut. You may recognize him from It’s a Pleasure (1945) with Sonja Henie. He never quite made it as a leading man, but had several supporting roles and a successful career on the stage and television.
Costume appreciation break: Edith Head designed Stanwyck’s costumes (Natalie Visart designed for the rest of the cast), and these spangly, animal-themed burlesque outfits must have been a fun project for the pair. Usually Head designed sophisticated suits and evening gowns, not sheer skirts and crop tops with perfectly placed butterflies! Head first designed for the star on The Lady Eve (1941), and it was such a positive experience that Stanwyck went on to request Head, who was Paramount’s in-house designer, for the rest of her movies. You can read more about their relationship and how Head solved Stanwyck’s “figure problems” in my post on The Lady Eve.
Anyway, Dixie brushes off Biff as she leaves the stage, and on her way to the dressing room a stage hand says, “Makes me want to leave the wife, Dixie.” She replies, “Oh, don’t do that, Hank! Just send her around for a couple of lessons.” Amazing!
She arrives in the crowded dressing room where–surprise, surprise–not every woman is best friends. It’s another dose of reality. In many backstage movies, there might be one or two mean girls but the rest are sweet, supportive, and very talented performers with hearts of gold just waiting for their big break. But this movie features a group of jaded, tough women who have mostly despaired of ever finding stardom as they slog through long hours in seedy theaters. They swig gin as they trade insults and make cracks about the show before reluctantly heading to the stage to do their numbers. They don’t have a lot of energy to create unshakable bonds of friendship.
Dixie is the exception: she gets along with almost everyone except Lolita LaVerne (Victoria Faust), the woman in the dark two-piece. But everyone hates Lolita. So often Dixie has to step in to stop arguments or physical altercations.
Anyway, that evening, the police raid the theater (for flouting decency laws, we assume), a not uncommon occurrence in burlesque. But something is amiss because there is a system of warning lights in place throughout the theater to give performers a heads up, but the wires were cut. So the police are able to round up nearly the entire cast and take them to jail.
S.B. Foss, the show’s producer, bails everyone out within an hour, but the group is concerned about who disabled the warning lights. Is someone trying to close the show?
But Dixie has a more pressing concern. While she hid from the police in the basement, someone tried to strangle her. The would-be-murderer almost succeeded but was disturbed by a police officer searching the area. Only Biff believes Dixie–the others just laugh it off.
As Dixie and Biff talk over beer, she tells him her real name is Deborah Hoople, and she still has dreams of breaking out of burlesque and into the legitimate, “respectable” stage. There’s the trope! You can watch the scene here.
The next day, the show goes on as usual. The ladies get a happy surprise when they get a new sink to replace their broken one (again, an unusual dose of reality.) Recognize the stage hand who brought the sink? It’s Lou Lubin, a character actor who appeared in a bunch of movies, including Shadow of the Thin Man (1941).
The surprises keep coming when the Princess Nirvena (Stephanie Bachelor) shows up. She is furious she isn’t the headliner, but rather than fight with Dixie she gets into it with Lolita, who claims to have worked with the Princess in Toledo. The Princess vehemently denies this and also says she’s never met Lolita. Curious.
But not as curious as her striped gloves! They make her fingers look ridiculously long.
Later, Dixie, Biff, and another comic named Mandy (Pinky Lee) do their courtroom number. Stanwyck goes wild with cartwheels, splits, and other acrobatic choreography. It’s fun to watch–it starts at about 38 minutes in at The Film Detective’s version.
Fun fact: Pinky Lee was an actual burlesque comic who also appeared frequently on the radio and TV in the 1940s and ’50s. His catchphrase, “Oooh, you make me so mad!” comes up several times in this movie.
During Dixie’s performance, Lolita’s no-good boyfriend shows up and they get in a fight. He punches her in the face (the camera cuts away just before the blow lands, but we hear her scream), and soon the entire backstage is in uproar.
Eventually, things calm down and all the ladies except for Dixie head onstage for a big production number. Dixie opens the bathroom door in the dressing room and finds Lolita strangled with her own G-string. Yikes.
The police arrive and interrogate the cast. Somehow, the G-string went missing, but we see Biff pull it out of his pocket and then nonchalantly throw it out the window. Oh, dear.
Fun fact: as I mentioned, the Production Code Administration struggled with the whole G-string thing, which isn’t a surprise. In a letter to Stromberg, the PCA wrote: “Specifically, we are concerned about the prominent use of the object known as the ‘G-String’ as a murder weapon. It is our impression that the use of this extremely intimate female garment will be considered offensive…” But they somehow kept it in the movie, though not in the title!
Everyone assumes that Lolita’s boyfriend killed her, but he skedaddled and no one knows where he went. So the police keep asking questions, though I’m not sure a mass interrogation is the best way to get the truth. Some secrets do come out, though: the singer from the first number and one of the burlesque performers are married, but they hid their relationship from Mr. Foss because he doesn’t hire married couples. But apparently the husband was also having an affair with Lolita. Is that why her boyfriend was so angry? Or does that give the wife motive to kill her?
We also learn that Lolita was poisoned before she was strangled. If the strangler had waited just a few minutes, Lolita would have died from the poison. So why the overkill? Or were there two murderers and the second one didn’t know she had just been poisoned?
Oh, and there are a few stage hands working at the theater who date from the days when the Old Opera House actually had opera, and they seem to hate the low-class art form “polluting” the theater. Maybe one of them killed Lolita in order to close the show? Or was it the Princess? She seemed to hate Lolita. And don’t forget the air vents running through the theater that enable certain people to eavesdrop on certain other people. Or something. Lots of motives, lots of suspects.
Eventually, the police find out that Biff had the G-string, so they arrest him even though he claims he was framed. But they release him.
The next night, Dixie does some investigating of her own, and Foss admits that he and the Princess had an affair back in Toledo. Lolita knew and was blackmailing the Princess. At the same time, the Princess was blackmailing Foss to bankroll a new show for her on the legitimate stage. Motive, anyone? This movie is like a Thin Man film–everyone is a suspect because everyone has a motive!
The show must go on even as murder, affairs, and blackmail swirl around the theater! But as Dixie gets ready for an Egyptian-themed number with Biff, she makes another horrible discovery: the Princess strangled with her own G-string and stuffed into a prop.
The police arrive just as Lolita’s boyfriend shows up at the Opera House. He leads them on a very dramatic chase through the dark theater before jumping to his death. A lot happens in this movie.
So did he kill Lolita? Well, the police detective gathers everyone together once again and explains that the Princess poisoned Lolita to end the blackmail. The singer heard it all through one of those handy air ducts, and he finally told the police. But who strangled Lolita? And who killed the Princess?
The murder of the Princess, plus Lolita’s boyfriend’s death, convinces Foss that he needs to close the show. I guess three deaths in two days is his limit.
But Dixie gives a rousing speech to the cast about how the murderer clearly wants the show to close, and she doesn’t want to oblige him. She’s willing to keep going, and she asks her fellow performers to join her. Stupidly, they agree.
Everyone heads to the dressing rooms to change out of their costumes. One by one, the women leave until it’s just Dixie and Gee Gee. That’s bad enough, but then Gee Gee steps outside to buy cigarettes and leaves Dixie alone. NO! Don’t be stupid!
As soon as Gee Gee leaves, Stacchi (Frank Conroy), one of the creepy, old stage hands from the opera days jumps out from behind a curtain and locks the door. He was inside the dressing room the whole time! He comes at Dixie with a G-string (it would be funny if it wasn’t scary), and she is so petrified she can’t even scream.
Stacchi starts to strangle her, but fortunately Biff and the police jump in through the windows and save the day.
It turns out that Dixie wasn’t being a total idiot–she had a hunch that Stacchi was the murderer and she and Gee Gee planned to draw him out by leaving Dixie alone in the dressing room. They didn’t know he was already in the room!
Finally, his motive comes tumbling out: Stacchi so loved the Old Opera House that he couldn’t stand to see it sink to burlesque. His anger turned to murderous rage when he realized Lolita was his granddaughter (?). The fact that his own progeny was participating in burlesque in his hallowed theater sent him over the edge, and he strangled her after the Princess poisoned her. Then he killed the Princess when Lolita’s murder wasn’t enough to close the show.
Fortunately, Dixie was on the case! In less happy news, she and Biff decide to get married. Why, Dixie? Don’t fall for another handsome comic! Plus, Biff is extremely obnoxious. But what can you do? Gee Gee seems to feel the way I do about it.
This movie was in production from December 1942 to the end of January. It premiered just a few months later in May 1943 to fairly good reviews, and an Oscar nomination for Best Score for Arthur Lange. He lost to Alfred Newman for The Song of Bernadette.
Film Daily forecasted excellent box office for the movie, writing that
It offers vast exploitation opportunities, what with the tremendous publicity that has been garnered by the book, the glamor attached to the authoress’ name, the drawing power of the Barbara Stanwyck name and the fascination of the picture’s setting–a burlesque house once the scene of grand opera, plus the Stromberg name.
The review continued: A “first rate cast” combined with the burlesque atmosphere that “lacks the phony quality so common to films dealing with the theater and life backstage,” makes Lady of Burlesque “destined to make a strong bid for box office recognition.”
Philip K. Scheuer at the Los Angeles Times also noted the backstage feel of the movie. Thanks to a “tongue-in-cheek script” and “slyly derisive direction,” the movie simulates the “odorous backstage atmosphere of the old ‘burleycue wheel’ without actually showing anything objectionable, at least that you can put your finger on.” He determined that although it is “Too cold, perhaps, to be really nostalgic, the film does recapture something of an era that was shoddy and cheap, yet an integral part of an America that was just growing up. As such, it is unique.” Though “not a very good picture.”
Photoplay‘s review was much less flattering. The reviewer wrote: “There’s an air of vulgarity about the film that is bound to offend some and bore others. Who cares about trampish, vixenish, blackmailing, husband-stealing femmes who give their all via a burlesque stage?” Yikes. The magazine did have mildly positive things to say about the leading lady, noting that Stanwyck is “the one outstanding and redeeming feature of the picture, but somehow we wished she hadn’t done it.”
But Variety‘s review was more positive. The trade paper noted that “gallant trouping by Barbara Stanwyck, colorful background provided by Stromberg, and speedy direction by William Wellman, carry picture through for good entertainment for general audiences.” Stanwyck “turns in a solid performance…and does much to maintain interest in the proceedings,” and O’Shea “displays plenty of personality and ability to keep him around Hollywood for a long time.” Right on Stanwyck, a little less so on O’Shea. But overall, I agree with Variety!
Here’s the trailer–enjoy! For more, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook. You can buy this movie here, or watch it online at the Film Detective. As always, thanks for reading!