The Night They Raided Minsky’s
I think a lot of people may not have seen or heard of this movie, but it’s one of my favorites. It was produced by Norman Lear and directed by William Friedkin, of all people. It was his first film with any budget at all, made three years before he hit it big with The French Connection. Since then he has mostly been known for hard-edged dramas such as To Live and Die in L.A. This is about as far away from stuff like that as you can get. It is an affectionate look back at the world of burlesque in the early ‘20s, and purports to tell the story of how that lowest level of show biz sank from being merely racy to lewd.
It’s a “sort of true” story of how the striptease was invented by a naïve Amish girl from Pennsylvania (Britt Eklund) who wanted to dance stories from the Bible. But the plot isn’t really why this is worth your ticket. It’s the song and dance and classic skits and characters. Elliot Gould is the producer, and the two main comics are Jason Robards and Norman Wisdom. Both are very good but it is Wisdom who steals the show. He never really made it big in America, but he was huge in England, probably for his music-hall-type comedy. There are few people ever who could do a better pratfall. Charlie Chaplin was a big fan.
It was quite an expensive production. A whole block on East 26th Street was dressed to look like 1922, with hundreds of extras and pushcarts full of produce. It looks very authentic. Then they enhanced it all by rapid shifts color to black and white, and interspersing new footage with clips from the actual era. It really helped to bring it all alive.
I witnessed what was probably the last gasp of burly-que in Detroit in 1965. I had a summer job before going to Michigan State, and patronized a few of the striptease houses. The best of a shabby lot was the Empress Theater, on Woodward. I won’t pretend that I went there for the baggy pants comics, but they were still playing there in between the girls (who were for the first time stripping totally naked, and no one was bothering to raid them). I actually saw the classic “Niagara Falls” routine. “Slowly I turned …” They used seltzer bottles, and had actual sets like hospitals and such for some of the skits. Those were the days.