(Click here for information on the 2018 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This week, the September selection, Gypsy Rose Lee’s The G-String Murders)
Just in time for Halloween, a spooky serviceable mystery set in the long-lost world of Union Square’s burlesque scene!
Similar to Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak, the story is narrated by Gypsy Rose Lee, but not the Gypsy Rose Lee who was a top-paid “ecdysiast”, sometimes Hollywood second banana, and whose autobiography would provide the source material for the wildly successful Stephen Sondheim musical (and subsequent film). No, instead this is the Gypsy Rose Lee who is playing the small time in Columbus, Ohio, “down to the last punch on my meal ticket”, when she is finally summoned by burlesque impresario H. I. Moss to New York for a run at his flagship theater, The Old Opera House (GIRLS! GIRLS GIRLS! LAFFS! LAFFS! LAFFS! BOXING THURSDAY NIGHTS).
Vulgar and colorful, the book is mostly interesting as a peek behind the curtain of the burlesque scene, and its cast of characters, comics, tenors, stagehands, gangsters and alliteratively-named strippers (I counted Gee Gee Graham, Lolita La Verne, Alice Angel and Sandra Slade; Dolly Baxter seems to break the pattern, until you learn she goes on stage as both “Dynamite Dolly” and “Dynamic Dolly”).
Largely set at some future point after Gypsy’s arrival in New York, and in the midst of preparations for a fabulous party celebrating the purchase of a new toilet for the ladies’ dressing room (!!!), the action starts with an unannounced raid on the theater, in which performers and patrons both are rounded up and arrested: while making a break during a blackout for an exit out of the coal shoot, Gypsy is nearly strangled by an unseen assailant. When the lights come on, she assumes she was the victim of an overly-enthusiastic policewoman.
Hauled into night court at the Women’s House of Detention, the female performers are booked on a charge of prostitution by an unsympathetic judge. Despite Moss’s promise that they’ll be out within the hour, the lot of them are thrown into a cell with a bunch of junkies, who don’t take too kindly to their presence:
The blonde moved away. “There’s two things I hate,” she said. “one’s a baby killer, the other’s a dame that strips down naked for a bunch of morons.” She spat on the floor.
“It’s bitches like you that are ruining my business.”
When Moss finally gets them out, Gypsy also evades a pass from the arresting policewoman…
“I’m sorry I had to meet you under such circumstances,” she said. “You know, if things had been different, we could have had a lot of fun together.”
…before the entire cast and crew is whisked off to a deluxe steak-and-champagne dinner, as an apology for the inconvenience. Moss also presents everyone with shares of stock in the theater, which will have SOMETHING to do with the subsequent murder-mystery, but I’ll be damned if I could figure out what.
Back to the celebration over the new toilet, which has to be put on hold, because although there is no objection to getting a toilet at a discount from a guy who knows a guy, Janine, recording secretary for the Burlesque Artists Alliance local, refuses to work with a non-union plumber:
“When we don’t protect each other that’s the end of the unions! No yellow-bellied scab is walking in this room while I’m here.”
“You and your ‘fellow workers tonight’ dialogue.”
“It’s unite not tonight,” Janine replies with dignity. “And anyway, I’d rather move it myself than have a nonunion odor in the room.”
The ceremony finally gets underway, as the strippers are presented with a few extras from the male personnel of the theater, including a musical toilet-paper roll and a rhinestone encrusted plunger; it is christened with a beer bottle like a battleship; and finally Gee Gee is presented with a paper crown, having been elected “Queen of the Can”.
However, when the door is thrown open to the powder room, out tumbles the body of much-hated Lolita La Verne, “The Golden Voiced Goddess” who has been involved in ongoing affairs with both Dynamite Dolly’s husband and a local gangster, in addition to an ongoing feud with the waiters at the neighboring Chinese restaurant. Fittingly, she’s been strangled to death with her own G-string.
While Gypsy has deduced by this point that it was a male, and not the amorous butch policewoman, that tried to strangle her during the raid on the theater, she can’t get anyone to buy her story. And everyone is a suspect, since pretty much everyone had a motive to off Lolita La Verne.
There are more mysterious happenings in the works in the next 24 hours, including the arrival of a performer calling herself The Princess Nirvena, claiming to be descended from Russian royalty, despite the fact that Gypsy and Gee Gee seem to remember working with her on a bill in Toledo. The Princess also gets mysteriously preferential treatment from Moss, including Gypsy’s star spot, and a free pass from wearing the “full net pants” the other girls have to wear after the raid. She also gets a free pass when she misses the matinee performance, reappearing the next day sporting a set of impressively fake tits.
So, it’s no wonder that The Princess is the next victim of the “Stripper Strangler” as the tabloids have dubbed the murderer.
Look, I’m not even sure how the murders are solved, but it involves Gypsy’s comedian-boyfriend setting her up a decoy, a long-lost relative, and a strangling that turns out to have not been a strangling.
The book was made into a movie in 1943, under the more refined title Lady of Burlesque, and surprisingly, it manages to maintain most of the plot, including the party for the new toilet, despite the fact that it is neither seen, nor explicitly stated exactly what piece of plumbing they are celebrating.
Barbara Stanwyck is cast in the lead, renamed Dixie Daisy, and the project is helmed by the always-reliable William A. Wellman (Wings, Public Enemy, A Star is Born, etc.); together they manage to get a few of the book’s racier bits past the censors of the time, although in her review Pauline Kael noted:
The movie has scenes in which burlesque audiences are stimulated into raucous excitement by the sight of girls clothed practically to the stifling point. Barbara Stanwyck’s bumps and grinds are communicated via her face and a few percussion sounds.
The movie’s secret weapon is its Murder’s Row of supporting actors, B-movie starlets and character actresses, including Iris Adrian, Gloria Dickson, Marion Martin, and future TV pioneer Pinkie Lee.
Although it’s not really a musical, it has a few entertaining song-and-dance sequences, and includes Sammy Cahn’s insidious earworm of a song “Take It Off the E String”:
Anyone who’s seen Gypsy will recognize that she slips a few autobiographical details in, including that she and Gee Gee were a boy-girl kiddie dance act in the Pacific Northwest until Vaudeville was finally declared good and dead and they were lured into burlesque; being taller and less glamorous, Gypsy was stuck playing the boy. Mama Rose, however, is notably absent.
Book: Back in print as part of the City University of New York’s “Femme Fatales” imprint, spotlighting mystery and crime fiction by 20th century women authors.
Movie: Is in the public domain- it was in constant rotation on cable-access, indie and PBS stations in the 1990s, as well as on cheapie VHS and DVDs. The version streaming on Amazon looks ok- it seems to have been sourced from a bunch of film elements, so some sections look and sound better than others. Also available to watch for free on Youtube.
We’re going into reruns for the next six weeks, constant readers, so that I can work on another literary project (WATCH THIS SPACE!); we’ll return for a Lost Classics Holiday installment the week of December 14, and then return to our regularly scheduled programming in January.