“Pretty Things” is actually two films in one: an entertaining documentary celebrating the last survivors of the lost entertainment world of burlesque, and a self-indulgent vanity show by filmmaker Liz Goldwyn to recreate the burlesque sensation with her own striptease show.
Obviously, the documentary half works best. Goldwyn interviews such colorful striptease stars as Betty Rowland (known as “The Ball of Fire” for her flaming red hair and her boundless energy), Dixie Evans (whose platinum blonde hair allowed her to be billed as the Marilyn Monroe of burlesque), and Zorita (who performed some damn weird numbers including a faux-Greek myth about a woman consummating a marriage to a snake). The women are frank, funny and honest about the burlesque world, ranging from the inane publicity stunts that kept them in the public eye (six-foot-four stripper Lois De Fee married a midget actor) and the less-than-funny circumstances that influenced their careers (many of the women were sexually abused as children).
Zorita is clearly the liveliest wire of the bunch. An open lesbian, she had no problem trying to seduce her fellow strippers and she happily played her male fans for chumps (anyone who was romantically or sexually interested in her was required to provide compensation with General Motors stock). Other colorful characters from the burlesque stage, such as costume designer Gussie Gross, comic Richard Collier, and tap dancer Fayard Nicholas (of the legendary Nicholas Brothers act) turn up with randy recollections.
Vintage footage from burlesque features and loops (including the legends Lili St. Cyr and Sally Rand) flash throughout the film, and there’s also hilarious from David Susskind’s old TV talk show with the strippers showing off their pasties and g-strings to the host’s obvious delight.
Strangely and sadly, this celebration of burlesque is constantly interrupted by Goldwyn’s desire to recreate the striptease performances in a special dance number created for the film. She spends a lot of time trying on the costumes of the legendary strippers, but it would seem no one bothered to tell Goldwyn that her scrawny body did not meet the voluptuous and athletic frames which the fabled ladies carried in their bump and grind acts. She is also coached by the old stars on how to bump and grind like the best of them. But Goldwyn never quite manages to capture their steps or flair.
When she finally performs the number, it seems Goldwyn ignored everything that the burlesque veterans told her. Instead, she does a third rate Bob Fosse routine which bears no resemblance to anything that came before it. And for all of her clumsy gyrations, she generates zero sexual energy.
“Pretty Things” is best watched with a finger on the fast-forward button — just zap away Goldwyn’s silly self-tribute to her non-existent burlesque talents and enjoy the real golden girls of burlesque’s past. It’s their film, not Goldwyn’s.