Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Let's hear it for good-old honest American vulgarity. Not the Down- South Hee Haw kind, but the New Yawk immigrant stew of bawdy license that in the early 20th century became Burlesque. D.H. Lawrence fought a literary censorship battle, but the battle of the Lower East Side was waged in the teens and early twenties over the right for good, solid Americans (some of whom had learned English) to enjoy bawdy entertainment aimed at the libidos of sex-starved working-class souls straight off the boat.
How many movies are there about this subject? Well, just one, really.
The Night They Raided Minsky's is an unique comedy musical about a subject as far from the concerns of 1968 as one could get: New York burlesque in the 1920s. A labor of love and affection by Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear, Minsky's gathers a top-flight cast for a consistently funny and affectionate look back at the 'naughty' entertainment of an earlier era. The much-maligned film is known as a notorious failure 'rescued' by its editor, but the funny performances and great music are what persist in the memory. Known as "The Poor Man's Follies", the lineup of jiggly, overweight chorines croaks out Minsky's signature song: "Take ten terrific girls, but only nine costumes, and you're cooking up something grand..."
Minsky's Burlesque proprietor Billy Minsky (Elliott Gould of M*A*S*H) is in a frazzle because his father and landlord Louis (Joseph Wiseman of Dr. No disapproves of his sinful show and will not renew the lease. Meanwhile, self-appointed censor Vance Fowler (Denhom Elliott) attends every performance, gathering evidence to justify calling in the NYPD for a vice raid. Top banana comic Raymond Paine and his patsy Chick Williams (Jason Robards Jr. & Norman Wisdom) continue to star in vulgar sketches and sing off-color songs, all of which feature Minsky's less-than-chaste chorus girls. The audience of mouth-breathing lowlifes eats it up at matinee prices, and are easy prey for the hucksters that work the house between acts. Rachel Elizabeth Schpitendavel, an Amish girl (Britt Ekland of The Wicker Man) delights in the theater's forbidden dancing and love of life: she's run away from home "for to be a dancer". Rachel inspires Raymond and Chick to dream up a beautiful scheme to counter Fowler's threat of a raid: knowing full well that Rachel will perform one of her innocent dances from the Bible, they bill her as "Mademoiselle Fifi, The Girl That Drove a Thousand Frenchmen Wild." The good plan comes up against a couple of problems. Raymond has his mind set on seducing Rachel, even if it threatens his partnership with Chick. Bootlegger Trim Houlihan (Forrest Tucker) decides that Rachel is his private property. Oh, and one other minor snag: Rachel's fire-breathing fundamentalist father Jacob (Harry Andrews) has come to rescue his daughter from the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Lower East Side.
In The Night They Raided Minsky's outdated vulgarity becomes affectionate. The jokes are too cute and too antiquated to be offensive; it's humor that our great-grandparents probably smiled at, coarse or not. Virginal Rachel Schpitendavel gazes with wonder on what we know to be a line of painted porcine trollops, each more unbelievable than the next. The 'cute' one has rolls of fat bulging over her skimpy costume, and the others are overage disasters in heavy denial. The film's attitude toward them is flat out hilarious. When the silver haired emcee-tenor introduces the lineup, he asks one gum-chewing woman, "Is it a sin to be so friendly?" She shoots him a look that could peel paint. Doubts as to the authenticity of all this are quashed by the inclusion of vintage B&W footage of a real burlesque line-up. Lear and Yorkin's Minsky chorus is a perfect match.
Critics have opined that Jason Robards is miscast, but his song and dance routines with comedian Wisdom are terrific. Robards also handles the seduction comedy well. His Raymond Paine eventually impresses us as an essentially unhappy man transformed by his persona as a burlesque star. Actor Norman Wisdom has the most experience in this vein of comedy, having come from a British music hall tradition. His routine explaining funny business to Rachel seems modeled on Donald O'Connor's Be a Clown act from Singin' in the Rain.
Britt Ekland was never a major talent but the role of the farm-fed hick come to Sin Town is an excellent fit for her. The boys lust after Rachel, marveling at the rarity of a girl who knows the Bible, "a book that civilians read on Sundays." In the film's haute-vulgar finale, abuse from the man she loves turns Rachel into the 'inventor' of the strip tease.
The casting is flawless. Forrest Tucker is a suitably comic bad guy, teasing Denholm Elliott's pinch-faced, repressed bluenose with questions about what exactly offends him: "Is it that the girls jiggle, Fowler? What parts of them jiggle, Fowler?" Joseph Wiseman and Harry Andrews clash as an orthodox Jew and a fundamentalist Christian who worry that they might not pray to the same god. "What kind of father are you, who would permit his son to run such a sinful establishment?" "The kind of father who would not permit his daughter to dance in Minsky's Burlesque." Smaller parts are covered with good performances by Gloria LeRoy, Joe E. Marks and Jack Burns.
Nominal director William Friedkin was not considered the film's main creative contributor. In his career biography, editor Ralph Rosenblum assures us that after the The Night They Raided Minsky's rough cut was assembled in script order, it just sat there, dead and uninspiring. Known as Woody Allen's editorial mentor, Rosenblum restructured the film, giving it its catchy, jittery rhythm. Scenes start in the middle and end before they're finished; most of the comedy sketches have been chopped up into bits. Rosenblum also contributed several fast-paced montages that shuffle unused film bits with well-chosen newsreel film from the 1920s. The main title is a manic flutter-cut unseen this side of experimental films. The picture pops from B&W to color and back again, mixing up the new footage with the old. Interestingly, the first image is of an elevated train, looking forward to director Friedkin's The French Connection.
The film never slows down, and its content can't quite keep up with its own sprightly pace. One of the clever conceits is that the burlesque performers behave just as madly off the burlesque stage as on. Editorial overkill tires us out during a third-act brawl that pits Chick & Raymond against Forrest Tucker's gangsters. It's intercut too aggressively with a jarring jazz vocal in a speakeasy. Punches to the face are slam-cut with silent footage of chimneys crashing to the ground. We've already had our fill of that kind of thing.
One thing is sure, Rosenblum went radical on Billy Friedkin's movie, seizing the opportunity to become its auteur in post-production. The constant parade of grainy shots indicates optical blowups used to create new close-ups, effectively re-directing Friedkin's work. We wish we could see more of the original scenes peeking through the (clever) re-cutting. After all the sophisticated tricks, the flash-cuts to the body stand-in for Ms. Ekland's two-second nude scene is the phoniest thing in the movie.
The editorial flimflam adds an air of desperation to the proceedings, the most obvious example of which is also the film's biggest heartbreak. Original burlesque headliner Bert Lahr is adored as the original Cowardly Lion. He plays Professor Spats, a backstage liability always begging to perform. Spats was intended to fill-in for the missing Raymond Paine in the big Midnight performance, and to surprise everyone by providing a show-stopping number to cap both the movie and Lahr's legendary show-biz career. But Lahr died only a couple of weeks into production, before much of his part was filmed. As it is, Bert Lahr makes a good entrance, reads a few choice lines spread throughout the story,
and then disappears. In some scenes he's replaced by a double. For a conclusion, the double picks up a fallen seltzer bottle on an empty stage. An indifferent shot of Lahr appears to be a leftover fragment from an unrelated shot, a stage wait before Friedkin said "Action" or after he said "Cut."
Nobody tires of the terrific original music by Charles Strouse, the composer of the Broadway shows Bye Bye Birdie, Applause and Annie. The main theme is both inspiring and touching, setting up nostalgia for a theatrical tradition that's been extinct for eighty years.
The Night They Raided Minsky's has tenuous connections with a Barbra Streisand musical TV special The Belle of New York Street, a nostalgic look at pop hits of long-ago New York. One of the episodes features dancing girls called "The Beef Trust Chorus" and Jason Robards is present to contribute a major performance. Even more tangentially, Streisand's then-husband Elliott Gould has a major Minsky's role as the nervous showman.
The Night They Raided Minsky's is funny, sexy and tune-worthy. It's also doubly interesting in the context of today's media culture. Comedy has dipped far, far deeper into the depths of smut than anything dreamed up on the Burlesque stage. The movie begins with an announcement from Rudy Vallee complimenting the viewer for being "a real mature audience". We can't help but feel nostalgia for a tradition that none of us witnessed first-hand.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Night They Raided Minsky's tops an already-good DVD from 2008 simply by virtue of the format -- the higher resolution of HD allows cinematographer Andrew Laszlo's soft lighting and filtered lenses to be properly seen. The glows around objects and even faces are now pearlescent instead of indistinct. The wider range of color also gives more texture to the stage makeup, and puts more punch into the clever editorial tricks that jump-cut from B&W to color.
The Blu-ray uses the same music cue heard over the scrolling end credits on the DVD, a Rudee Vallee vocal of the main title theme. Original prints and the VHS release used an instrumental. Added note: listen to the main theme for Minsky's more than two or three times, and you'll realize that it uses the same 'melody' line as Dimitri Tiomkin's main theme to, of all things, 55 Days at Peking. Go on, I dare you, you'll see I'm right.
Another major DVD to Blu-ray improvement: the box reproduces the film's original Frank Frazetta key art. Those are real collector's items now.
Several ideas in this review suggested by
long-ago conversations with Robert S. Birchard
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Night They Raided Minsky's Blu-ray rates:
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
No; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 19, 2015
1. Reader Bill Wind with some pertinent comments on Minsky's, 6.24.08:
Thank you for your insightful review of The Night They Raided Minsky's ... It's seldom that I completely agree with any critic about any movie, but your review parallels my feelings about this film 100 percent. Most others who reviewed the DVD dismissed the movie as stupid or inconsequential.
I have wanted a good copy of this film for many, many years (I don't believe it was ever on laserdisc). When the DVD arrived, I watched it twice in a row. Then, I dug out my vinyl copy of the soundtrack album and listened to it twice (what great songs!). Finally, I re-read the chapter about Minsky's in Rosenblum's book. After thinking about it for a while, I came to the same conclusion as you did. Despite the choppy editing, the movie's charm and humor show through enough to make it a very enjoyable experience. For me, the highlight of the film is the "From Head to Toe You're a Gentleman" number with Robards and Wisdom --- it seems to be the only number that was left intact and it captures the spirit of burlesque very nicely.
I know that Rosemblum's book is one of the few about film editing and it's considered a "bible", but after a while, his assertion that "saved" all those movies becomes rather suspect. I would love to see the original cut of The Night They Raided Minsky's and compare it with Rosenblum's cut. Regardless, I would say that in today's hyper-editing environment, Rosenblum's edit actually seems a bit slow and easier to absorb than the editing in most contemporary films.
Also, thank you for confirming what I'd always suspected --- that Bert Lahr was to have done an on-stage routine at the end of the movie. I had the pleasure of seeing Bert Lahr in a Broadway review called Two On the Aisle many, many years ago, and he was truly a masterful stage performer. It would have been great to see him working an audience one more time.
On this particular day, the same could be said for George Carlin. -- Bill Wind Lakewood, Colorado
2. More good thought and information from "B", 6.24.08:
Dear Glenn: "...the newly teamed Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear..."
Yorkin and Lear had been teamed professionally for over a decade in television and movies before The Night They Raided Minsky's was produced.
Also crooner Rudy's last name is "Vallee." I've seen various prints of Minsky's and like you, I've never run across an end-title Vallee vocal. A British print, perhaps? Where does MGM find these things.
When I saw the picture in early '69, the audience had no patience for Norman Wisdom -- there were even catcalls from the crowd after a while. But I think he's funny, and good in the movie.
The death of Lahr must have really put the producers in a quandary; this is one of the most interesting examples of a performer's passing during a production genuinely handicapping a show. It's heartbreaking to listen to the great Lahr begging to go on... knowing that he didn't live to finish the film. This is so sad -- and the film so clearly structured around Spats' planned turn at the finish -- that they should probably have re-cast the part and offered Mostel or Gilford a fortune to play the character.
I have mixed feelings about Rosenblum's razzle-dazzle post-production work. I accept that it likely made the movie releasable and it probably helps make some of the movie work well. But I guess the problem is that in order for this style to work at all, it has to be consistent through the picture. I don't think all of Friedkin's scenes needed this kind of oomphing up. It adversely affects some of the numbers, and interrupts a bit of the by-play between Robards and Wisdom. [Robards is okay in the movie, but he was better doing this kind of thing in the Streisand special and in A Thousand Clowns.]
It's funny that this M-rated 1968 movie, a little bit scandalous for its day, should be seem so gentle and harmless today... Good review. Best, Always. -- B
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
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