Burlesque may star Cher and Christine Aguilera, but there's too much glitter
So there’s a new musical out about burlesque. They’ve made the wrong movie writes Paul Dale
Burlesque starring Cher and Christine Aguilera is a film that has missed its moment. The resurgence and revival of burlesque dominoed by club nights in New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans, and later globalised by Dita Von Teese, now seems to belong to a boom and bust era that also gave us sub prime mortgages and Angelina Jolie. Roller derby girls with their penchant for violence, fishnets and battered vintage mini skirts put the austerity and anarchy back in burlesque long ago. Those gilded shows of fleshly beauty, Swarovski crystals and giant cocktail glasses attended by every unsavoury celebrity on the planet now just seem unspeakably, unforgivably decadent.
The thing is, good old-fashioned burlesque was never really about any of that stuff. Respect is due to the yesteryear’s comely ladies – Sally Rand, Tempest Storm and Gypsy Rose Lee – but let us not forget that the American appropriation of burlesque (the one that continues to have the most influence) had its roots in 19th century music hall and vaudeville. The burlesque that developed in the early 1900s blended satire, performance and semi-erotic entertainment. More importantly this fusion of striptease, broad comedy, dancing girls, chanson singers, the lowbrow and ribald directly shaped a young man from Quebec who would go on to define the future of American film comedy.
Mack Sennett was a Canadian iron foundry worker who wanted to be an opera singer and instead found himself in New York’s Bowery Burlesque Theatre appearing as the back end of a pantomime horse. Writing talent, a fiscal shrewdness and a fair degree of luck saw him befriend DW Griffiths and move to the sunnier climes of California and set up Keystone Studios. There, with his sweetheart Mabel Normand, low cost director Henry ‘Pathe’ Lehrman and comedians Fred Mace and Ford Sterling, Sennett took burlesque to the streets and filmed the mayhem that ensued when he allowed his cast to interfere with real incidents. The frustration of the real police at the slapstick antics of Sennett’s players was soon developed into the parody of the Keystone cops – an anarchic, all destructive, all corrupt bunch of moronic policemen. These silent comedy two-reelers ruled the world for a while and changed everything.
A skinflint, halitosis-ridden, alcoholic, womaniser Sennett employed, mentored and ultimately lost among others Harry Langdon, Fatty Arbuckle, Ben Turpin, WC Fields, Charlie Chaplin and Bing Crosby, all of whom went on to be major players in Hollywood. Frank Capra was one of his scenario writers/gag men, Sennett was renowned for starving his writers because it made them funnier. Capra got so funny he left.
Sennett was a spittoon-hitting beast of a man – he employed a huge turbaned Arab to bathe him and used to twirl his impressive manhood like a cane to intimidate new talent, men and women alike. But he did lay down a template for slapstick film comedy – beautiful women, wide-eyed idiots, meritorious fools and the bug-like armies of unhinged authority. Were the aggression and farcical nature of his films a comment on free enterprise? Custard was endlessly wasted in pies and many a Model T Ford was destroyed in his war on conspicuous consumption. It’s no wonder the Dadaists loved him.
In this age of austerity and protest what we need is a film about the real stars of burlesque, without the glitter.
Burlesque, general release, Fri 17 Dec.