eyelights: its variety show format. its pretty ladies.
eyesores: its poorly choreographed dance numbers. its weak acts. its cheap production. its choppy editing.
‘Varietease’ is the second of three feature length films that featured Bettie Page. As the title may suggest, the 1954 Irving Klaw-directed picture is a variety show that largely banks on its sexy dancers to draw in an audience.
Its main star is Lili St. Cyr, a famous burlesque dancer and stripper from the ’40s and ’50s. The whole picture revolves around her closing number, teasing the audience along the way by showing St. Cyr preparing for her performance.
Yes, preparing (undressing, dressing, teasing her hair, …etc.) as though we were backstage with her.
For most people, the draw of the picture is the legendary Bettie Page, who has the opening number, but who doesn’t return thereafter. Her piece, which is a poorly-choreographed “Dance of the Seven Veils”, is largely disappointing.
Page, who has always shown a certain playfulness and zest for life, seems to be going through the motions, here, seemingly improvising what could have been a commanding performance. Instead she lets the others take the spotlight.
Sadly, they’re no better: the host, Bobby Shields, is a talented but burned out young drunk who can’t seem to keep his eyes open, the singers are okay but are synched, the comedy is stale and the dancers seem to be improvising.
Add to this a cheap production, which re-uses a lot of its sets in various combinations, and one gets the impression that Irving Klaw made this movie on the cheap; it’s a wonder if the acts were paid at all for being in this “entertainment”.
But where technical proficiency and talent are lacking, there remains an eagerness to please that is endearing: the filmmakers and performers tried their best to put together an enjoyable, 70-minute cabaret show with truly limited means.
I very much like the variety show format. I grew up in an era when that was very popular on TV – though I never bothered to watch any of it, as I was too young to care. But I like the idea of a mishmash of a bunch of different acts together.
It’s like a mixtape: you may not like all of it, but there will be standouts.
Similarly as a mixtape, the presentation can make a difference; the order in which the numbers are sequenced and the quality can make a difference. Here, there’s a good ratio of sexy dance numbers and other routines; it doesn’t get redundant.
One of my favourite bits is Baros and Rogers’ comedy dance number, in which he gets irritated with her moves while she carries a pained expression, trying to get through it. Unfortunately, they (purposely) keep tripping up and screwing up.
It’s poorly staged and the performance doesn’t hold up on the screen, as you can see all the flaws, but the act is good. With multiple cameras and judicial editing, it could have worked quite well. Sadly, it doesn’t fulfill its full potential.
Another decent one is Christine Nelson’s act, which is a mixture of song and comedy: she essential opens with a few droll lines, sings a song, stops midway to tell a few jokes about weddings and relationships and then finishes off her song.
It’s not a great number, per se, but it’s enjoyable despite its old school perspective on male-female interactions. One thing I liked is that they chose a female comedienne, which I would imagine there weren’t an abundance of back in 1954.
Bobby Shields was intriguing because he clearly had talent, doing a bebop dance number at one point, singing a couple of songs, mimicking other performers during one of them. But he’s out of it and looks sleezy; I wonder what his story is.
Also intriguing is the fact that there are two drag numbers. Well, officially, there’s one: a beautiful redhead does a slinky dance number for her date while in a restaurant, and then he proceeds to try to outdo her while dressed in drag.
But there appears to be another, an incompetent bolero number in which the female companion has got to be a guy. I wish I could figure out who the performers were, but it’s understandable why they wouldn’t want their identities known.
It’s a truly terribly-performed number that would scream of cultural misappropriation today.
Another unusual piece is the pseudo-French Can Can number that one girl performed… alone. Now, her moves weren’t bad, and she was enthusiastic, but this works best in large numbers, for effect. Doing a solo group dance simply doesn’t work.
That she seemed to be losing vigour as it progressed obviously didn’t help.
The biggest letdown, though, is Lily St. Cyr’s finale. After all the build-up, all we got was a simple stripping routine, nothing special. It’s competent in comparison to all the others, but that’s not saying much at all. It’s truly quite plain.
It’s a two-piece set, thankfully, and the second part was appealing because it finds St. Cyr sitting on a large footrest, slowly moving in half-darkness, her shadow doubling her behind her. It was brief, but at least there was spectacle to it.
You know, if your expectations are low.
Ultimately, ‘Varietease’ isn’t grand entertainment, but it certainly means well. It’s probably akin to a decently-produced high school show; not great, but fun if the performers are of interest to you – and if you dig that sort of thing.
Fans of Bettie Page are probably better off skipping this film, however, as she has very little screentime and, as with all the other dancers, is poorly-choreographed and seems to be improvising. It’s not in the same realm as her best work.
This is merely a teaser; it’s not at all satisfying.
Date of viewing: August 21, 2017