Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Behind the Burly Q. Oh, Those Bawdy, Gaudy Ladies

The indiscreet ladies who would meet the elite on bawdy, gaudy 42nd Street, as the old song had it, were probably more than just careless. You wouldn’t know it from the musical “42nd Street,” certainly, but those ladies were probably bumping and grinding amid feathery fans and gurgling soap bubbles. In the 1930s, Times Square was where professional straight men like Robert Alda (father of Alan) warmed up audiences that strippers put on boil. A popular entertainment, stripping was — or so the theater owner Herbert Minsky insisted — an American art. But in New York and elsewhere, burlesque came with a price: a milieu of vice that alarmed religious leaders and business owners and the politicians who catered to them.

The story of American burlesque on and off Broadway has been told in musicals and films like “Gypsy” and “The Night They Raided Minsky’s.” The neo-burlesque movement, personified by the glamour-puss likes of Dita Von Teese, striptease troupes like the Velvet Hammer (in Los Angeles) and the transformation of pole-dancing into a mainstream fitness routine (from Tony Soprano’s pleasure palace to yours), suggest that the time is ripe for a thoughtful new look at a disreputable old art form. If only “Behind the Burly Q” were up to the task. A charming, uncritical, often entertaining jumble, the documentary was written and directed by Leslie Zemeckis, who produced the movie with Jackie Levine and its director of photography, Sheri Hellard. (Ms. Zemeckis’s husband, the director Robert Zemeckis, has an executive producer credit.)

The movie presents itself as a history of burlesque, but you would be hard pressed to find a coherent chronology here. The movie jumps from woman to woman, topic to topic (costumes to mobsters), as it moves across time. If you know what hairstyles were in fashion, you might be able to guess the decade. Otherwise, you’re often on your own. That’s unfortunate because the personal stories could use some political balance, including a deeper look at why Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia of New York banned burlesque in 1937. That story, for the curious, is fleshed out in the book “Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show,” by Rachel Shteir, one of the movie’s talking heads.

Ms. Shteir has some interesting things to say, but the real reasons to see “Burly Q” are the women who took it all off (or most of it, anyway) in cheap joints across the country and the occasional Art Nouveau palace. Among the legends featured in the numerous contemporary interviews — as well as the flurry of archival photos and film clips — is Kitty West, who performed on the half shell as Evangeline the Oyster Girl. Also on hand is Tempest Storm, a flaming redhead who, advertised as “the girl with the 40-plus bust who goes 3-D two better,” appeared with the pinup queen Bettie Page in the 1955 revue film “Teaserama.” Now camera shy, Blaze Starr, meanwhile, appears as a voice on a telephone, a ghostly presence.

Though badly and unimaginatively shot in ugly video, the present-day interviews with these women are a delight and also poignant, partly because of the contrast between their older and younger selves, though mostly because of the lives they lived. Some climbed out of poverty, leaving behind sharecropper families, to earn a living the only way they felt they could. Some of them talk about the hard times before they entered burlesque; as a rule, they are far more discreet about what happened during their stripper days, perhaps because many belong to the pre-Oprah generation. Like World War II veterans, they can tell a good story but are otherwise pretty close-mouthed when it comes to anything that might smack of complaint.

Ms. Zemeckis tends to overplay the empowering aspects of their stories as working, independent women. Despite a few nods at the mob and the calamities of too much booze, and a lingering, melancholic look at Lili St. Cyr, a statuesque blonde who spiraled into tragedy, the movie is generally upbeat, even giddy, an excitable attitude that the chaotic storytelling reinforces. Maybe Ms. Zemeckis wanted to protect the women; you can understand her desire to make sure they were not pathologized. At the same time, there is more to this story, including what it meant for women to strip for money in the era before women’s lib. It’s great that she immortalized these women, some for the final time. But this is history as nostalgia.


Opens on Friday in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Leslie Zemeckis; voiceovers by Jacquie Barnbrook, Ron Bottita, Cate Cohen, Matthew Henerson and Amber Gainey Meade; director of photography, Sheri Hellard; edited by Evan Finn; produced by Ms. Zemeckis, Ms. Hellard and Jackie Levine; released by First Run Features. At the Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. This film is not rated.

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