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G-String Murders & Burlesque

A flip through the mental Rolodex of Barbara Stanwyck films might come up with pre-Codes like Night Nurse (1931) and Baby Face (1933); films noirs including Double Indemnity (1944), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), and The File on Thelma Jordon (1950); and such comedies as The Lady Eve (1941) and Christmas in Connecticut (1945). You might not land on her 1943 musical-comedy-romance-mystery hybrid, Lady of Burlesque – but you should. It deserves a look.

The film was based on The G-String Murders, a novel published in 1941 and written by famed striptease artist, Gypsy Rose Lee, with Lee herself serving as the story’s narrator. Born Rose Louise Hovick, Lee made her burlesque debut in 1929 and in just two years, she was headlining on Broadway. She would go on to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies; appear in films including Sally, Irene and Mary (1938) and Stage Door Canteen (1943); and write her autobiography, Gypsy, which would be made into musical play starring Ethel Merman and a film starring Natalie Wood.

According to accounts in The Hollywood Reporter, producer David O. Selznick optioned the movie rights on The G-String Murders and planned to test Lee for the film’s starring part. The publication also claimed that Joseph Cotten was considered for a lead role. As it turned out, though, the novel was bought by United Artists and produced by Hunt Stromberg, who tapped Wiliam Wellman to direct.

Lady of Burlesque offers a fairly faithful adaptation of Lee’s book, although the name of Lee’s character was changed to Dixie Daisy (and played by Stanwyck), and the usual concessions were made to adhere to the Production Code. The first such concession was to the title (which references a type of underwear with a small triangle of fabric in the front and a thin strip in the back). In fact, the Production Code Administration (PCA) wanted the use of G-strings removed from the plot altogether. In a letter to the producer, the PCA wrote: “Specifically, we are concerned about the prominent use of the object known as the ‘G-string’ as a murder weapon. It is our impression that the use of this extremely intimate female garment will be considered offensive. . . .” Stromberg pushed back, however, and the use of the G-string in the film remained.

The picture opens at a burlesque house on Broadway with the S.B. Foss (J. Edward Bromberg) presentation of “50 Beautiful Girls, featuring Dixie Daisy, the Darling of Burlesque.” After an entertaining (and all-too-brief) tap number and an amusing Ziegfeld-esque parade of girls, we’re treated to a solo number by Dixie: “Take it Off the ‘E’ String, Play it On the ‘G’ String.” She is watched in the wings by Biff Brannigan (Michael O’Shea), a comedian with the show who has eyes for Dixie – but she treats him with tolerant disdain. “You’re a comic,” she explains. “I went into show business when I was seven years old. Two days later, the first comic I ever met stole my piggy bank in a railroad station in Portland. . . . They’re shiftless, dame-chasing, ambitionless . . .”

In between numbers, and following a barrage of wisecracks and putdowns, there’s lots of action swirling around one of the performers, Lolita (Victoria Faust), sarcastically referred to by one of her colleagues as the “golden-voiced goddess.” First, Lolita and another performer, Dolly Baxter (Gloria Dickson), get into a knock-down, drag-out fight in the dressing room. Then, Lolita clashes with her arch-rival, “Princess Nirvena” (Stephanie Bachelor), who sports a phony Russian accent and has recently returned to the theater after suffering a “dislocated vertebrae.” And if that weren’t enough, Lolita is punched in the face by her gangster boyfriend, Louie Grindero (Gerald Mohr), after he sees her cozying up to the show’s lead singer (Frank Fenton).

Meanwhile, all heck breaks loose when a phalanx of cops storms the theater; as the performers scramble backstage in an attempt to escape the long arm of the law, Dixie finds herself (or, more accurately, her neck) in the grip of a gloved assailant, who chokes her into unconsciousness. Fortunately for Dixie, she’s not seriously harmed, but none of her fellow performers appear to believe her story. “Those hands were long and thin and they knew what they were doing!” Dixie tells them. “I don’t say they wanted to kill me. What I’m saying is that somebody in that theater tried to kill somebody else.”

A couple of scenes later, that somebody else does, indeed, turn up dead – it’s Lolita, who has a G-string wrapped around her neck. But by the time the cops arrive, the murder weapon has disappeared, and the head investigator (Charles Dingle) practically needs a third hand, what with all the finger pointing he’s doing in the direction of various performers, backstage crew, and others. There’s Dolly, who’d started the fight with Lolita by attacking her with a nail file. And James Wong (Beal Wong), a waiter at the nearby Chinese restaurant, who’d been the luckless recipient of a bottle tossed by Lolita. And the scenery manager (Lew Kelly) who, according to the investigator, “makes no secret of his dislike of burlesque performers.” But the prime suspect turns out to be Daisy who, after a quarrel with Lolita, had declared that she should be “put out of her misery, like a mad dog.” 

The plot thickens when the coroner’s report shows that Lolita was poisoned, not strangled, and the action ramps up further when a second murder takes place. But will that be the last death to take place? Will Daisy remain a suspect? And what will become of Daisy and that comic for whom she holds such contempt? (Three guesses as to whether they end up in a clinch by the final reel – and the first two don’t count.)

Barbara Stanwyck’s portrayal of Dixie is the best thing about the film – she’s good, as would be expected, at both the comic and the dramatic aspects of her character. She adds something more, though, with her musical numbers, doing her own singing and dancing – and in one case, tossing off the Russian kick dance, a cartwheel, and even a couple of splits. Her warbling and hoofing ability should come as no surprise; before she hit it big in the movies, she worked as a chorus girl at New York’s Strand Roof nightclub, sang and danced in the Ziegfeld Follies, and performed as one of the “Ladies of the Ensemble” in a Shubert revue, Gay Paree

There were several other notable cast members, as well, including Michael O’Shea, who was making his film debut here and who, like, Stanwyck, had a musical performance background. He played the drums and the banjo and, before becoming an actor, he worked as a comedian and an emcee at speakeasies. Viewers might recognize him from films like The Threat (1949), where he starred as a detective who’s kidnapped by an escaped convict, or The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951), in which he played the business associate and Pinochle partner of star Thelma Ritter. Others on board included Pinky Lee, who actually performed as a comic during the days of burlesque and, during the 1950s, hosted the popular children’s television program, The Pinky Lee Show; and Frank Conroy, a native of England, who was in such classic films as Grand Hotel (1932), The Ox-Bow Incident (1942), The Naked City (1948), The Snake Pit (1948), and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

Before the release of the film in May 1943, Film Daily predicted that it would be a box-office hit, stating that the film offered “vast exploitation opportunities, what with the tremendous publicity that has been garnered by the book, the glamour attached to the authoress’ name, the drawing power of the Barbara Stanwyck name and the fascination of the picture’s setting – a burlesque house once the scene of grand opera – plus the Stromberg name.” The publication wasn’t wrong – the picture garnered mostly favorable reviews from critics and earned a $650,000 profit – which would be a whopping $13.8 million in 2004 dollars.

Not bad for a movie that tells us: “Girls! That’s what the public wants.”


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