Sassy showgirl Dixie Daisy (Barbara Stanwyck) is a hit with the hot-blooded crowd at the former opera house turned burlesque theatre. Not least with cocky comic Biff Brannigan (Michael O'Shea) who is less than subtle about bagging her for himself. However, Dixie's popularity angers stuck-up diva Lolita La Verne (Victoria Faust) who is angling for the top spot. Further complicating matters is the return of the Princess Nirvena (Stephanie Bachelor), the show's former star. She once had a fling with theatre boss S.B. Foss (J. Edward Bromberg) and seems intent on blackmailing her way back to stardom. As if all that were not enough two performers are found strangled with a g-string and the cops latch onto Dixie as prime suspect.
Although Barbara Stanwyck never performed in a burlesque theatre the former Ziegfeld Girl's first triumph on Broadway was in a 1927 play called Burlesque. Stanwyck's performance led famed Broadway producer Arthur Hopkins to describe her as "the greatest natural actress of our time" although in theatre snob fashion he also lamented "one of the theatre's great potential actresses was embalmed in celluloid." Well, nuts to him. For while no Stanwyck classic compared to The Lady Eve (1941), Ball of Fire (1941) or certainly Double Indemnity (1944), Lady of Burlesque finds the Hollywood great on fine form, perfectly cast as a brassy broad, quick with a quip and as hard-boiled as she is sexy. Even so it was an odd assignment for William A. Wellman. More often thought of as a 'man's man' director, Wellman loved working with Stanwyck as did many directors won over by her staunch work ethic and ability to rough it out with the boys without the airs and graces common to many a movie star. Judging from the near-parodic tone of scenes like the police interrogation (where all the comedians keep wisecracking in the face of police suspicion) and shootout in the rafters (where the gunman really does shout "you'll never take me alive, copper!"), Wellman approached freewheeling mix of sex, murder and laughs as something of a lark. Even when strippers start dropping like flies it is never remotely serious.
Adapted for the screen by James Gunn (er, not the guy who made Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)), Lady of Burlesque was based on 'The G-String Murders' a novel written by real-life burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. Famously portrayed by Natalie Wood in the musical biopic Gypsy (1962), based on her own memoirs, Gypsy Rose Lee also wrote Doll Face (1945) another movie about a burlesque queen. Less concerned with the murder mystery angle than backstage banter Lady of Burlesque's episodic plot throws in energetic song-and-dance routines (Barbara sings "Take It Off the E-String, Play It On the G-String", and Arthur Lange's score was nominated for an Oscar) and corny comedy (charmless Biff Brannigan's terrible routines show he has no reason to be that cocky) whilst upholding (or is it more fair to say, establishing?) all the clichés we assume about old-time burlesque shows. You've got cat-fights galore where snarling strippers claw their way to the top, bitchy divas with phony accents, blonde bimbos prone to air-headed observations, lecherous comics, grouchy stagehands along with other seedy backstage types only with a sense of fun that suggests the movie Showgirls (1995) wanted to be. Albeit minus the fake breasts.
Wellman's fluid camera glides through glitter and pomp of the seedily glamorous milieu baiting the Hay's Code with frequent scenes of scantily-clad chorus girls shaking their stuff. It is worth watching for the outrageous costumes alone. The high camp factor makes Lady of Burlesque a crowd-pleaser but away from the silliness, Wellman stages some darker moments (while snooty songbird Lolita La Verne is slapped around by her brutal bootlegger boyfriend, Dixie sings loudly on stage to drown out her screams) while the story etches surprisingly poignant mini-portraits of desperate people on the lowest rung of showbiz. Barbara Stanwyck emphasizes Dixie's ability to empathize with these folks. While the police prove more snarky than sympathetic a key scene has Dixie rally her fellow burlesque performers to tough it out and protect their livelihoods. Aside from flaunting a sensational figure in racy outfits, Stanwyck imbues her brassy heroine with the same gutsy determination found in her more acclaimed roles.