When one thinks about sophisticated entertainment for a high class clientele, the burlesque review is typically not paramount among the usual showbiz suspects. Opera, ballet and other fancy schmancy avenues de art are far more common for the in crowd than boobs, butts and lots of bawdy belly laughs. Yet, believe it or not, there was a time when swells took their special gals to the local risqué revue for a little cultured carnality. Like vaudeville with far more vagina, these sensual showcases of curves, crooners and comics were variety in name only. The tassels may change, and the rack relying on them may be a little more quirky and a lot less perky, but if you were lucky enough to see one of the old schools strip tease showcases, you've more or less witnesses the majority of their wares.
As part of its November release schedule, Something Weird Video returns to an exploitation genre that they've successfully explored in the past. Original DVD releases from the company included Teasarama and Varietease - noteworthy for featuring that mighty Mistress of Mammaries, Betty Page. In 2004, the company created the two disc special edition presentation The Best of Burlesque. Offering up two amazingly mindbending films (A Virgin in Hollywood and Too Hot to Handle) and nearly 100 shorts, trailers, stag loops, and publicity pics, purchasers were in pasty heaven. Now the grindhouse champions deliver another stellar set. Hollywood Burlesque/ Peek-a-Boo are nothing more than filmed stage shows, down to the chunky chorus girls, atonal song styling, overbroad comic bits and females of fluctuating fetchingness. Yet the result is another winner, a title that gives us a goofy glimpse into a heretofore unknown era of urbane unctuousness.
The first thing that will shock you about Hollywood Burlesque is just how little skin there really is. Most acts of the era used more tease than sleaze in getting their pulchritudinous point across. The ladies wore elaborate costumes with several layers of undergarments. Bras went from ornate to slight to see-through on strings, while panties placed jeweled demarcations in strategic sexually explicit places. When they disrobed, a single piece of clothing would come cascading onto the floor, another always in place to prevent any perverted previews. By the time the Dixieland band braggadocio finally wrapped up and it was time for the big reveal, sequined pasties provided perfect nipple and areola aversion (bottoms ALWAYS stayed on - no bush whacking allowed in them days). If you were lucky, the gal would head off stage to healthy applause, only to return a few seconds later, sans spots, to give the gents a split second glance at her chuffed chest huggers. With babes like Joy Damon ("The Happy Little Lassie with the Classy Chassis"), Jenne ("The Modern Tigress", as opposed to the ancient one) and stately, statuesque beauty Hilary Dawn (who looks like a lost star from the white supremacist version of the WNBA), Hollywood Burlesque's teat tricks are a decidedly mixed blessing.
Every single strip scene in this film plays out in a strict, staid fashion. Each Miss arrives in various states of dress (everything from smooth and silky to bulky and awkward) and proceeds to prove that, back in the middle part of the 20th century, rhythm and grace were optional elements for an erotic dancer. Indeed, most of the ladies usually just lunged back and forth, using oversized high heels as pedestals from which they planted, and proceeded to vibrate their currency creator. Some attempt the infamous "tassel act" by which each breast is adorned with a weighted ornament. A careful gyrating of the torso produced the middle-aged man's idea of a preferable pinwheel. In between the bodices semi-stunning (this is pre-plastic surgery and nudity tolerability, so you kind of have to take what you can get, right?) you got badly choreographed dance numbers, chorus girls who look like drag queen midgets on strike, balladeers who couldn't carry a tune is two buckets and comedians who redefined the notion of shtick - basically by removing a couple of letters and creating an apropos fecal anagram.
Still, there is some kind of antiqued fun to be had here, especially if one does a sort of amorous astral projection and imagines what it would have been like to be seated in the audience, watching it all play out in real time right before your rummy little eyes. If you do, you'll be surprised at how saucy some of the double entendres are and how far out many of the farcical elements go in attempting to achieve lewd laughability. You'll ache in doubled-over delirium as singers stand like unemotional statues, trying to deliver a tantalizing torch with all the sentimental grace of a slab of granite. You'll weep with wanton joy as creaky cocktail waitresses and brutish barmaids become the "most ravishing beauties in the heavens". And you'll wonder why your grandparents ever pretended that this was anything other than a thinly veiled excuse to see the forbidden fruit of flabby female flesh. Hokey, jokey and staged with proscenium perfection, movies like Hollywood Burlesque are like time capsules to the tawdry, reminding us how far society has swayed - for both good and bad - since the days when gals were nude, but not rude.
The second half of the double feature is even more telling. Entitled Peek-a-Boo, and advertised as presenting "Venus: The Body Beautiful" this is another floorshow as collective snapshot, a chance at seeing how the less "elite" members of the gentlemen's club cabal actually formulated their fun. One of the things you learn when watching these recorded stage acts is that there is a definite link between the level of enjoyment and the proficiency and professionalism of the performers. Put another way, the crappier the cavalcade of comeliness, the more fun there is to be had. It may sound crass or crude, but there is something inherently hilarious about mocking these physically suspect matrons. Watching them scuttle down in to their skivvies for the attempted arousal of their slobbering spectators is akin to a kind of sexual slapstick. We are both mortified and mesmerized by the possibility of seeing the feminine equivalent of J. Edgar Hoover parading around in nipple hats and a snatch mask. The greater the amount of skin, the larger the stupefying grin.
Venus and the rest of her vacant vixens are the true highlight of Peek-a-Boo. Each one is given a name that both tantalizes and terrifies. Suzette is "The French Doll" though once we get a good look at her, the more appropriate label "World's First Female Serial Killer" comes to mind. Sherry Winters (who actually could be mistake for a post-pig out Shelly Winters) is "The Yum-Yum Girl". After her awkward act, you'll wonder why appetites are supposedly satiated, not outright suppressed. The aforementioned De Milo mimic is ridiculously adversative to her nomenclature. Instead of being a shapely, almost stocky representation of natural beauty, our Venny is a walking stick with wayward lumps and bumps. Far from being the promoted "World's Most Exciting Body" our headline act is the very definition of erotic ennui. Indeed, unlike past offerings from Something Weird where our burlesque has samples of some sassy, sexy slags, Peek-a-Boo is like striptease version of Saltpeter. Yet this allows the film to transcend its T&A trappings and actually become a compendium of deliciously depressing variety acts.
And what a misguided group they are. The comics here take baggy pants pantomime to new, lower levels of laugh whoredom. They'll do anything, sans actually being funny, to get a giggle. The singers are so horrid they are kept off stage until a massive production number (featuring a dancing duo dressed up like a sailor and a hooker...hmmm) mandates more than just a minor handful of onstage personnel. The Peek-a-Boo Lovelies are a geek - not Greek - chorus and the direction is all long shot/side angle medium view variables. Still, one stares in blissful bewilderment at the level of risqué ridiculousness involved in these productions - the attempted glamour, the false sense of ostentatious and haughty hoi polloi. Try as they might, they can't get past the basic sleazoid certainty that the purpose of this pandering was to make naked girls socially - and commercially - acceptable. Just like post-millennial porn, which dresses up hardcore him-on-her action with lots of digital decoupage and plastic production value, the burlesque show was star spangled pizzazz in the service of the pre-Playboy pin-up. That we have a record of them at all is like some manner of metaphysical message in a bottle. It's a reminder of a time when skin wasn't completely sinful - just scandalously silly.
As usual, Something Weird serves up the best monochrome movies they can find, through oddly enough, both films here look more 'gray and gray' than black and white. Also, what worked on an oversized screen in a 3000 seat auditorium has a hard time translating to the small screen parameters of today's home theater. The 1.33:1 image contains shots of scenarios so far away from the lens that the performers look like pencils in petticoats. On the sound side there is nothing technically tantalizing about 40s/50s mono, with its tinny, flat features.
Almost as if to make up for the lack of audio and visual splendor, SWV piles on the Burley-Q bonus features, taking a standard two hour disc (each film here is about an hour, a perfect preservation of burlesque's "five shows a night" mentality) and bumping it by another 90 amazing minutes. We are treated to a series of sensational striptease trailers, including the Lili St. Cyr showstopper Her Wedding Night, The A-B-C's of Love, Kiss Me Baby and the oddly titled Ding Dong. Each one is a collection of animated ad copy so outrageously over the top and campy (you'll learn a dozen or so new adjectives for describing the female form here) that you have to wonder if anyone EVER took these commercial come-ons seriously.
Even better, the DVD provides SIX bump and grinding short subjects, with names as nominally naughty as Broadway Burlesque, Dancing Dolls of Burlesque (who don't quite cut the rugs you think they will), Fancy Femmes, Girlesk Show, Key-Hole Varieties (sadly, not a single lock look is offered) and Ready for a Take-Off. Again, the diversity of dame disrobing is startling. Some of our ladies look like they've spent hours in meticulous primping and preening for their partial to fully topless performances. Others look like the trailer trashy wives of long distance truckers, gals given a sawbuck, a shot of bourbon, and a moth eaten bathrobe and told to strut and fret their fetlocks before the Bolex. Anyone wondering where actresses in today's adult industry get their hopelessly hideous names need only look to 'Genii Young', 'Dimples Morgan', 'Sunny Ray', 'Tandalaye' and 'Mitzi Doerré' for pre-XXX examples of moniker mishandling. Along with a wealth of poster art and publicity photos in the two mammoth galleries, this is another stellar compendium of a long lost performance art.
Frankly, no matter how uncomely these lasses may seem, watching these movies, and shorts shows just how tough and tenacious these babes really were. The world of amusement was far more localized in their time. No national stage existed for them to perform on, so reputations needed making the hard way - by hitting the road and playing the circuit over and over. Fame came at the price of several shows a night, drunken, disrespectful audiences and a less-than-flattering personal reputation. These women were ripe for ogling and objectifying, and for all their grace and showmanship, for all the fashions and features they used to highlight their femininity, the public still saw them as nothing more than scandals. If people back then had a crystal ball capable of seeing the modern skanky pole jockeys, they may have thought twice about branding these beauties as wanton women. But just like with most things in our society, when it comes to sex, the puritan beats the prurient every time. Though it may not be jammed packed with wall-to-wall attractiveness, Hollywood Burlesque/ Peek-a-Boo is one vital lesson in Va-Va-Va-Voom! that's a must-see memento of titillating times past.
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