It is a favorite joke of older stand-up comics that television is the box in which they buried vaudeville. The racier side of vaudeville, namely burlesque, was pushed to the movie theaters, sometimes in as straightforward a manner as Varietease, in which a burlesque show -- complete with "baggy pants" standup comics and musical numbers -- is filmed on a sound stage.
It's doubtful that modern viewers will find the acts in Varietease enthralling. While the strip teases are pleasant enough and the women are attractive, there's just not much to keep you watching. As with Teaserama, today Varietease is more of a curiosity than a form of entertainment. It's a representative sample of an "art form" gone by.
The main attraction, and probably this disc's reason for existing, is the presence of Bettie Page, pin-up queen extraordinaire. Page's film appearances were few and far between, but Something Weird Video has found all of them and lovingly restored them to disc. Although Bettie has only one number in Varietease, there are a number of extras that Page fans will find of interest. If you're a Page aficionado, you will definitely want to add this DVD to your collection, but those with a mere curiosity -- or those looking for the most Bettie bang for the buck -- would do well to seek out the more Bettie-rific Teaserama instead.
Something Weird Video has given Varietease the all-star treatment. Although the print quality jumps in a few places, it is overall a gorgeous piece of film, with lots of bright Fifties' colors. It looks about as good as any "lost" film could be expected to look. The sound is pretty scratchy, but that's not the fault of the disc pressing.
The interactive menus are given a nice "lobby card" sort of look, with faded papers and vintage typefaces that really evoke the feel of a burlesque theater. These are some really nice esthetic touches; Something Weird is to be commended.
The main extra on this disc is some audio commentary -- not by Bettie Page, folks -- featuring David F. Friedman, one of the major players in the exploitation film world. Friedman's producer credit graces such films as Blood Feast, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. Accompanying him is Mike Vraney, the proprietor of Something Weird. Friedman introduces the piece by saying that he's going to tell us about burlesque movies, but what he really does is tell us about the original burlesque houses and how he eventually put them out of business with "nudie cutie" films.
It's obvious that both men have love and respect for the burlesque tradition, and the highlights of the commentary involve Friedman's re-enactments of some of the comedy routines. Those with an appreciation of classic movies will find it tough not to feel saddened by the passing of burlesque when Friedman does the candy butcher's routine. Vraney helpfully steers Friedman back on course whenever his memory takes him down some side alley of history, but even the stories that relate to burlesque take the scenic route to their punch lines.
What is also obvious is that neither man knows much about the actual production of Varietease. Friedman wasn't involved in the making of the film, and he only met Irving Klaw once, so there's not a lot to tell, especially if you're really interested in Bettie Page. Burning questions like "Why do both Varietease and Teaserama include a Mexican dancing team, one half of which is a drag queen?" go unanswered. Unfortunately there's a bit of scratchy static towards the end of the disc as if a microphone cable came loose, and one is tempted to turn the final moments of the commentary off in annoyance.
Page fans will be pleased by the inclusion of two extra Bettie Page film spots, one a silent "peep show" arcade loop in which Bettie shows off her legs with some stockings and high heels. The other features Bettie's only speaking part on film ever, from the film Strip-o-Rama. Trailers for Varietease and Teaserama are also included, proving that Something Weird may be a bit rough around the edges sometimes, but they do get the basics right.
Chris Holland, 12/15/00