Thursday, 21 March 2019
Midnight Frolics (1949)
Of course burlesque itself is an art form that is also long gone, somewhat ironically swept away by the sexual revolution. Everyone has heard of burlesque and most people they have at least a vague idea that it was synonymous with strip-tease. In fact strip-tease was merely one element of the classic burlesque show. A show would also feature singers, fully clothed musical routines and comics. It was kind of like vaudeville but with semi-naked ladies.
For those who wonder what an actual burlesque show was like there is no need to wonder. Quite a few burlesque shows were filmed and quite a few of these burlesque movies survive. Some can be found online or on public domain DVD releases but the quality is often dire. Fortunately Something Weird Video offered something much better - a two-disc set including six complete feature-length burlesque movies of the late 40s and early 50s, with very acceptable transfers.
Midnight Frolics is the first movie on disc one and it’s the only one I’ve watched so far.
Of course there is no plot at all. It’s just a filmed stage show (filmed at the Belasco Theater in Los Angeles). There are lots of strip-tease artistes but there’s also plenty of the other characteristic burlesque acts.
The comedy routines are excruciatingly bad. I wasn’t surprised that there were plenty of dirty jokes but I was surprised that most of the jokes aren’t sexual jokes but rather crude toilet humour. Of the four or five comic turns there is one that has some amusing moments and it’s the clean parts of the routine that provide the only laughs.
There’s a girl singer who’s OK. There are several all-singing all-dancing big production numbers that involve absolutely no nudity or even any suggestion of such a thing. They’re just the kinds of production numbers you’d expect to see in an average B-movie musical of that era. They’re actually not too bad. And there’s a girl acrobat.
Of course what attracted customers to burlesque shows and burlesque movie was the prospect of seeing attractive ladies taking their clothes off. And this movie features lots of strippers. In the heyday of burlesque the girls usually did not strip naked (although I believe that when they played cities that were known for their relaxed approach to such matters they did on occasion strip fully naked). In this movie they don’t even go close to nakedness. Relatively substantial G-strings and bras is as far as they go. The secret to the success of the strip-tease artiste was her ability to make the audience think she was being much naughtier than she actually was. So if you think you’re going to see naked female flesh you’re going to be disappointed. This is stuff that would be considered only just raunchy enough to get a PG rating today!
It is interesting to see how the classical strip-tease act actually worked. Each girl’s routine is broken into three distinct segments. First she does a fully-clothed dance that is breathtakingly respectable. Mind you, in those days the strippers actually did know how to dance. She then leaves the stage and immediately returns and does her strip-tease. She then leaves the stage again and again immediately returns, this time to do another dance. This third stage is in all cases by far the most raunchy part of the act. They’re now scantily clad and they’re getting into bump and grind territory. These young ladies know how to shake those parts of the female anatomy that look good when they’re shaking. While it would still seem very tame compared to what strippers were getting up to a few decades later they do achieve a degree or eroticism that would have been fairly exciting at the time and actually seems quite attractive today for its ability to be sexually suggestive without being crude.
The star performer of this show is a young lady named Sunny Knight. She also incidentally is the one who ends up most scantily clad. I rather suspect that being allowed to reveal a lot more flesh may have been one of the privileges of stardom.
This is one of the six burlesque movies in Something Weird's Strip Strip Hooray two-disc set.
Midnight Frolics has a lot of historical cultural interest. It’s an intriguing glimpse of an extinct art form and it’s a reminder of an era when the emphasis was on sexiness rather than sex. Whether you’ll enjoy the movie depends entirely on how interested you are in burlesque.