Barbara Stanywck is one of my top five favorite actresses. There was no role or genre she didn’t do well, from film noir, to comedy to historical dramas to weepies and more, she brought authenticity to all of her films.
AMONG THE BEST
Starting out in film she had a similar background to contemporary Joan Crawford. Like Crawford she often played working class girls . But unlike Crawford whose characters clawed their way into wealth and respectability, often through their relationship with men, Stanwyck’s characters achieved their goals through their own grit and independence, while also displaying vulnerability.
It is these characteristics which also differentiated her from another strong leading actress, Bette Davis. Barbara Stanwyck had heart and she displayed it in every character she played. It’s probably also what made her so popular among her co-workers, including directors Cecil B. Demille, Frank Capra, Andre de Toth, Billy Wilder, actors Henry Fonda, Robert Wagner, William Holden as well as those working on her films behind the scenes.
I don’t think anyone could argue that Stanwyck lacked talent. She was nominated four times for the Oscar, though sadly never won (which honestly makes me question the legitimacy of the award). Many of her films are both still popular and famous including Double Indemnity, Stella Dallas, Baby Face, Christmas in Connecticut, and The Lady Eve to name a few. I won’t deny that she is excellent in these films. However, one of her most unique and entertaining films is the under rated Lady of Burlesque.
ABOUT LADY OF BURLESQUE
Based on the novel The G-String Murders written by former burlesque star and strip tease Gypsy Rose Lee, Lady of Burlesque is that strange combination of a murder mystery-comedy. It features a large ensemble cast with Barbara Stanwyck as the headliner.
Stanwyck plays Dixie Daisy, the newest star at an opera house turned burlesque theater. Popular with most of the cast, she is not looked on favorably by Lolita La Verne. Still, her best friend Gee Gee is a comfort. She is also being pursued by Irish comic Biff Brannigan, despite her continual rejections of him.
When Lolita ends up dead, strangled by her own g-string, both Dixie and Brannigan are among the suspects. But you can’t keep a good woman down. Dixie retains her sass and courage. She stands up to the police investigator and determines to solve the crime herself. Things start heating up when another cast member winds up dead. Meanwhile Brannigan is still in hot pursuit of Daisy. What is more in danger, her life or her heart?
This is by no means one of Stanwyck’s best films, but boy, is it a lot of fun. Stanwyck is in top form as the tough but tender dancer throwing wise cracks faster than a speeding bullet.
I love that this film features some of the skills that Stanwyck would have used in her early days working live theater in New York. I can only imagine Stanwyck would have felt right at home in the character of Dixie Daisy, a born entertainer at home on any stage. What’s amazing is how easy she makes it look. Already in her thirties at the time Lady of Burlesque was filmed, she was about fifteen years past her theater days. Yet she danced and shimmied like she never left, even bouncing down into the splits. Twice! The costumes leave little to the imagination and show just what great shape Stanwyck was in, still svelte and full of energy.
Though she is the star, Stanwyck never hogs the camera. She is supported by some marvelous supporting players in the large cast, many whom I’ve never seen before. As I said before, this is definitely an ensemble piece and I loved seeing the behind the scenes workings of a burlesque theater. Each cast member is a valuable part of the whole and gets their share of screen time, making the most of it. Those who play the dancers, comics and support staff make this feel like a family, albeit an imperfect one, with bribery, bickering, betrayal and hypocrisy challenging their relationships.
Stanwyck’s rapport with Michael O’Shea who plays Biff Brannigan is natural and sassy. Their interactions are characterized by rapid fire repartee, teasing, flirting and acceptance of each other as they are. Dixie’s prejudice against comics is well-founded but Brannigan never lets it bother him. He keeps his good-natured confidence. Even though she is constantly putting him in his place, Stanwyck plays it with a subtle undercurrent hinting to the viewer that she really wants him to prove her wrong.
The mystery behind the murders kept me guessing until the last minute both times I watched it. That’s mainly because there are so many people in the theater guilty of things other than murder that it makes them suspect. The clues about the real murderer are not made obvious until the last minute. Even though there are a couple of deaths, the tension is kept light by the comedic aspects of the film and by the rather blase responses of Dixie and Brannigan.
Unfortunately, Lady of Burlesque fell into the public domain, so it is hard to find a clean copy of the film. I own the DVD, but watched it on Amazon Prime. Both sources had some fuzzy scenes at the beginning, but cleared up rather quickly.
Many thanks to Maddy of Maddy Loves Her Classic Films and Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for shining a spotlight on this incredible actress. You can find other entries celebrating Barbara Stanwyck on their websites.