Surely, most folks who are aware of William Friedkin know him only as the director of The Exorcist and The French Connection. Some may also know him for the controversies surrounding his movie Cruising, but virtually no one still knows him as the director of the subject of this article. The Night They Raided Minsky’s is a comedic (fictionalized) account of the unintentional invention of striptease dancing by a young Amish dancer at a burlesque theater in New York City in 1925—a film apparently saved from mediocrity in the editing room by Ralph Rosenblum.
People vaguely aware of the terms ‘vaudeville’ and ‘burlesque’ might be tempted to think of the former as old-fashioned comedy and the latter as old-fashioned pornography, but neither category is that narrow and there’s lot more overlap than one might think. Both are forms of live variety entertainment (meaning they freely incorporate musical numbers, comedy acts, and dancing in a non-narrative format), but you would only hear strings of lewd jokes and see women removing articles of clothing in burlesque. To put things in the terms of the modern American cinematic-moral paradigm, when it came to theatrical variety shows on late-19th-century and early-20th-century American stages (adapted from French theatrical concepts), vaudeville was like PG or PG-13 entertainment, whereas burlesque was R.
The Night They Raided Minsky’s is a touching tribute to the often-misunderstood practice of American burlesque, including all of its textures: its whimsical joys, its seedy inauthenticities, and its relationships to the morals and economics of its time. And that unique blend of dirt and glamor, lust and love, greed and sincerity—admirably spreads out of the substance of the film and into its style.
The Disjointed Tone of The Night They Raided Minsky’s:
At the outset of The Night They Raided Minsky’s, the titular theater stands in a precarious situation, with vice prevention agent Vance Fowler looking for any excuse to get the theater raided by police officers and subsequently shut down. The film takes a whirlwind tour through one noteworthy day (and night), focusing on the arrival of Amish Pennsylvanian Rachel Schpitendavel in New York, and the circuitous series of events that results in her giving a performance at the midnight show on Minsky’s stage. While initially rebuffed by the all-business showrunners, hopeful dancer Schpitendavel is given a chance to perform when Minsky’s troupe sees the potential benefit to themselves: one of her Bible-inspired classical dances, if sufficiently marketed as a lewd French performance, could invite and immediately quash a police raid.
At every level, from acting to editing to the incorporation of archival footage in between scenes, The Night They Raided Minsky’s oscillates between two moods. On the one hand, there is the timing and energy of burlesque stage comedy (both onstage and offstage). On the other hand, there is a somber drama arising from the ambition of Schpitendavel, the nostalgia of retired stage comedian Professor Spats, and the romantic longing of a pair of young stage comics for the Amish girl.
When one speaks of discord and disjointedness in the tone of a film, it is nearly always in reference to an unintentional emotional whiplash experienced by the viewer: a misplaced joke in a darkly serious drama, a romantic tone in creepy circumstances, or depressing music under a comedic scene. But there are other ways in which tone can hop around without causing problems, to advance certain effects.
I would contend that there are two such circumstances of note. First, there is the pursuit of realism, like the way that tragedy accompanies banality in Renaissance paintings, as described by W.H. Auden in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts. Second, there is the pursuit of discord itself. The Night They Raided Minsky’s fits into this second mold—it establishes its two conflicting tones so intricately interwoven as to create an atmosphere of chaos and dissolution.
The film’s emphasis on raucous, ironic, cynical comedy is present throughout. It overflows from every moment that the stage performances are onscreen, and many moments in between (two particularly delightful non-burlesque segments are a raffle advertiser taking the stage between shows and a burlesque straight man’s interaction with an offended spouse in a café). There are jaded quips, predictable betrayals, repetitive musical numbers, and ribald jokes aplenty. Quick cuts slam stage acts and jokes together in rapid succession; the curious archetypal landscape of the burlesque show (playing on types like the clown, the harlot, the drunk, and so on) is on full display, in all of its glory and all of its ignominy.
But if that’s all there was to it, the movie would be a predictable—albeit possibly still charming—piece of superficial fare: an unabashed love letter to a bygone theatrical era, attempting to turn its faults (and the faults of its participants) into laurels, its vices into so many virtues. But that’s not what this film is, hence my inspiration to write this article.
There is another emphasis in the narrative: on somber, naïve, nostalgic romance. This tone encompasses the romantic subplots of the movie—but also its stylized injections of stock footage, its sincerity in portraying the moral interiority of Rachel Schpitendavel (portrayed by Britt Ekland), and its morose acknowledgment of the slow death of the entire burlesque enterprise. Professor Spats (the last role of Bert Lahr), a retired comedian who refuses to leave the premises, is a poignant emblem for this aspect of the story. Spats haunts the theater, simultaneously acting as the ghost of its heyday and the arbiter of its end, and his reassuring presence is always belied by his melancholy uselessness (from a plot-focused, narrative perspective as much as from an in-universe, professional perspective).
This conflict between joviality and seriousness is embodied in each of the characters as well. A couple of great examples of this are the two halves of a comic duo who serve as competing romantic leads opposite Ekland’s Schpitendavel. Jason Robards plays a straight man named Raymond Paine, who seems to me like what would happen if Humphrey Bogart had tried to play the role of Groucho Marx—an onstage performance full of bravado, witticisms, and self-importance, but an offstage identity (while no less confident) feeling hollow and sullen. Paine’s partner on the stage is Chick Williams, played by Norman Wisdom, whose onstage persona is like a drunken Stan Laurel; offstage, Williams is a pathetic, earnest, softspoken romantic. The two enter into a bitter emotional melee to win the heart of the young dancer.
Also on display in the city, and no less conflictingly portrayed, is the moral melee of the era: not only the self-appointed vice patrolman played by Denholm Elliott, but also segregated stages (with an all-white cast and orchestra in an above-ground burlesque theater, and an all-black band in a below-ground speakeasy) and inter-generational ethical disagreements (among the Schpitendavels and among the Minskys).
The key to this apparently disparate set of elements summing into something worthwhile is the editing. Comedy is certainly the more dominant force of the two throughout, but neither tone settles comfortably into the film. They jostle against each other, with scenes ending suddenly and interrupting each other, dipping into black and white, or leading into or out of period stock footage of 1920s New York street life. Sometimes a single scene will begin in earnest and end in a laugh, or begin with a sketch and end with a frown.
This makes the energy of the film into that of unpredictability. Thus, The Night They Raided Minsky’s manages to be something more than the sum of its parts. With the threads separated out, it’s a period piece, a transgressive morality play, a love story, and a madcap comedy. But altogether—despite telling a coherent story from start to finish that covers romance won and lost, and the end of an entertainment era—it is a variety show. It is burlesque.
With an ensemble cast as varied and talented as that in The Night They Raided Minsky’s, it would be very difficult to argue that one’s sympathies are meant to favor one character moreso than any other (even if there are characters like Vance Fowler and mobster Trim Houlihan that do seem to be straightforward antagonists). Partially because of its frenetic structure and partially because of the power of most of its performances, I have found when watching it that—from the slick young businessman Billy Minsky to the dour, overly controlling Jacob Schpitendavel—almost everyone seems like a worthy candidate for empathy as much as for laughter.
So, I would strongly recommend folks with a broad-minded sense of humor, an affinity for creative editing, or an interest in the history of American theatre traditions to give this film a go. The Night They Raided Minsky’s is an odd work: saccharine and sweet, yet baudy and cynical. Its unusual, dysfunctional tone can be credited in large part to the uniqueness of its editing, and that dysfunction serves to elevate the work from a quaint period piece into a genuinely interesting cinematic experience.
Raiders of the Lost Art: