Lady of Burlesque
Cast & Crew
William A. Wellman
J. Edward Bromberg
S. B. Foss, owner of the Old Opera House on Broadway in New York City, promotes his new recruit, burlesque dancer Dixie Daisy, hoping that she will draw a large audience. Dixie's performance draws cheers from the crowds and from comedian Biff Brannigan, who ardently admires Dixie even though she hates comics because of past experiences with them. When someone cuts the wire to the light backstage that signals the presence of the police, the performers are surprised by a raid, and pandemonium ensues. As Dixie flees through a coal chute, someone grabs her from behind and tries to strangle her, but her assailant escapes when a stagehand comes along. After Foss pays bail and releases his troupe from jail, he rallies them by giving them a share in the opera house stock. Everyone acknowledges, however, that it appears as if someone is trying to shut the show down, and Dixie is unable to identify her attacker. One night, ex-racketeer Louie Grindero, whose bar is next door to the theater, catches his girl friend, burlesque dancer Lolita La Verne, rehearsing lines for a new play with Russell Rogers, the "straight man" who is in love with Lolita, and Louie beats Lolita in a jealous rage. Their shouts and screams are heard onstage, and afterward Dixie finds Lolita dead in the bathroom with a G-string around her neck. Police inspector Harrigan gathers the performers and the crew together for questioning, and reveals that the G-string is missing. Everyone is a suspect: Louie, who is missing; Wong, a waiter from the Chinese restaurant across from the women's dressing room, who was hit on the head with a bottle thrown by Lolita because she believed he was watching her dress; Stachi, a stagehand who hates burlesque performers; Princess Nirvena, the former star of the opera house, who had an argument with Lolita; Dolly Baxter, another dancer who fought with Lolita over her relationship with Russell, who, it is now revealed, is Dolly's husband; and Dixie, who was the first person to find the body, and whose fingerprints are imprinted on sealing wax that was used to seal the door to the bathroom while the plumbing was being replaced. The coroner reports that Lolita had been poisoned and would have died several minutes later if someone had not strangled her. After the questioning, Biff reveals that he found Lolita's G-string in his pocket, and Dixie kisses Biff in appreciation for defending her to Harrigan. Biff is then arrested when a policeman sees him with the G-string. The next day, Dixie becomes angry when Foss lets Princess take her featured spot, but Foss explains that Princess is blackmailing him because they had an affair years earlier in Toledo, Ohio. Biff is released after Lolita's bankbook, which reflects a $10,000 withdrawal, and the picture frame from a photo of her mother are found by the police in Louie's car. When Biff and Dixie go onstage for a comedy skit, the Princess' dead body falls out of a prop. Louie suddenly appears and leads the police on a chase through the theater because he is terrified by the thought of returning to the penitentiary. Although Louie vows that he is innocent of the murders, he jumps from the flies to his death after he runs out of bullets in his gun. Harrigan questions everyone again and learns that the night Lolita was killed, Louie had come to the theater to store beer for a party, and may have gone into hiding in the prop room. After Foss publicly admits to his affair with Princess, stagehand Jake, who is devoted to Foss, and Dolly both admit that they followed Russell to Princess' apartment the night before her murder. Russell now confesses that before Lolita was killed, he overheard her conversation with Princess, in which she threatened to tell Foss's wife unless Princess paid her off. Princess gave her some money and offered her a drink, after which Russell heard Lolita gag and saw Princess leave the room. He speculates that someone else must have gone in and strangled Lolita, because when he got there, he found the G-string, but no money. Russell then met with Princess in her apartment and she paid him to keep quiet. Harrigan recommends that the show be closed for everyone's safety, but Dixie rallies the performers and, as stockholders with a stake in the success of the Opera House, they agree to go on as usual. Later, everyone leaves the theater to get dinner, and Dixie is left alone in the dressing room. Stachi emerges from behind a curtain, and while confessing to the murders, attempts to strangle her with her G-string. The police and Biff rush in from the rooftop to rescue Dixie, and Biff explains that he realized Stachi was the killer after seeing the photo of Lolita's mother, who was featured in an article of the Police Gazette and identified as "Stacciaro," which is Stachi's last name. Biff speculates that Stachi, a former opera singer who detests burlesque, lost his mind when he realized his own granddaughter, Lolita, was dancing, and first tried to kill Dixie during the raid. Biff now learns that Dixie and Gee Gee Graham, a fellow dancer, arranged for Dixie to be alone in order to snare the killer. Dixie had also pegged Stachi as the murderer because his hands reminded her of the hands that attempted to strangle her. With Stachi arrested, Biff proposes to Dixie, who, having gotten over her hangup about comics, accepts.
William A. Wellman
J. Edward Bromberg
James N. Doolittle
Joseph C. Gilpin
Robert De Grasse
James E. Newcom
Joseph E. Platt
Lady of Burlesque
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
Lady of Burlesque
What's the matter with comics?- Biff
I went into show business when I was seven years old. Two days later the first comic I ever met stole my piggy bank in a railroad station in Portland. When I was 11 the comics were looking at my ankles. When I was 14 they were...just looking. When I was 20 I'd been stuck with enough lunch checks to pay for a three-story house. Naw, they're shiftless, dame-chasing, ambitionless...- Dixie
A studio plot synopsis indicates that the film originally contained the following opening scene: Burlesque dancers "Dixie Daisy" and "Gee Gee Graham" perform in Columbus, Ohio. While eating breakfast in a cafeteria one morning, they read the tea leaves in the bottom of their cups, and see a trip and violent death predicted for their future. Just then, Dixie receives a telegram from burlesque impresario "S. B. Foss" inviting her to perform at his theater in New York. Dixie makes her debut a week later. As this scene was not included in the viewed print, and is not referred to in reviews, it May have been cut prior to the film's press preview. The working title of this film was G-String Murders. Information in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library indicates that the PCA had concerns about many elements of the film. The PCA recommended the following changes: "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...We believe the [burlesque skit] about the 'Pickle Persuader' is definitely offensive, and suggest that you consider replacing it with something else." The "Pickle Persuader" skit remains in the film. The PCA also influenced producer Hunt Stromberg to change the title from G-String Murders after a state censor board lodged a written protest.
According to a October 15, 1941 news item in Hollywood Reporter, producer David O. Selznick had taken out an option on Gypsy Rose Lee's novel for $1,000 against a $25,000 purchase price and that he was to test Lee for the starring role in the film. Other Hollywood Reporter news items indicate that Selznick was planning to loan producer John Houseman to United Artists for the production, that the book option was later picked up by United Artists for the $25,000 asking price, and that Joseph Cotten was considered for a lead role in the film. Lady of Burlesque marked Michael O'Shea's feature film debut and Hunt Stromberg's first independent production. Stromberg was previously a prominent producer at M-G-M. Famous burlesque dancer Lee, who was born Rose Louise Hovick, made her feature film debut in Twentieth Century-Fox's 1937 film You Can't Have Everything, using the name Louise Hovick (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.5237). Lady of Burlesque was the first film on which she was credited onscreen by her more familiar stage name, Gypsy Rose Lee. Arthur Lange was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music (Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture) for this film.