Directed by William Friedkin
Produced by Norman Lear
Screenplay by Norman Lear, Sidney Michaels and Arnold Schulman
Based on the novel by Rowland Barber
Starring Jason Robards, Brittt Ekland, Norman Wisdom, and Bert Lahr
Release date: December 22, 1968
I will start by saying I have not read the novel and cannot comment on whether it was adapted well to film, nor the historical accuracy of the novel itself. I will also add, that as with any review, this is my personal opinion, feel free to agree, disagree and leave comments with your own!
So first off, here is the background on the real life Minsky’s Burlesque…
Minsky’s Burlesque refers to the brand of American burlesque presented by four sons of Louis and Ethel Minksy: Abraham ‘Abe’ Bennett Minsky (1880–1949), Michael William ‘Billy’ Minsky (1887–1932), Herbert Kay Minsky (1891-1959), and Morton Minsky (1902–1987). They started in 1912 and ended in 1937 in New York City. The shows were declared obscene and outlawed, (though they were rather tame by modern standards).
Originally starting out in showing “racy” films in 1908, Abe Minsky was closed down by his own father. The brothers then went on to show “normal” films in their theatre, but couldn’t compete with the larger theatres. From there they added vaudeville performers to try and add a bit of something extra to the movie-going experience, but they couldn’t afford very good ones. This lead them to turn to the cheaper burlesque – a bawdy, rude (by implication) and comical entertainment (think Benny Hill). A runway stage was constructed to bring the performers out into the audience and the sign out front was changed to read “Burlesque As You Like It – Not a Family Show.”
Minsky’s was raided for the first time in 1917 when performer Mae Dix absent-mindedly began removing her costume before she reached the wings. When the crowd cheered, Dix returned to the stage to continue removing her clothing to wild applause. Billy ordered the “accident” repeated every night. This began an endless cycle: to keep their license, the Minskys had to keep their shows clean, but to keep drawing customers they had to be risqué. Whenever they went too far, they were raided again… and again and again.
The raid that inspired the novel and movie occurred in 1925. By this time it was permissible for women in shows staged, including burlesque, to appear topless as long as they did not move – a tableau rather than performance. It was the fact that performer Mademoiselle Fifi (Mary Dawson from Pennsylvania) moved during such an act that caused this raid.
In 1931 the Minsky’s moved their show to Broadway, inspiring the opening of many other burlesque shows. Business boomed during The Great Depression, with audience members unable to afford the more expensive Broadway offerings. After that there were many ups and downs for the brothers, but the final blow came in 1937. After two years of campaigning from a citizen action group opposed to burlesque’s “corrupting moral influence”, supported by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, tension was running high. When a performer appeared sans g-string the show was raided once more. This was to become the death blow on all burlesque in New York for both Minsky’s and their rivals. Burlesque licenses were revoked and were renewals refused, with shows only able to reopen if they adhered to new rules forbidding strippers. Business became so bad that many theatres had to close, eventually the word “burlesque” was banned and soon thereafter the Minsky name itself, since the two had become synonymous.
As mentioned above, the novel and film are supposed to be based on the 1925 raid and indeed, Britt Ekland’s burlesque personae is that of Madamoiselle Fifi. However, the actual events of the film seem much more based in the raid of 1917, which was arguably more titillating!
Britt Ekland plays Rachel Schpitendavel, an Amish girl from rural Pennsylvania who comes to New York to make it as a dancer. The dances she has created are dull, boring and based on Biblical stories – a subject often covered by the tableau style performances that resulted in the 1925 raid.
Her arrival comes at a time when the show is being plagued by moral crusader Vance Fowler (Denholm Elliott), who is attempting to have the show raided and closed. Thusly, despite her dance being too chaste for the show, Billy Minsky (Elliott Gould) and show front man Raymond Paine (Jason Robards) hatch a plan to employ her in an attempt to discredit Fowler. The plan is simple – put the word about that Rachel is in fact a notorious performer Madamoiselle Fifi planning to perform the “dance that drove a million Frenchmen wild”, and encourage Fowler to incite a raid, with the result that the police will arrive and find a chaste Biblical inspired performance instead and Fowler will be humiliated.
Simple! Simple? Not quite. In the meantime loveable buffoon Chick (played by one of my comedy heroes, Norman Wisdom) falls for Rachel, but as it turns out so does the stand-offish, normally unfeeling Raymond – a rather unfortunate love triangle ensues. On top of this, Rachel’s father arrives to take her home…
This does not all end well, depending on your perspective… Discovering the plan that has been hatched, a hurt and defiant Rachel forgoes her Biblical dance and dresses in a burlesque costume, going on stage to walk around and tease the audience with a glove peel, etc. Outraged, her father runs on stage to drag her off and inadvertently rips her dress. Her breasts are revealed, much to the delight of the audience and the raid goes ahead and almost everyone on the scene, including Rachel’s father, are arrested.
I think it depends really on what you want to get out of this movie. As a portrayal of American burlesque before striptease – comedy acts, lewd women in not very much, and excesses of tongue in cheek (again, think Benny Hill), the film is pretty good.
In the portrayal of a historical event, it falls down a little, mixing together the events of the 1917 and 1925 raids. But artistic license means it can be forgiven and it’s more interesting than watching a film about a naked woman who accidently moves during a tableau.
As a film… it’s ok. Well, no, I enjoyed large parts of it. The scenes portraying the acts happening on stage are brilliant – a show within a show. Watching the day unfold as they do show after show after show throughout the day and night is interesting and insightful. But it is the characters that let it down for me. Britt is only just believable as the virginal Rachel, and is much better suited to her future roles such as her turn in the Wicker Man (1973). Raymond, who becomes the love interest, is completely unlovable and might have well just stepped out of a really really really bad Mills and Boon novel.
The whirlwind relationship that blooms between Rachel and Raymond is both baffling and unbelievable. They meet, fall in love (?), have sex (!), and then for some reason I am yet to fathom, he walks out on her and the show when she goes on stage for a bit of burly. Maybe he just wanted a nice gal to take home to meet the parents and within a day she became a burlesque performer. So perhaps she is no longer the right lady for him? Or was it his overwhelming guilt at being the main instrument of turning this naive innocent girl into a de-virginated stripper? On some level there’s an awesome movie in that… but it’s not this movie.
Another thing that got to me was the dead end romance with Chick. I may be bias, but Norman Wisdom steals every scene he is in. Literally everything he does in this film is gold, and the initial romance that sparks between him and Rachel is much more believable and cute and would have made a much better film. Unfortunately, ever to be the slapstick sidekick, Chick gives up love rights to the better man (blergh!), Raymond. If the love angle in this movie had been Chick and Rachel I could have totally bought it! And I’m sure Chick would not have plotted to humiliate the girl, then deflower her, and then leave her when she inadvertently flashes the world (or at least the theatre) her basoombas. No Chick would have been an AWESOME love interest. But again… that’s not this movie. Bah!
For me personally, there is also something pointless and unresolved about the ending. It’s unclear where the story will go after the film ends, or even how anyone involved, including Rachel, really feel about what has just happened. It feels a bit like The Empire Strikes Back, but we don’t have a Return of the Jedi to come along and tie it all back together again.
So my final verdict? Over all, it’s a watchable movie. The love triangle and subsequent storyline of less than awesome-ness are balanced out by some really great onstage antics, fun costumes, and insights into what the show may have been like. I’d urge anyone interested in burlesque to watch it, but preferably armed with the knowledge of the history of Minsky’s and New York burlesque during that period to get the most out of it.
I’m giving this movie 6.5/10
Big ass love from le