William A. Wellman | 89 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English | PG
Based on the novel The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee (as in Gypsy), Lady of Burlesque stars Barbara Stanwyck as Gypsy surrogate Dixie Daisy, a performer in a burlesque show in New York where the backstage arguments turn murderous.
The story unfurls in the traditional Christie-esque shape of a murder mystery: we find out all the different reasons why everyone hates a particular character, then that person dies and they all have motive. For set dressing, instead of the English country houses and other upper-middle-class establishments of Christie, we have the slightly seedy, slightly risqué world of ’40s burlesque… tempered by the strictures of the production code, of course. Stanwyck may get out on stage and wiggle around, but she’s largely shot from the waist up; and it may’ve been released as Striptease Lady in the UK (allegedly), but the clothes remain on (I can’t imagine anyone expected anything else, then or now).
Nonetheless, the world of the story adds some sparkle to proceedings. The investigations are largely confined to a couple of lengthy scenes when the cops turn up, led by Charles Dingle’s meticulous Inspector Harrigan (“This is my first experience with burlesque. It’s a surprising profession.”), and question everyone in one room. These bits have their moments, but feel a little heavy-handed. Around them, the world of burlesque, and the relationships between its performers, rolls on.
Stanwyck carries the film, both on stage and off. Her “will they/won’t they (of course they will)” romance with Michael O’Shea’s comic is kept aloft by her biting ripostes to his advances, and when a comedy sketch is interrupted by backstage noises she saves the day by breaking into song, doing the splits, a cartwheel, and the Cossack dance in quick succession. Not bad for a 36-year-old!
Ostensibly a murder mystery, in practice Lady of Burlesque plays as all-round entertainment with a bit of everything: comedy, romance, songs, shoot-outs, and, yes, both mystery and murders. It’s not the kind of film that will linger long in the memory (apart from Stanwyck’s gymnastics, that is), but it’s entertaining while it lasts.