Lady of Burlesque (1943)

Genres - Comedy, Mystery  |   Sub-Genres - Showbiz Comedy, Whodunit  |   Release Date - May 1, 1943 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 91 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Bruce Eder

Gypsy Rose Lee, who brought a veneer of erudition to the image of the striptease artist, published a best-selling mystery novel (ghostwritten by Craig Rice) in the early '40s called The G-String Murders. Former MGM producer Hunt Stromberg purchased the rights, and, with a tight screen adaptation by author James Gunn and with director William Wellman at the helm, used this film adaptation to make his debut as an independent producer. Wellman does a superb job of melding the story's mix of backstage theater ambience, mystery, musical, comedy, and romance, some of which is reminiscent in certain ways of the Thin Man movies that Stromberg oversaw at MGM, although Lady of Burlesque is grittier than those class-conscious comedy-mysteries in just about every way possible. Barbara Stanwyck and Michael O'Shea are the focal point of the story, a seemingly mismatched romantic couple who spend as much time bickering as they do solving the three crimes at hand, which start to come up surprisingly late, more than 40 minutes into the story. Released in April of 1943, but very deliberately set in the late '30s, before Mayor LaGuardia closed the burlesque houses in New York, the film treads a fine and delicate line, weaving a fascinating tale of overlapping jealousies and lusts leading to murder amid the surprisingly earthy and realistically detailed background of burlesque as it was (though this could, with fewer scantilly clad young actresses decorating most of its scenes, have been just as realistic a depiction of any low-rent theatrical setting). The characters feel as real as their environment, with Stanwyck convincingly portraying a flawed but plucky heroine (with an articulation clearly modeled on author Lee's image). O'Shea, her egocentric yet self-mocking would-be lover, and the supporting players -- from Iris Adrian's brassy portrayal of Stanwyck's gal pal and Pinky Lee's eccentric comic antics down to the actors portraying the stage hands and hangers-on -- are perfect in their parts. Viewers should also pay special attention to J. Edward Bromberg, as the kindly owner of the burlesque house, in a quiet portrayal that adds some depth to the breezy proceedings. Not all of it hangs together perfectly, as the film slows down a bit from the frantic, Howard Hawks-like pacing of its first 50 minutes, once the first murder is discovered. The mix of humor and police procedural elements gets pushed about as far as the script and the actors could carry it, with Charles Dingle's gruff, crafty police inspector playing straight man to O'Shea and Pinky Lee. But those bits of theatrical business aside, which almost break the spell, there are also all kinds of fascinating details to take in, sandwiched in the overlapping dialogue and the breakneck pacing, such as the sympathy that Stanwyck's character expresses for the Chinese kitchen workers next door (with a wartime reference that should have been anachronism but wasn't -- China was fighting Japan in 1938) and the references to Prohibition and the bootleg liquor racket as fairly recently ended activities. As much as any movie ever made as pure entertainment, which this is, Lady of Burlesque is also a tour through time and a look at a past that was already disappearing as it was being made -- and it's also got a great score and a hot number ("Take It Off the E-String") at the center of its music.