One of my favorite showbiz anecdotes describes Phil Silvers acting as master of ceremonies at a dive-y burlesque house and apologizing after every blue punchline. The story says more about Silvers than about burlesque, of course, and though it’s ordinarily understood as a token of the comedian’s gentility and charm, the embarrassed punctuation was more likely the genesis of Sgt. Bilko’s inimitable softie subterfuge. But Silvers’s attitude is also a tidy encapsulation of what distinguished burlesque showmanship from the trends it followed (vaudeville, circus peep shows) and preceded (comedy and strip clubs): Burlesque was the hint of sex with a flushed face and a dopey smile, a grand, hammering satire of life’s foibles that reached an ironic arm into the sveltely-staffed diner (e.g., Abbot and Costello’s “Order Something” routine) as readily as the dysfunctional bedroom (as with anticlimactic stripteases).
The documentary Behind the Burly Q follows burlesque from its infancy at the turn of the century in traveling tents, to its Minsky’s and Old Howard heyday, all the way to its demise in the wake of porn theaters and television after WWII, but the film is most entertaining when it allows its impressive collection of talking heads, including aged dancers and the descendents of famous funny men, to dig into the social significance of their claim to stage fame. Director Leslie Zemeckis (spouse of Robert) works a little too hard to make her poorly preserved archival material seem lively (at times the Ken Burns effects on still photos are jerky enough to cause motion sickness) and clearly lacks a sense of storytelling focus, letting the film slip into episodic repetition: How many tragic stories of vain, drug-addicted dancers do we need as an indicator of burlesque’s dark underbelly? But the strength of the testimony, particularly that of women like Blaze Starr and Joan Arline, makes Burly Q a minor oral history success.
There’s valuable discussion of comedy too; Alan Alda, the son of a straight man, was raised backstage, and imparts a handful of intermittently disturbing memories. But it’s the women who steal the show. They speak briefly of their post 1950s lives as receptionists, researchers, even scientists, but the sequin-pocked tales of topless tours and arrhythmic musical acts are laced with acid grudges and ebullient vanities: Even nonagenarian Betty Rowland doffs her senescent lean to growl at the mention of an old competitor. At times their anecdotes smell deliciously of folklore (though we have no trouble believing that John Kennedy accidentally picked up a 13-year-old dancer), but seeing those withered faces juxtaposed with their buxom, youthful, black-and-white glossy counterparts legitimizes nearly any myth. And though Zemeckis may hyperactively attempt to deglamorize burlesque with one fall from grace too many, the hard-knock life suggested by the ex-strippers’ collective demeanor alone deserves the hour and a half of elucidation offered by Burly Q.