An old-time burlesque show, in a new complete edition
This replaces the review I wrote in 2007. That was based on a VHS that I bought from Something Weird Video (SWV) a few years earlier. I praised the cast but lamented the condition of the film print, calling it a "chopped-up mess." Entire acts were missing, comic's punchlines were cut, strippers had been censored.
Things have changed: SWV now has a complete movie. The old version contained only 48 minutes that was actually "B-Girl Rhapsody," expanded by spliced-in clips from other movies. The DVD-R I just bought runs 77 minutes, and all of it is the real thing. So, here's an updated review of what you'll get circa mid-2009.
"B-Girl Rhapsody" is an actual burlesque show filmed in 1952 from "your seat, center row front, at Los Angeles' famous New Follies Theatre," to quote a title screen (aka the Burbank Theater, at Fifth and Main). There is some topless nudity and sexually suggestive dancing, but no full nudity or pornography.
The comedy is disappointing. The cast is first-rate -- top banana Benny Moore and comic Artie Lloyd were both nationally known, George Rose has an early role in top hat, straight man Leon DeVoe is a great all-around talent -- but the material is flat. Part of the problem is that "B-Girl Rhapsody," like other burlesque movies, was filmed in an empty theater. There's no audience encouraging the strippers, no shouts or whistles, and the comics are operating in a vacuum. Laughter is contagious, and so is silence.
There's a full chorus line of 12 women, the last seen in these movies (by 1955 the New Follies was down to four showgirls). They do two routines, an energetic seashore number and a classic parade in headdress. The five preliminary strippers double in the chorus, but all are "names." Frenchy LeVonne is fierce, Nona Carver is campy. Ginger DuVal, blond here, is smooth and friendly. Chili Pepper gives a long, elaborate performance (she's also the acrobatic dancer in the second chorus routine). Young Crystal Starr went on to become a headliner, and while she has a wind-up doll quality that puts me off, certainly her act shows skill and polish.
Then finally the star of the show, brilliant Lily Ayers. Her performance is unusual both for the high quality of dancing and for being an actual burlesque, an alternately light-hearted and moving pantomime of a B-girl (a woman hired by a bar to pretend interest in male customers so they'd buy drinks for her, actually tea). There may have been a personal note as well, since strippers playing nightclubs were usually required to "mix" with customers between shows. Lily employs a combination of bump-and-grind and ballet that's an absolute treat to watch.
The good news is, we now see Lily's entire act. The bad news is, we don't hear it. As usual for burlesque movies, the band (pre-recorded) is playing proprietary music, which saved the film company having to pay usage fees for copyrighted songs. It works for the other strippers but not for Lily. She must have insisted on sticking to her own arrangements, probably standards and pop hits, and the filmmaker went along. When he got back to the studio he fixed things by dubbing his selections over the actual music.
The result is discordance. The music doesn't match Lily's movements, and sometimes it clashes, like when an upbeat tune blares out as she collapses in grief. Twice the audio cuts with a "pop!" and actually jibes with the dance for awhile, at 1:11:40 (ethereal, Lily reclining on piano), and at 1:15:55 (mournful, Lily standing). There's a long drum piece that seems authentic, though recorded separately (we see her accompanist playing the piano but don't hear a note). In short, Lily's audio remains a chopped-up mess. What a shame.
This is the fault of the filmmaker, not Something Weird Video, who deserve a big hat-tip for improving their product. My only complaint is that they keep it a secret. Nothing in the online catalog mentions the change, and the liner notes are the same Dave Carey review that was on the 2003 VHS, still referring to the now-deleted clips of Amber Dawn and Ruby Lee. It would also be nice if they'd identify the source (probably the Sonney Collection at UCLA). Two other burlesque films that got upgraded by SWV are "Midnight Frolics" (1949) and "Everybody's Girl" (1950), both definitely worth getting.
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