In the 1920s and '30s, showgirls worked hard, hustled, and competed in a brutal entertainment business.
Actress, filmmaker, and historian of burlesque Zemeckis (Goddess of Love Incarnate: The Life of Striptease Artist Lili St. Cyr, 2015, etc.) focuses on fan dancers Faith Bacon (1910-1956) and Sally Rand (1904-1979) and reveals their struggles, dreams, and glittery triumphs. Frances Yvonne Bacon was groomed and manipulated by an ambitious stage mother who pretended to be her sister and sometimes performed in the same shows. In her teens, Yvonne, who later changed her name to Faith, was one among many other young women “sought, hired, prized, and praised for the perfection of their figures.” Scantily clothed, resplendent in jewels and feathers, they paraded in “respectable, naughty” extravaganzas mounted by impresarios such as Florenz Ziegfeld or his competitor Earl Carroll, an egotistical “Hugh Hefneresque” figure. Broadway, the author writes, “was assaulted with ruthless promoters of beauty and flesh trying to one up the other.” The women they hired, though, were proud of their bodies and eager for admiration. At the age of 19, working for Carroll, Faith was “at her most luminous,” with “blue-grey eyes, winsome and doe-eyed with a slim alabaster figure.” In one of Carroll’s productions, she had an idea: to get around the law, which forbade a nude performer from moving on stage, she would dance covered with fans, then stop, raise them above her head, and reveal herself naked. The fan dance became her signature—until Hattie Helen Beck, aka Billie Beck, aka Sally Rand, performed it “to thunderous applause” at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Unlike Faith, who was emotionally fragile, Sally was resilient, enterprising, and unsinkable. Still performing at the age of 60, she remarked proudly, “what in heaven’s name is strange about a grandmother dancing nude?” Faith sued Sally, claiming ownership of the fan dance, but Sally prevailed. Widely acclaimed, she performed for some 7 million people throughout the world. Faith, addicted to barbiturates and destitute, killed herself.
A briskly told story of two women questing for fame.