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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » King Of Burlesque (Fox Cinema Archives)
King Of Burlesque (Fox Cinema Archives)
Fox Cinema Archives // Unrated // December 9, 2014
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted January 14, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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Fox apes Warners in this familiar but entertaining backstage musical meller. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released King of Burlesque, the 1936 drama from Fox starring Warner Baxter, Alice Faye, Jack Oakie, Mona Barrie, Arline Judge, Dixie Dunbar, Gregory Ratoff, Fats Waller, Nick Long, Jr., and Kenny Baker. No surprises here in terms of where this story winds up as burly-Q king Baxter tries to "go legit," but the patter is snappy, the songs pleasant, and the performers well-chosen. No extras for this good-looking fullscreen black and white transfer.

Fourteenth Street's "King of Burlesque," Kerry Bolton (Warner Baxter), is moving uptown to Broadway. His partner, Joe Cooney (Jack Oakie), won't kick in any dough, saying in effect, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." However, singer/dancer Pat Doran (Alice Faye) is all for the move, not so much because it will make her a bigger, more "legit" star, but because she not-so-secretly loves Bolton, and wants him to be happy. Four short years later, Bolton is now "Broadway Czar," with his own music hall and a string of box office smashes behind him. Addicted to auctions, Bolton, along with Cooney (who's now Bolton's general manager), Doran, and Cooney's girl, Connie (Arline Judge), attends the Park Avenue Cleves' dissolution of property. Making light of the once-rich family's economic plight, Bolton offends widow Rosalind Cleve (Mona Barrie), who refuses to let Bolton buy a ship model he covets. Intrigued by her patrician, cold beauty, Bolton agrees to see Rosalind when she changes her mind about selling the model. Tipping his hand about his attraction to her, as well as promising to help her opera singer boyfriend with a job, Bolton wrangles a dinner date out of Rosalind, where he impetuously proposes marriage. She eventually agrees (right after Bolton scams her boyfriend with a job offer in Italy), but on strictly business terms--including a generous cash settlement--with the newlywed Boltons leaving for a European honeymoon. Doran is devastated, and leaves Bolton's company for London. When Bolton returns to the Great White Way, the effects of marrying a snobbish, mercenary wife are evident: out go his previous brash, singing-and-dancing revues, and in come "cultured, reserved" entertainment favored by Rosalind. Flop after flop results, leaving Bolton a broke and broken man. Can Cooney and now-big-star Doran save him?

Although hardly notable today in terms of having a place among memorable 1930s musicals, Fox, Darryl Zanuck and head money man Joseph Schenck must have thought at the time that King of Burlesque was a prestige A product. After all, they had Hollywood's highest paid actor, Warner Baxter, hired to back up Fox's emerging musical star, Alice Faye, in a story pumped up, reportedly, by no fewer than eleven scribes, working and reworking the script. What emerged, though, is more studied, competent imitation, rather than genuine inspiration. Based on an already-hackneyed backstage musical storyline by Vina Delmar, credited scripters Gene Markey (Susan Lenox, As You Desire Me) and Harry Tugend (Captain January, My Lucky Star) turned out a standard Broadway meller that's weighted more towards the drama than the music (since the star is Baxter, rather than Faye), with okay results. King of Burlesque certainly captures our attention during the opening burlesque number, where we strain to see if those chorus girls really are topless (I know it's post-Code...but it looks pretty convincing), before adorable Faye comes out in a skimpy outfit and sings the cute, sexy Whose Big Baby Are You?. Quickly, however, King of Burlesque settles into familiar Warner Bros. waters with Baxter's ambitious producer seeking respectability first on the Broadway stage (hee hee!) and second in his personal life by marrying "thoroughbred" Barrie. Depression-era audiences knew all of this by heart in 1936. As soon as ambitious Baxter lets it be known he's ready to improve himself by moving up to the Great White Way, with agree-to-anything Faye approving and skeptical Oakie grousing, we can pretty much chart out King of Burlesque's progression. It won't be long before Baxter is stepping on those that loved and helped him in the beginning, in his misguided pursuit of "culture," before he's humbled back to his homey, more honest roots.

Where King of Burlesque succeeds is in director Sidney Lanfield plowing through all these cliches with attractive performances and good musical numbers (there's really only one truly memorable number here--an animated Fats Waller banging out Too Good to Be True (I've Got My Fingers Crossed) as he ogles little Dixie Dunbar--with exaggerated framing and quick cuts that look like they belong in a different, and better, musical). Comedy relief is provided by Jack Oakie and Arline Judge, with Judge constantly badgering her boyfriend to get married, and Oakie slipping and sliding his way out of her grip. Oakie I can take or leave, but he's good here with the wiseguy slang, while Judge--a particular favorite of mine, and one whose career was criminally shortchanged--is effortlessly funny and charming in just a few short scenes (her telephone call to Oakie, where she yaps away about marriage, is priceless). Alice Faye was still being made up to look like Jean Harlow (those eyebrows...), but there's no mistaking those big, sad eyes of hers. She doesn't have much to do here, owing to Baxter's star prominence, a fact that continually annoys us when she delivers in her scattered musical numbers, only to disappear off screen yet again (the spirited Shooting High was the song that got all of the attention when King of Burlesque was released, but I had more fun with the British music hall-ish I Love to Ride the Horses on a Merry-Go-Round, dueting with the marvelous Herbert Mundin). The icily beautiful Mona Barrie is perfectly cast as the rich bitch who takes delight in bringing down vulgarian Baxter. In the scene where the just-married couple are entertaining Baxter's "common" friends at the wedding reception, Barrie cringes at their boorish manners. She doesn't love Baxter, marrying him only for his money, and yet when he anxiously wishes for all the guests to leave so he can consummate their marriage, she gives him a wicked, perverse smile--her moral corruption runs deep. Baxter, still riding high off of Warner Bros.' 1933 musical smash, 42nd Street, is appropriately commanding as the successful producer, before he goes unimpressively soft and indecisive after Barrie ruins him (Baxter, knowing full-well that King of Burlesque was just a retread of past glories, later stated, "After I had repeated 42nd Steet several times, it occurred to me that actors, drugged by pride, can make first-class asses of themselves."). It's a familiar-but-entertaining performance, reminding us of better Baxter vehicles, just as King of Burlesque pleases...while making us think of its more virtuosic inspirations.

The Video:
The fullscreen, 1.37:1 black and white transfer for King of Burlesque looks good, with a sharp image, decent-enough blacks, okay contrast, and the expected level of grain and screen imperfections.

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track for King of Burlesque is a bit squelchy, no doubt due to the original materials. Otherwise...just okay, with a bit more hiss than I'd like. No subtitles or closed-captions.

The Extras:
No extras.

Final Thoughts:
Acceptable imitation. Fox, clearly trying to manufacture a hit along Warner Bros. lines, has King of Burlesque embrace its cliches with a straight face, delivering tolerable backstage musical meller goods. More Alice Faye and less Warner Baxter would have helped. I'm recommending King of Burlesque.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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