Despite the fact that, during its heyday in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, burlesque was the poor man's musical comedy, it has largely been left out of the history books.
Contrary to popular belief, burlesque was not only about stripping. A full night's entertainment might include several elaborate musical numbers and a comedy act. But the striptease was the primary lure. Especially during the Depression, stripping provided what the movies and vaudeville did not – cheap titillation at bargain prices.
The documentary "Behind the Burly Q," directed by Leslie Zemeckis, focuses on many of the famous burlesque stripteasers, some of whom are interviewed for the film or whose voices are heard. But it also brings to life, through the filmed reminiscences of actors like Alan Alda, whose actor father, Robert, began in burlesque, the behind-the-scenes tumult of those gaudy, knockabout years. Many of the women who speak on camera, a number of whom have since died, were doing so for the first time, and their desire to set the record straight, or at least semistraight, is palpable.
Taffy O'Neill, for example, would perform at night and every day take her young son for polio treatments. Lorraine Lee, whose mother sold beer, can remember as a young girl dancing for Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd for a quarter. Joan Arline, who was an elder in her church, performed with two Russian wolfhounds. When one of them bit her baby girl, she put both dogs down.
Every stripper had to have a gimmick, whether it was wolfhounds or, like Kitty West, a New Orleans favorite from the 1950s, a routine in which she emerged on stage from a giant half shell. She was known in burlesque as Evangelina the Oyster Girl. Sally Rand's famous fan dance was the biggest hit at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.
Choosing the right racy name was all important. The woman who calls herself Tempest Storm, for example, talks about how she was originally supposed to be "Sunny Day." But, she says, "I really didn't feel like a sunny day." Claiming to be in her late 70s, she's still stripping. Of another stripper, Ann Corio, who was a headliner at the Old Howard Theatre in Boston, it was said that "you can't graduate from Harvard until you've seen Ann Corio."
As a piece of filmmaking, "Behind the Burly Q" is pretty rudimentary. Talking heads are routinely interspersed with archival clips and photos, and Zemeckis too often veers off the subject. While it's interesting to hear, for example, about the burlesque career of Abbott & Costello, it feels a bit like pandering – as if we wouldn't be interested in burlesque without a few famous Hollywood names to draw us in. She also skimps on some of the bona fide stars of burlesque, such as Gypsy Rose Lee, who is dispatched rather rapidly and cattily. (One stripper remarks that she wasn't talented or pretty. Case closed.)
In some ways, the most telling anecdotes about burlesque here come from the sidelines. Drummer John Perilli describes how difficult it was to time his beats to the onstage bump and grind. A fan of Lily St. Cyr, whose bubble bath routine was classic, quotes her as saying, "When a beautiful girl gets older she should go Garboesque" – i.e., become a recluse.
The best commentator is Alda, whose rueful memories of being raised as a boy in burlesque are the film's highlight. "It was a form of abuse," he says of those days, but without rancor. It was, after all, the only childhood he knew. Grade: B (Unrated)
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