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It's interesting how different roles played by the same actor can form a continuum. The master showman played by Warner Baxter here in 'King of Burlesque' could arguably be the same master showman played by Baxter in 'Stand Up and Cheer' and (so memorably) in '42nd Street', if only they all had the same name. If the three films depict the same character at three stages in his life, then 'King of Burlesque' would have to be chronologically first ... because here we see Baxter's showman in his early scuffling days as a burlesque impresario, working his way up to Broadway with laughable ease in an impressive montage.
I wish that the money which 20th Century-Fox had spent on that montage had been spent on some better scriptwriters. The story here is deepest cliché. Alice Faye is secretly in love with Baxter, but he's only got eyes for the posh society dame played by ice-cold Mona Barrie. Will Baxter come to his senses before the projectionist starts the second feature?
Fortunately, 'King of Burlesque' doesn't have to rely on its plot to be enjoyable. There are some goodish musical performances here, notably the great Fats Waller warbling my favourite of his standards: "I've Got My Fingers Crossed". Waller also has a good comedy scene with Baxter, playing the black servant who forgets to 'yassuh' de massah. Less impressive is Dixie Dunbar, a pint-sized tap dancer whose style seems to be midway between Ruby Keeler and Eleanor Powell, but without Powell's virtuoso skill and sex appeal.
I've always found Alice Faye very sexy, and she's sexier than usual here in two extremely kinky costumes: playing a (not very convincing) underage girl in a burlesque blackout, and then later performing a novelty number in full riding habit ... but with tights instead of jodhpurs! Faye is joined for this number by Herbert Mundin, who could have become one of the great Hollywood character actors if not for his untimely accidental death. Elsewhere, Gregory Ratoff brings genuine poignancy to a comedy role as a cod millionaire.
There's also some weird adagio dancing from Nick Long Jnr (who?), jumping over some chorus girls, and some rapid buck-and-winging from boy dancer Gareth Joplin (again, who?). Joplin's dance number here is an excellent showcase for him, and I'm sure that he thought this film would be his big break ... but, from here his next stop was oblivion.
I was surprised to learn that this film was Oscar-nominated for its dance direction. Frankly, none of the musical numbers (except Waller's) are staged especially well. Early on, while the characters played by Baxter and Faye are still in burlesque, I was impressed by one dance number which is staged badly on purpose: Faye and the Paxton Sisters attempt a dance in unison, but they're only vaguely dancing the same steps ... a very appropriate staging for a number that takes place in a working-class burlesque theatre.
'King of Burlesque' doesn't stand up to analysis. Even its title is sucker bait, as very little of this film takes place in burlesque. For all its faults, this is an excellent example of the sort of B-budget musical that was routinely ground out during Hollywood's golden era; I wish that modern Hollywood could routinely grind out musicals as "bad" as this one (meaning, as GOOD as this one) nowadays. My rating: 7 out of 10, mostly for Waller's number and Faye's incredibly sexy performance. Skip the plot, and fast-forward to the musical numbers.
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