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The Best of Burlesque

The Best of Burlesque
Image / Something Weird
B&W & Color & 3D / 1:37 flat full frame / Approx 7 hours / Street Date March 16, 2004 / 24.99
Starring Lili St. Cyr, Tempest Storm, Dixie Evans

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The joy-boys at Something Weird have followed their girlie features like Teaserama with this endless, exhaustive round-up of every burlesque short subject they could find, with two feature films as headliners. It's enough to satisfy both horn-dogs (we know you're out there) and serious students of the American institution of Burlesque (Savant, of course). There are color short subjects, arty short subjects, bizarro dancers, several shorts in 3D, trailers, and top performances by three of the most famous of the burlesque babes: Lili St. Cyr, Tempest Storm and Dixie Evans.

A text interview with Lili St. Cyr by author Eric Schaefer fills several pages of an insert to the two-disc set. In it, St. Cyr aptly describes Burlesque as the very bottom of show business. Like most of those who sought work on the Burlesque circuit, she describes herself as uneducated, unemployable and looking for a way to make a living.

Judging by many of the women on stage in these short subjects, just about anyone with the desire to be on stage could become a showgirl or stripper. The unwashed, unhappy men who filled the burlesque theaters were looking for a cheap thrill and weren't too particular about quality, that's for sure. William Friedkin's wonderful The Night They Raided Minsky's waxed nostalgic about the tawdry innocence of burlesque. Twenty years later, the routines, comics and broads in these shorts attest to the fact that nothing had changed much. The jokes were still awful ("Ill be your Sugar Daddy! I've got diabetes!"), the sets were still awful, and the strippers all seemed to do the exact same routine.

The reason these shorts exist is because burlesque houses began to run them as variety during the shows, perhaps to provide a short break for overworked performers. The majority of the films duplicate exactly the contents of a strip act. Some "theme" is used for supposed freshness, with costumes ranging from harem girl outfits to elaborate multi-piece skirts and drapes. There are several Cat costumes given a workout here, and they're all terrible. Everyone wears pasties over their nipples and often some other kind of custom moleskin item elsewhere; otherwise the whole shebang would be illegal.

The titles are as much fun as the shows themselves: Bananas 8 to the Bar, Bust-O-Rama, I'll Sell My Shirt. Who can resist timeless fare with names like Unclad Cuties, Persian Slave Market or A Cocktail at Sloppy Joe's?

In his essay, Schaefer explains that the exploitation film producers (often starting as burlesque theater owners) would shoot individual acts, slap on a title and call it a short subject. They were fast and cheap and often used one camera and one camera position. And are they repetitive! Some short subjects immortalize terrible comedy routines, with vastly inferior comic knock-offs of Abbott and Costello, or solo baggy-pants clowns who pretend to be imbeciles. These are the real guys, and they can be funny in their own way, even if they now seem to be nightmarish inspiration for Robert Crumb cartoons.

The women show some variety. Many are rather old, and few have the kinds of figures we now think strippers require. Only a few have a real stage presence, and those that do immediately catch one's eye. St. Cyr, Tempest Storm and a couple others truly command the stage and expertly direct the male gaze. One fairly well-known star recites a soliloquy as she strips. Another older woman uses a half-mannequin that she manipulates with one arm, to make it look as if she's being embraced by (and is fighting off) an amorous lover.

The touted material here are two features, one per disc. A Virgin in Hollywood is a literal exposé of the wild times to be had by single lookers who migrate to Tinseltown. A fairly good main actress is stuck in a hopeless jumble of embarrassing blind dates, photo-ops and various "wild" goings-on, all so that she can greet her lecherous boss with a big kiss and the news that she's learned "a lot" from her trip to California. The show encourages adventurous young beauties to get to Hollywood as fast as they can.

The other feature is Too Hot to Handle, a more standard burlesque compilation, and close to exactly what a stage show of this kind would have been like. There are bad comics, awful strippers, okay strippers, and cheesy songs. An emcee really does introduce the girls one by one, making lame suggestive remarks while they demurely pose in their scanty outfits.

In a color short called A Bedroom Fantasy, Lili St. Cyr sells her glamorous appeal, distinguishing herself from the competition with elaborate art direction and a classy reserve. Hot number Tempest Storm is the most exuberantly erotic sight on display. Her straight strip act is just plain wanton exhibitionism that doesn't pretend in any way to be anything but what it is - just a lot of generous torso-tossing to the sad men out there who want a thrill.

Both discs are replete with tons of stripping short subjects. A bunch show only chaste dancing, which made me wonder if they were reels the showmen kept ready to go in case the authorities or cops showed up. When the badges left, the "good stuff" would go back up on the projector.

The set makes a big deal out of the 3D material, and comes with a set of red-green glasses. Red-green analglyphic never worked well for Savant's eyes, so the fact that no real 3D effect presented itself to me isn't a decisive verdict as to the 3D's effectiveness. Sorry.

The image quality is basically good, especially considering how much is packed onto these discs. Something Weird's transfers and compression are always good, and only the occasional show here is of a poorer quality. Most of the shorts have a repair splice or two somewhere. Curiosity is going to be a big factor in buying this one ... historically, it's all here, folks.

Special mention needs to be made of the "bump'n grind" soundtracks on these shows. Many have a flavor that simply can't be recreated today. The music might be a big attraction on its own.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Best of Burlesque rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good and Good -
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: 2 features, 31 novelty shorts, 4 3D shorts, 40 minutes of theatrical trailers, galleries of photos and Exploitation art
Packaging: Double Keep case, pair of 3D glasses included
Reviewed: March 19, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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