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There's a backstage strangler on the loose at S. B. Foss's Old Opera House - a popular burlesque venue - and the victims are strippers. Dixie Daisy (Barbara Stanwyck), the star attraction, is not about to let the cowardly killer continue decimating her sisters-in-tassels and launches her own investigation into the matter with the help of the show's wise-cracking comic, Biff Brannigan (Michael O'Shea). Despite unhelpful interference from the police, Dixie and Biff narrow down the list of suspects while devising a trap for the murderer.
Based on The G-String Murders, a popular pulp novel by famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, Lady of Burlesque (1943) was an unexpectedly playful collaboration between director William Wellman and Barbara Stanwyck, who had worked together numerous times before on more serious material like the pre-Code dramas Night Nurse (1931) and The Purchase Price (1932). At this stage of her career, Stanwyck certainly had no reason to appear in a B-movie like Lady of Burlesque other than for her own amusement. After all, she had just completed one of her best comedies, Ball of Fire (1941), for Howard Hawks, and would soon star as the quintessential femme fatale in Double Indemnity (1944) for Billy Wilder. She was also the most financially successful female star in Hollywood in 1943, ahead of Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman. As for Wellman, he made The Ox-Bow Incident, a powerful indictment of vigilante justice and one of his most highly regarded films, the same year he directed Lady of Burlesque, so obviously the latter movie was a lark for both star and director.
As expected, Lady of Burlesque is no masterpiece but its oddball charm is considerable and Wellman and Stanwyck have great fun playing with the conventions of the backstage murder mystery while teasing the audience with suggestive bump and grind numbers. And when was the last time you saw a movie in which Ms. Stanwyck performed cartwheels, splits and dance numbers in high heels while belting out bawdy songs? In your dreams. For that reason alone, Lady of Burlesque deserves cult status and one of the film's high points is Stanwyck's rendition of "Take It Off the E-String, Play It on the G-String." Iris Adrian, in the role of Gee Gee Graham, also earns her share of wolf-whistles and later revealed that for one production number, "right at the big moment, I dropped my spangles. And it was embarrassing, believe me. But effective." (quote from William A. Wellman by Frank Thompson, Scarecrow Press).
Due to the scanty costumes and the tawdry subject matter of Lady of Burlesque, the film attracted the attention of the Hays office and Wellman was asked to refrain from showing actual striptease numbers, except through the reaction shots of audience members and other subtler forms of suggestion. Despite this, Lady of Burlesque still conveys an authentically seedy atmosphere which is completely appropriate for a movie set in the world of burlesque. And Wellman and Stanwyck had the last laugh when the film received a prestigious Oscar nomination for Best Music Score by Arthur Lange ("So This is You" by Sammy Cahn and Harry Akst is one of the featured songs).
Producer: Hunt Stromberg
Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: James Gunn, based on a novel by Gypsy Rose Lee
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun
Cinematography: Robert De Grasse
Editing: James Newcom
Music: Arthur Lange
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Dixie Daisy), Michael O'Shea (Biff Brannigan), J. Edward Bromberg (S.B. Foss), Iris Adrian (Gee Gee Graham).
by Jeff Stafford