Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Varietease (1954)/Teaserama (1955)

One of the odder exploitation movie genres of the 50s was the burlesque movie. In most cases all you had to do was to set up a camera in a burlesque theatre and film so their big advantage was that they were just about the cheapest movies that could possibly be made. The two released by Something Weird in their Bettie Page set, Varietease and Teaserama, are more or less of the same type although not actually filmed in a theatre.

Burlesque itself was a curious piece of Americana (which has undergone a unexpected revival recently). Burlesque movies give us the chance to see what this odd art form was really like. That’s something we can’t really do with other similar theatrical phenomena such as vaudeville, music-hall or Victorian melodrama.

Burlesque was essentially a mixture of comedy routines and strip-tease. Both the comedy and the stripping are quite unlike their modern descendants. The classic burlesque comic was the baggy-pants comic. Unlike modern stand-up comedy these routines involved two or more people and were more in the nature of comic dialogues than comic monologues.

And the classic strip-tease artiste was not what we think of when we think of strippers. These ladies were never actually naked. It was, like the cheesecake photography and the pin-up illustrations of the same era, a curiously innocent form of erotica. What it lacked in explicitness it made up for in glamour. Which explains why, in this age of all-pervasive internet porn, these art forms still have a following. Sex can be glamorous and fun.

Another odd thing about burlesque was that it was extremely popular among women. Burlesque theatres were not all-male preserves.

Varietease and Teaserama provide a pretty extensive sampling of the burlesque of the 50s. While they’re both promoted as Bettie Page films, which is natural enough given her iconic status, she’s not the star of either of them (although she’s certainly featured). The real stars are two of the most famous of all burlesque queens, Lili St Cyr and Tempest Storm. Of course the modern idea of feminine beauty is that women should look like anorexic boys. And Lili St Cyr and Tempest Storm most definitely do not fit that mould. They were nonetheless, for a whole generation of American men, the personification of female beauty. And they have the glamour.

Both movies were clearly very cheaply produced and you won’t see much in the way of imaginative filming techniques. Perhaps that’s fitting since it means the emphasis is on the performers.

Both movies include a commentary track by Something Weird head honcho Mike Vraney and sexploitation movie legend Dave Friedman. Watching with the commentary track is probably the way to go. You need to know the historical background to get anything out of these movies and these guys prove that background.

They’re really historical curiosities more than anything else but they do provide a fascinating glimpse of a very different world of cinematic erotica. And if you’re a Bettie Page fan she’s not only in both features but also in the shorts included as extras - she even gets some dialogue in one of the shorts!


The Vicar of VHS said...

I totally agree with your point about Burlesque as a strangely innocent type of sexy performance. It's the same feeling I get when I look at the pin-up art of the 50s by folks like Gil Evgren--it's gorgeous and extremely sexy, but at the same time playful and innocent in a way that explicit porn just isn't. Maybe it's because the girls are almost always smiling, like they're enjoying it as much as you are.

BTW, if you want a taste of what Victorian Melodrama might have been like, it's been said that the cinema of Tod Slaughter is about as close as we have to a surviving record. I can recommend his 1936 version of Sweeney Todd, which is available in lots of public domain editions, and which I reviewed here.

dfordoom said...

Vicar, I have the Alpha Video Tod Slaughter boxed set. The picture quality is what you expect from Alpha Video but I've watched a couple of the movies and they're fantastic. This guy takes scenery chewing to whole new levels. It includes Sweeney Todd which is definitely great fun.