It was known as “the poor man’s Follies.”
Despite the passage of years, Minsky’s Burlesque retains its legendary status. As a result, 1968’s “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” William Friedkin’s first directorial effort, seems as fresh today as ever. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you this is not exactly a tidy film. Character motivations turn on a dime, and the death of Bert Lahr in the midst of shooting left an enormous hole in the movie.
This is definitely a “plot—what plot?” film, and you end up not caring anyway. For the record “Minsky’s” shows us what happens when Rachel Shpitenduyvel (Britt Ecklund), late of Pennsylvania Amish country, runs away from home in 1925 to become a burlesque dancer. Whatever. The best parts of the film are the on-stage performances of a no-nonsense chorus line, an affable tenor and some gifted comics. Although Jason Robards is somewhat dour as a top banana, he has his moments—that scene in the deli as he tries to seduce a speechless flapper is excellent.
There’s so much to love about “Minsky’s”:
That marvellously witty score by Lee Adams and Charles Strouse. Listen carefully to the song performed in Trim Hoolihan’s speakeasy—Strouse later used the melody in a slower tempo for Daddy Warbucks’ ballad, “Something Was Missing,” in the Broadway show “Annie.”
You’ll never hear Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 the same way ever again. Trust me.
Jack Burns as a candy butcher hawking “jen-you-ine chee-o-colate bonbons [clap clap] with the nuts inside.” He is absolute perfection, whether using a shill to push more sales or describing the book included with every purchase: “Mademoiselle Fifi. She drove a million Frenchmen wild.” He wears his derby well and his bright voice along with his unforgettable facial expressions make you think he was born in the wrong era.
The absolute love of craft displayed by the veteran performers: Rudy Vallee giving that priceless introduction (and delivering the title song), Dexter Maitland, who had spent many years in burlesque, bringing new life to the role of a somewhat moth-eaten tenor, and best of all, Norman Wisdom. His scene where he explains burlesque to the naive Rachel is lovely, and his appreciation for her ultimate show biz know-how saves the film from a sour ending. And it should come as no surprise that he does a far better bump and grind than Britt Ecklund.
The audience as a leading character. Actually I should say two different characters, because there’s a careful distinction drawn between the working stiffs who spend their lunch hour at the theater and the black tie, uptown crowd out to see Mademoiselle Fifi at the midnight show. In either case, their reactions to what is happening on stage are a highlight of the movie.
Forrest Tucker (“I’m taking the little lady to the theater to make her dee-but”), Joseph Wiseman, Harry Andrews and Denholm Elliott as, respectively, Trim Hoolihan, Louis Minsky, Jacob Shpitenduyvel and Vance Fowler (of the Society for the Suppression of Vice). They were some of the best character actors of their time, and it’s wonderful to watch them in action.
The boys in the orchestra pit whose reactions to Rachel’s Bible dance are priceless. Later, when she appears as Mademoiselle Fifi, I treasure their encouragement of her—the drummer’s wink and a nod as he plays a roll and cymbal crash to signal a bump and grind, and the immortal “boom boom-ba-boom” that accompanies a stripper’s strut across the stage.
It’s interesting that the role of Billy Minsky, played by an incredibly young yet negligible Elliot Gould, was first offered to Alan Alda (His commitment to “The Apple Tree,” then playing on Broadway, precluded the film appearance). He’s a major contributor to “Behind the Burly Q,” Leslie Zemeckis’ fascinating documentary, in which former strippers, comics, dancers and their survivors describe what burlesque was like in its heyday. Until I saw it, I had no idea that Robert Alda, Alan’s father, who’s best known for creating the role of Sky Masterson in Broadway’s “Guys and Dolls,” began his career as a straight man and “tit singer” in burlesque, i.e., the tenor who sang the opening song as the girls paraded across the stage, assets on display.
“Behind the Burly Q” features some great dish involving the biggest stars (Gypsy Rose Lee, Lili St. Cyr, Ann Corio, Blaze Starr), and the revelation of some trade secrets (strippers always carefully handed their discarded clothing to someone waiting in the wings—no tossing into the audience). But what endures is a terrific oral history by performers taking pride in their art and their ability to keep their audiences entertained during some tough times. I wholeheartedly recommend it.