Synopsis: Burlesque was one of America’s most popular forms of live entertainment in the first half of the 20th century. Gaudy, bawdy and spectacular, the shows entertained thousands of paying customers every night of the week. And yet the legacy of burlesque is often vilified and misunderstood, and left out of the history books. By telling the intimate and surprising stories from its golden age through the women (and men!) who lived it, Behind The Burly Q reveals the true story of burlesque.
eyelights: its sheer number of anecdotes.
eyesores: its lack of any real structure.
I know very little about burlesque. If not for its resurgence in the last decade, I probably wouldn’t have known of its existence – or conflated it with stripping as we know it now. I’ve since seen a couple of modern burlesque shows, but I have no idea how representative they are of the genre.
Enter ‘Behind the Burly Q’: Released in 2010, the Leslie Zemeckis documentary loosely explores the history of burlesque, from its inception in the ’20s, through its golden age in the ’30s, all the way to its demise at the end of the ’50s – killed off inevitably by the growth of porn cinema.
The film is fulled stocked with pictures and footage of burlesque shows and performers, much of which is rather sexy stuff, providing us with a sense of what burlesque was at the time. To help flesh it out, former burlesque dancers, their family, and experts are interviewed at length on the subject.
They explained that burlesque was partly a novelty show, steeped in old Vaudevillian traditions. Initially, the comedians were the main attraction, and the strip show was an added incentive. However, by the ’50s, the reverse became true, with many of the old comedians retiring altogether.
In fact, Alan Alda and Chris Costello talk about their fathers’ experiences doing burlesque shows in the early days, and of the role and value of straight men in their comedy routines. Interestingly, Alda’s father even took his son on the road; he grew up in that environment and has first-hand knowledge.
More interesting, though, are the interviews with the former dancers, recounting in great detail their backstories, what led them into the business, their trademarks, the censorship laws in various towns, their fans and the gifts they used to receive, the lifestyle and the tragedies.
It’s all very light and sometimes rather humourous, but I found it hard to keep up sometimes because the dancers were all unknown to me (aside for Blaze Starr – and in name only). So, to me, it was essentially a bunch of strangers talking about other strangers, with little context to root them in.
It felt like the documentary was designed for people already familiar with the subject.
Still, ‘Behind the Burly Q’ is a very pleasant anecdotal trip down memory lane, and I do have a much better overall sense of what burlesque was at the time. Yes, many of the stories are already forgotten, and none of the names stuck, but it has nonetheless enriched my understanding of our culture.
I’m sure I’ll watch this again, someday.
Date of viewing: May 10, 2016