Photo: Barbara Stanwyck in “Lady of Burlesque.”
This post has been corrected. See note below for details.
While being tops in your field can be exciting, an ambitious or intellectually curious person always looks for new ways to grow. This was particularly true for stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. A national star for years for her creative striptease act, Lee hoped to spread her wings into more respectable and challenging fields.
Born January 9, 1911, in Seattle to parents John Olaf and Rose Hovick, Ellen June Hovick saw her name changed to Rose Louise when her younger sister Ellen June was born. After her parents divorced, mama Rose and the girls took to the vaudeville stage. June was the star of the family, supported by her older sister, until Louise ran away and got married at the age of 15. Louise gained her first success when a shoulder strap broke on a dress as she performed on stage, and the crowd went wild. She quickly became a headliner, engaging in witty, classy, and creative strip teases, with the act as much about teasing, imagination, and the possibility of more. Louise changed her name to Gypsy Rose Lee, and began starring in shows at Minsky’s and other burlesque houses.
By 1937, Lee dreamed of trying new things, like appearing in films. She arrived in Hollywood in the spring of 1937 as a Twentieth Century-Fox signee, looking forward to roles in films. She told writer Grace Kingsley of the Los Angeles Times on April 25 that at the age of four, she and her sister June appeared in crowd scenes during early Harold Lloyd comedies. Lee also noted that she didn’t take stripping seriously, just took it all in fun.
During the filming of “You Can’t Have Everything,” an organized letter writing campaign harassed Fox before the release of her film debut, with more than 4,000 letters condemning her and the studio arriving with a week from one Midwestern city. To help ease public tensions, Lee reverted to her real name, Louise Hovick, for her roles in this film, “Sally, Irene, and Mary,” and “The Battle of Broadway.” In all three films, Lee played unsympathetic parts. She would go on to appear in a few more.
Lee became actively involved with helping raise money for the poor fighting to survive the Spanish Civil War. In 1938, the Dies Committee summoned her to appear before them in Cleveland to talk about her involvement in raising money for Spanish Loyalists. As she told the Los Angeles Times, “Maybe we did give parties in Hollywood to raise money for poor kids and women in China and Spain. Is that un-American?” Lee continued with her activities, becoming chairperson of the Clothing Division of the Spanish Refugee Relief Campaign.
Mystery novels soared to the top of the charts in 1940, as Americans looked for diverting entertainment from world sorrows and potential war. Lee jumped into the craze, capitalizing on her name and background to pen a story revolving around burlesque shows and stripping called “The G-String Murders,” published by Simon and Schuster. Released October 3, 1941, the book quickly sold, with a sixth printing only a few months later. The book featured Gypsy Rose Lee playing a detective as one by one, showgirls appearing with her are bumped off. The dust jacket of the book stated, “Here is the living portrait of burlesque with assorted deaths thrown in. Here in the G-String Murders is a new brisk literary style, written in her native mascara language by Gypsy Rose Lee–in person. As a writer she is a new original on the American scene — the first important brunette since “Gentlemen Preferred Blondes.” She did not write this book once. “I wrote it three times,” Gypsy says, “with a thesaurus.”
Bill Henry of the Los Angeles Times reviewed it November 9, 1941, stating, “Who could ask for more? If you don’t like burlesque, you’ll be glad it’s murder and if you don’t like burlesque, well, what more can you ask for?”
Hollywood showed immediate interest in the book. Producer David O. Selznick, acting for United Artists, seriously considered buying it, with writer Ben Hecht lined up to produce and direct. Instead, his brother, talent agent Myron Selznick, helped former MGM producer Hunt Stromberg set up his own independent producing company and organize financing to purchase the property as his first indie production. Selznick interested client, director William Wellman, in the story, with Stromberg immediately signing him. Gypsy Rose Lee told the press in the spring of 1942 that her sister June Havoc would play the lead, but Barbara Stanwyck was soon signed to star.
Photo: Barbara Stanwyck in “Lady of Burlesque.”
Stromberg originally hoped to hire Herman Mankiewicz to pen the script, but he signed the female author Craig Rice to write the screenplay. Rice, author of several books and a screenwriter, was a friend of Lee’s, and rumored to have helped ghost write the novel. Several incidents were toned down for the screen in order to win Production Code approval. After testing of the title revealed that many people in the Midwest either knew nothing of what a G-string referred to or either thought it tied in to classical music, the film’s title was changed to “Lady of Burlesque.”
A “bevy of blondes” were inked for roles, including Gloria Dickson, Iris Adrian, and Marion Martin. Newcomer Michael O’Shea landed the part of Stanwyck’s love interest. Ironically as filmmaking started, New York Major Fiorello La Guardia shut down burlesque shows in his city.
With the story taking place behind the scenes of a burlesque show, music and songs were added, including the song “Take It Off Of the E String, Play It On the G String,” sung by Stanwyck in the film as she performed modest bumps, grinds, and stripteases. The song became a hit, and helped earn the film an Oscar nomination for Best Music, Scoring to Drama or Comedy Pictures.
“Lady of Burlesque” was released in 1943, playing at Grauman’s Chinese and the Carthay Circle among other theatres. Edwin Schallert said, “It is a film that reflects class in its casting and general presentation, and is remarkable in the number of new people it introduces.” He considered the background and musical numbers the highlight of the film, with an okay story backing them up. Stanwyck as usual was noted for a fine portrayal, something very different from her usual roles. Thrifty Drugstores even sold paperback versions of “The G-String Murders” for 49 cents to tie-in with the release, playing it up in their weekly ads in the Los Angeles Times.
The film is an interesting curio of how fame often leads to synergistic entertainment deals, some that actually produce fun and well crafted work like this one.
Correction: A previous version of this post identified the mayor of New York as James La Guardia. It was Fiorello La Guardia.