Released in 1968 this flick could have been made today as a relevant retrospective to burlesque.
The naughty nature of burlesque versus the rude routines that pass as suggestive stage entertainment today are in stark contrast when you compare today’s crude crotch crunking with the clumsy bumps and grinds of yesteryear.
Produced by Norman Lear and directed by William Friedkin, it is based on a book by Rowland Barber which paints a fictional account of the invention of the striptease.
This story opens in 1925 when a young Amish girl, Rachel (a very young Britt Ekland) arrives in New York City with misguided dreams of being a dancer.
Of course her strict, overly religious father would have nothing to do with her dancing aspirations so she runs away from her home in Pennsylvania. For some strange reason she runs off to join the Minsky Burlesque show, obviously lacking a dictionary at home with which to look up the word “burlesque”.
Watching the scene of her entering the burlesque theater, I couldn’t help but hum The Eagles “Those Shoes” over the resident soundtrack.
When she arrives, she initially meets Professor Spats (a very old Bert “The Cowardly Lion” Lahr), a retired stage performer. Try making that long walk through New York City today without meeting characters a lot shadier than this nice old man. He was certainly a lot less menacing than the Cowardly Lion was to Dorothy.
Wearing her naivete on her homemade dress like a wino’s spittle from a subway ride, the kindly Professor agrees to introduce her to the cast. All this in spite of her desire to perform dances from the Bible on stage. Really?
Meanwhile, the theater owner Louis Minsky (Joseph “Dr. No” Wiseman) and his son, Billy (a very young Elliot Gould) are being hounded by a man named Fowler (Denholm Elliot), the Secretary for the Society for Decency, obviously a defunct office in these modern times. Believe it or not, he actually thinks the costumes are too skimpy, the humor too suggestive and the dancing a little too dirty. This guy would die of heart failure and a terminal erection just watching a Super Bowl halftime show these days, but I digress. Receiving letters from the Secretary of Decency, Billy’s dad, Louis, wisely refuses to renew his son’s lease. But he will sell the theater to him for a tidy sum. Billy tries to get Trim, a small time gangster and burlesque lover, to invest (a same-o-same-o looking Forrest Tucker) but he refuses. He’s just there to enjoy the scenery.
Cue classic funnyman Chick Williams (Sir Norman Wisdom in an excellent vaudeville performance) and his “straight man” partner Raymond Paine (Jason Robards as a cad first class). When the Professor introduces the young runaway to the both of them, hilarity ensues, of course, but not before the foreshadowing of conflict. For Chick, it’s love at first sight, whereas Raymond is less than impressed with all this Bible stuff. But, Britt IS hot, so will he just momentarily convert for a piece of the action? Not a chance.
However, there’s still that pending closure by the moral police looming over the show, so Raymond gets a bright idea: put the Bible thumping girl onstage at midnight to throw off the pending bust. So “Madam Fifi” is born and set up to discredit the pious jackass with the pad and pencil that’s been haunting the show for several days. But the big-hearted Chick is concerned that Rachael will be humiliated.
A bit of lunch then shopping for a fake snake for her “Garden of Eden” number is all the time it takes for Raymond to become smitten and completely take over the situation, setting the stage for a not so subtle seduction. After all, she IS just a Amish girl fresh off the farm, so it’s not the hardcore New York challenge a player like him is accustomed to. Then it’s back to the hotel room. Fortunately Chick shows up in time with a fire hose instead of a seltzer bottle…a move he’ll regret the next time he and Raymond are on stage together.
But it ain’t over yet. Trim the gangster shows up in the dressing room and reads Raymond the riot act: the doggone girl is mine! Like the glib talking hustler he is, Raymond fails to tell Chick when he gets back to the room and pretends to make up by promising to lay Rachael off the show. What a guy!
Of course Raymond breaks both promises and between shows gets Rachel back to his room. This time they are interrupted by Rachel’s angry Amish father (Harry Andrews) who has come to town to take her back home. Rachel refuses and he threatens to disown her if she’s not on the 1AM train back home. The immoral Raymond now has a moral dilemma: the dance tonight is a sham, but Rachael thinks it’s a career. We’ve all had jobs like that.
Raymond tells Rachel to take a nap before her performance and leaves her at his room. In a change of conscious, he tells Spats to get Rachel on that 1AM train. But Billy Minsky knows he’s going to need more than Bible stories to satisfy the frenzied crowd in the theater. In a way, it’s reminiscent of La Toya Jackson’s strip club appearances in the 80’s without the benefit of boobs. They decide to dress another dancer in Rachael’s French costume, who’s not sure what the hell she is supposed to do with it. Adding to the chaos, Fowler and the police arrive to watch the show and to wait for the law to be broken.
That’s when things start to go badly. Trim has come for his prize and taken Rachael, promising to have her back by show time. Chick and Raymond heroically go to Trims place to get her back but get their asses handed to them, plus change. After Trim brings her back in time for her midnight rendezvous wearing a fancy new evening gown, Bill comes clean to Trim and Rachael about the sham. And if that wasn’t bad enough, her father shows up, calls her a whore and Rachael just snaps like a guitar string. Suddenly, there’s her cue and she marches out on stage in the evening gown to the spectacle of hundreds of cheering men.
Yeah, she is at a loss about what to do but tries some of the bumping and grinding moves she’s seen the other girls do and they love it. How could you not? It’s Britt Ekland! A sympathetic drummer giving her rolls and shots to make the movements by and she quickly improvises a routine. Her father makes a grab for her from offstage and tears her dress along the leg and it’s all up from there. The crowd goes wild, so Rachel tears the seam on the other side herself. Thus, the art of the striptease is invented, live at Minskys.
Feeding off the energy from the audience, Rachel unzips her dress and slides the straps off her shoulders so that it is only being held up by her hands. The men want more and the women with them are already appalled enough but it’s too late to top the momentum. That’s when she notices Raymond with a packed suitcase leaving, blaming himself for turning an innocent Amish farm girl into a stripper. In her distraction….she lets the top of the dress go and WHOOMP there it is! Or there THEY are rather. Whistles go off, police raid the stage and general mayhem ensues. And the striptease is now history as men line the outside of the police wagon cheering because burlesque will never be the same. And apparently neither will Rachael’s father…
My favorite quote from this flick is by Louis Minsky: “Bah! And again, Bah! There is no finger of righteousness. This is the finger of cleanliness. This is the finger of marital bliss. This is the finger of vengeance. This is the finger of meddling in other people’s lives. This is the finger of transportation. You speak with the fist of authority, gentlemen, but you don’t know your fingers.” Guess which is for meddling?
The clumsy dances routines, physically imperfect women, bawdy humor and excellent depiction of vaudeville by Norman Wisdom makes this a superb motion picture in it’s own right, no matter what decade it was made. Add the excellent directing of Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection), surgical editing using “faux” old film footage and unflattering simulated scenes of real people to the mix, and “The Night they Raided Minsky’s” is a timeless depiction of an era long past. The sentimental icing on the cake is Bert Lahr as Spats in his last appearance on film. Though he’ll always be known as The Cowardly Lion, this role was a fitting send off for a man who actually worked in burlesque. But, don’t believe me, see this film for yourself. Maybe I never even saw the flick…