She is, perhaps, the most emblematic individual in all of exploitation. Consistently cited as the Queen of the pin-ups, her dark, dreamy vamp-like vision is a favored fantasy for grindhouse fans worldwide. Carefully walking the gratuitous gap between softcore and the harder stuff, doing some of the most dull and daring photo shoots ever, her black-haired beauty portrayed the perfect combination of sleazy and sainthood, innocence and sin-vitation. Amazingly enough, she managed to do all this without an extensive feature film canon to support her. As a matter of fact, she only officially appeared in three forgotten quasi classics - Striporama (1953), Varietease (1954) and Teaserama (1955). Yet it is the hundreds of snapshots and dozens of stag and peep reels that made Miss Bettie Page an icon to millions. Still alive today, yet highly reclusive, this '50s and '60s outsider celebrity represents the repression of desire meshed with the delight of discovery that would come to define the sexual revolution - and the simultaneous exploitation explosion.
Hot on the heels of a bawdy biopic hitting mainstream theaters this Spring, Something Weird Video has dragged out two of its original DVD releases and reconfigured them onto a single disc offering. Entitled Bettie Page in Varietease and Teaserama, these relics from the days when Burly-Q films were all the rage offers Page as part of, not the solo star in, an otherwise standard pair of strip show features. Since many of the more miserly raconteurs knew that taking their basic bump and grind attraction across the country was financially prohibitive, they made movies of their formulaic productions and sold them to theaters as the naughty next best thing. Usually featuring one of the circuit's major stars (Varietease offers the luscious Lili St. Cyr, while Teaserama gives us the totally tempting Tempest Storm) these one camera extravaganzas were frequently shot on the stages they were performed on. In this case, Page was hired as a card gal (Varietease) and second tier dancer (Teaserama) so for those hoping to get bountiful Bettie for their buck, there may be some manner of minor disappointment. But as curios from a more suggestive side of skin and sin, these tawdry time capsules are a real treat.
Varietease begins with a smarmy MC of sorts - a guy named Bobby Shields - introducing us to the evening's entertainment. Then Ms. Page does a nudity-free Dance of the Seven Veils (though she only manages four). Next up is the headliner, Lili St. Cyr. Known for doing a reverse strip act (she would often appear in underwear and then put ON her clothes) we are offered four separate sequences of the amazing Ms. Lili donning and doffing her clothing in various states of desirable undress. She is never really totally nude - not even at the end - but that was not really the point of these high class strip shows. It was all about the tease, and our star excels in this area. So does our honey of a hired hand. Page presents the elaborate act cards, doing a few mini moves along the way. She announces the bubble-headed human oddity named Christine Nelson, who makes a few lame jokes before belting out a middling comic number about marriage. We get a baggy pants comic telling jokes about be-bop, a frightening female impersonator, and the supposedly sophisticated dancing of Barrow and Rodgers. Add in a some more songs, a set of droopy drawered French Can-Can dancers and the final reveal of Lili's legendary lungs (complete with pasties) and you've got a true meshing of vaudeville with vice.
It has to be said up front that these type of movies, more or less the filmed act as it was presented to audiences, is probably not the most admirable way to experience the best of burlesque. The jokes are all timed for crazed crowd reactions, the musical numbers a mere trifle, meant to give the dancers time to get backstage and change their costumes. Bettie Page aside, the other dancers were usually bottom of the barrel beauties whose routines could best be described as saunter, strip and quickly get off. Still, there is something endlessly fascinating about this old fashioned flesh fest. Perhaps it's the notion of glitz and glamour mixed with just the slightest scent of seedy sleaze. It could be the novelty of seeing dancers disrobe without the result being some sort of gynecological exam. Maybe it's the overall concept of the "tease". Since stimulation of the mind is as important as the prompting of the privates, watching these laid back lovelies, primped and preened to within an inch of their skin's structural level, merely MOVE for our benefit fills a lot of those longing, lustful needs. Granted, the rest of the anarchic antics are wimpy window dressing for the eventual exposing of breasts, but the general burlesque ideal was one of entertainment and erotica in a safe and classy setting. And that is definitely captured here.
Yet the question remains, will a modern audience find it anything other than a mild, mockable set of memories? The answer depends on one's willingness to drop the cynicism and tune in to what Varietease is trying to do. The comics are crap, no doubt about it, and the dance acts can really drone on. From a singing standpoint, a couple of the numbers are mildly amusing. Monica Lake attempts to warble a wounded tune called "Riding on Manhattan Way" while our MC mimics famous crooners. Sadly, the voices all sound the same. Truth be told, you need to be heavily into Ms. Page or Ms. St. Cyr and be wiling to view your object of desire in less than preferred parameters to completely get lost in what this manner of movie is offering. The stripping is indeed skillful, and the ladies are almost always lovely to look at. But burlesque was not into sexual fulfillment - it was designed to titillate and tempt. It hoped to heighten the floorshow in the theater of your mind, as well as surge the urges lying "down" deep inside your limited libido. Sure, in 2006 these acts look positively tame. But back when pornography was a social sin and fornication was for procreation, a glimpse of gam or a peek at some pert personal pillows was the height of honorable horniness.
This doesn't mean that all Burly-Q bonanzas were alike. Things are different in Teaserama. Page is a featured performer here, and gets three numbers (all, sadly, sans nudity). She even works with lead lovely Tempest Storm in one of the more vivacious sequences. Fans of Car 54, Where Are You? will instantly recognize one of the sad sack comics as none other than Gunther Toody himself, Joe E. Ross. There is also some cross over from the other title, as our sullen, slender transvestite from Varietease is the prominently featured female impersonator here. But perhaps the biggest selling point for fans of flesh is the amount of innocent nakedness offered. Ms. Storm is all about skin, and she shows off her hefty rack with regularity (pasties present, always). A gal named Cherry Knight also shows off her stack, while a dish named Trudy Wayne offers the most "exposure" of them all. With more manic dancing (from Peppe and Roccio, who were also a part of Varietease's varieties) and far less insipid songs, Teaserama is more about the strip and less about the show. Even the humor seems more on the dishy, dirty. Certainly, the differing stars may be the reason why - Lili St. Cyr was more about class while Tempest pushed the boundaries of bareness - yet there is an obvious attempt to avoid the typical trappings. This makes the presentation more potent, and more prurient.
It is clear from a single viewing of this joyful jiggle fest why Tempest Storm was a major striptease marvel. With flaming red hair framing her perfectly painted face, she is a statuesque stunner with a chest that deceptively defied gravity. In one of the movie's more memorable sequences, we witness the intricate infrastructure that keeps Ms. Storm's lady lumps in their various stages of solidness. Bettie is there, hoisting up the bustier and binding the body foundation. Looking at the amount of lingerie Tempest trades in, one has to wonder if the fashion industry purposely catered to complicating the undergarment. The Page performances, on the other hand, are just middling excuses to see the idol of millions kibitzing around. Her hoofing skills are quite limited, and the lack of bare bodkin means that you will see more in her expansive photographic portfolio than in any of the featured sequences here. As ever, Bettie comes across as sneaky and shy, effervescent and excited, proving why she has remained a viable vice queen for all these years. The rest of the entertainment is merely routine, with the emphasis on movement, not musical numbers. Like Varietease before it, you will have to judge for yourself if you think these kind of corporeal curios are your cup of tempting tea.
Beyond all the boobs, however, there is another, far more fascinating reason to buy this definitive DVD...and it's not just because of the popular Ms. Page. Longtime icon of the industry, one of the 40 thieves himself, the Mighty Monarch of the Exploitation Film, producer David F. Friedman, sits down with SWV founder Mike Vraney to give what is basically a two plus hour lecture (read: full length audio commentary for both films) on the history of the skin flick biz. Dave is a man with a mountain of anecdotes (his book, A Youth in Babylon, is a highly recommended account of how he came to be a grindhouse God) and he spends little time addressing the elements in either film. Instead, Vraney gets the gent to 'expose' his influences and dish his memories, and once he gets started, the tantalizing tales come pouring out. Dave has done everything: he made soft and hard core porn, sold sex manuals during the intermissions at roadshows, produced dozens of definitive exploitation epics, and worked as a carnival barker. Indeed, Friedman's roots are in the traveling amusement business, and his flim flam savvy is on full display here. He discusses such unknown novelties as the "candy routine" and offers his own opinions on Irving Klaw (who created these strip pics) and his oddball oeuvre. People who prefer Page may feel a little underwhelmed by her presence here, but anyone curious about the history of America's other entertainment industry will thoroughly enjoy Friedman's frank discussions.
Besides, these movies look good in their detailed, digital presentation, so much so that you can forgive some of their more "flaccid" conceits. Rendered from original negatives, these primary colored cavalcades literally glow in their 1.33:1 full screen radiance. Certainly, there are scratches and dirt o'plenty, and a couple of sequences aren't as fresh and new as others. But when you can literally see the piles of pancake makeup worn by Tempest Storm, or count the sequins on Lili St. Cyr's gown, you know you're seeing some of the best possible prints of these cinematic novelties. As for bonus features, SWV has little to offer beyond Friedman's fine narratives. There are trailers for the films, and a couple of scenes copped from the final film in the Page burlesque trilogy, the long lost Striporama. Fans of Miss Bettie will definitely enjoy her long, luxuriant bubble bath (within an odd Egyptian setting), but her baggy pants cameo with a couple of decidedly squalid comics leaves a lot to be desired. There is also a peep show loop that has our star bouncing around in various stages of sexiness. As a matter of fact, if you already own each of these DVDs separately, there is no need for the double dip. The material offered is all the same (even down to the standard gallery of exploitation art), and there is no significant difference in the technical quality.
Indeed, the pure purpose of this single unit re-release is to promote Ms. Page and play directly into her about to blossoming fanbase. Interestingly enough, there is very little difference between a walking, dancing Bettie Page and the sexual symbol sitting motionless in that endless collection of her cheesecake photos. Like an animated men's magazine, Bettie remains an enigma for all the reasons we find her fascinating and refreshing. There is a mystery and a mischievousness in those wild, wicked eyes, and her sunny smile hides a less than healthy feminine curiosity in the ways of wantonness. With a mane of black locks that seem to suggest experience and elegance, and a body almost perfectly proportioned for posing (Page is one of the few models who looked idyllic in each and every position she attempted) her continuing legacy is completely logical.
Why none of the other performers in this presentation managed the same symbolic feat is a question for exploitation scholars to explore. Certainly, Lili St. Cyr and Tempest Storm were huge in their day. But Bettie Page is still the sizzling sexual goods nearly five decades later, while they are all but forgotten. Call it a cult, or a ripe bit of revisionism, but our mystifying Miss has become a timeless treasure. She may be notorious, or a current cultural novelty, but thanks to her disappearance from the business, Bettie Page will always be our ethereal pin-up queen. Long may she reign.
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