The following review is based on the Something Weird Video DVD "Hollywood Burlesque" (also available on VHS # 4983).
This is an actual burlesque show, filmed in 1948 at the Hollywood Theater in San Diego, California. It is not a drama or a documentary, it is what you would have seen if you'd been sitting in the theater. Only two things are different from a regular show; there's no audience, and the length is abbreviated (only 67 minutes, whereas the full show may have run 90 minutes). There is some topless nudity and sexually suggestive dancing, but no full nudity or pornography.
The movie is in near-mint condition and production values are among the best for the genre; two cameras and synchronous sound, and directed by Duke Goldstone (he went on to success as an editor with George Pal and then in television). The cameras put you where you want to be, the shots are interesting, and the editing is almost seamless.
Now for the show itself, starting with the bad news: the comedy is terrible. There are three scenes and all are squeaky clean, which in burlesque generally equates to dull. It gets worse. Straight men Wenn Hitt and Bob Ross (doubles as singer) are okay, but the main comic is Eddie Ware. Eddie can be good when he just uses his face, but has a loud, harsh, demanding voice that grates on my funny bone. There's also what may be the only film appearance of comic Say No More Joe (Claude Mathis). He's only in the first skit, and gets as much as possible out of the material.
The strippers are good but not great. The only "name" is star Hillary Dawn. Honey Hayes is credited with the first strip but it's been omitted from the movie. Showgirl Bobby Roberts is stately, Marie Durand is a calm cutie, and then comes my personal favorite, Joy Damon. A dark-haired young woman with a gorgeous body, Joy strides back and forth matter-of-factly, snaps out bumps with a grin, and does an electrifying turn on the runway. Next is co-feature Jenne, who employs a lot of drama and does it effectively (she's also good in the skit that follows). Finally the headliner, Hillary Dawn. Her act is mostly just walking in time to the music, throwing in a bump here or a knee-bend there and shedding a garment now and then. The overall result is surprisingly impressive; the lady has style.
In this movie, though, the big attraction is not the strippers but the stage show. More vaudeville than burlesque, it is great entertainment by itself. Worth the price of admission as they say. The Hollywood had two choreographers; according to oral histories at the San Diego Historical Society, Fanny Johnston (wife of theater owner Bob Johnston) did the opening chorus routines and Lee Torry did the production numbers. Both are good. The chorus routines are lively and interesting; there's no line-abreast kicking and the dancers are usually in a staggered array around the stage. The longest production is a 13-minute picture number at 0:32:30 that uses two singers and just about every dancer and showgirl. Truly impressive. Another highlight is the pairing of Lee Torry with dancer Mary King, not as big-time as Fred and Ginger but fun to watch. Catch the tongue-in-cheek quasi-strip of Mary King at 0:22:50.
Finally, something that's not often covered in reviews: the band. According to former dancer Barbara Jean Dishong (SDHS oral history) the Hollywood used a 4-piece pit band in the 1950's; drums, trumpet, saxophone/clarinet, and an organ. I can't hear the sax or clarinet (maybe just my ears), but the trumpet's definitely here, as is the organ. Whatever kind it was -- big old Wurlitzer or a little Hammond -- the organ gives a wide range to the music. On top of which the drummer is an absolute ace, rimshots that can stop your heart and perfect catches of every move the stripper makes. These guys are good.
The whole show is good. It's more 1930's than almost-1950, old-fashioned and sometimes a bit hokey, but it's great entertainment and a wonderful chance to time-travel. Highly recommended.
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