The Night They Raided Minsky's is a 1968 musical comedy film directed by William Friedkin and produced by Norman Lear. It is a fictional account of the invention of the striptease at Minsky's Burlesque in 1925. The film is based on the novel by Rowland Barber, published in 1960.
Rachel Schpitendavel (Britt Ekland), an innocent Amish girl from rural Pennsylvania, arrives in New York's teeming Lower East Side, hoping to make it as a dancer. Rachel's dances are based on Bible stories. She auditions at Minsky's Burlesque, but her dances are much too dull (and chaste) for the bawdy show. But then Billy Minsky (Elliott Gould) and the show's jaded straight man, Raymond Paine (Jason Robards), concoct a plan to foil moral crusader Vance Fowler (Denholm Elliott), who is intent on shutting down the theater. Minsky publicizes Rachel as the notorious Madamoiselle Fifi, performing the "dance that drove a million Frenchmen wild." This will invite a raid by Fowler and the police. But they will let Rachel perform her innocuous Bible dances, thus humiliating Fowler.
During the run-up to her midnight performance, Raymond and his partner, Chick (Norman Wisdom), show Rachel the ropes of burlesque, and they both fall for her in the process. Meanwhile, Rachel's stern father (Harry Andrews), who even objects to her Bible dances, arrives in search of his daughter. The film climaxes when Rachel takes the stage after her father has called her a whore and she realizes that the Minskys are just using her. Her father tries to drag her off-stage, but she pulls away and accidentally tears a slit in her dress. The sold-out crowd spurs her on and Rachel begins to enjoy her power over the audience and starts to strip. But when she looks into the wings and sees Raymond leaving the theater for good, she calls and throws out her arms to him, inadvertently dropping the front of her dress and baring her breasts. Fowler blows his whistle and the police rush the stage and close down the show. A madcap fight sequence follows. In the end, most of the cast members are carted off to the paddy wagon, including Rachel's mystified father.
In his book "Minsky's Burlesque," Morton Minsky (with Milt Machlin) wrote, "As for April 20, 1925, the day that the raid on which the book was based took place, it was hardly epochal in the history of burlesque, but it did turn out to be a prelude to much greater troubles...Anyway, the raid story was fun, but the raid itself was simply one of dozens to which we had become accustomed. Certainly no big crisis."
The Minskys were raided for the first time in 1917 when Mae Dix absent-mindedly began removing her costume before she reached the wings. When the crowd cheered, Dix returned to the stage to continue removing her clothing to wild applause. Billy Minsky ordered the "accident" repeated every night. This began an endless cycle: to keep their license, the Minskys had to keep their shows clean, but to keep drawing customers they had to be risqué. Whenever they went too far, they were raided.
According to Morton Minsky, Mademoiselle Fifi was actually a woman named Mary Dawson from Pennsylvania. Her father was a policeman and a straightlaced Quaker, although he never came to New York City and never led a raid to shut down one of the Minsky burlesque houses. Furthermore, Dawson was not a stripper; she was an "exotic" dancer who never showed any forbidden parts of her body--until that night.
Morton Minsky suggests that Billy persuaded Dawson to expose her breasts in order to create a sensation. By 1925 it was permissible for girls in legitimate shows staged by Ziegfeld, George White and Earl Carroll--as well as burlesque--to appear topless as long as they didn't move (as a "living tableaux"). Madamoiselle Fifi stripped to the waist but then moved, triggering the raid. "Although the show in general had been tame," he wrote, "Fifi's finale and the publicity that would soon follow the raid would ensure full houses at the soon-to-be opened [Minsky] theater uptown."
On May 23, 1967, the Los Angeles Times reported that William Friedkin was set to direct. Friedkin's first film, Good Times (1967), starring Sonny and Cher, had just been released. A musical comedy which spoofs various movie genres, including mysteries, westerns and spy thrillers, it was a critical and box office flop.
Tony Curtis was announced for the Minsky's cast in June 1967, likely in the Raymond Paine role. In August, Alan Alda was announced for a role in the film, probably as the young Billy Minsky. However, Alda was appearing on Broadway and was unable to leave his role in "The Apple Tree." Jason Robards was announced in the Raymond Paine role about a month before filming began. (Raymond Paine was the name of a real burlesque straight man who appeared in the Minsky show that night. He was killed in a hit and run accident in 1934.)
The Night They Raided Minsky's was the first musical shot entirely on location in New York. The budget exceeded $3 million, making it the most expensive film shot in the city up until that time. A block of East 26th Street between First and Second Avenues was transformed into the Lower East Side circa 1925. (The vacant tenements on the block were scheduled to be torn down as part of an urban renewal project; the city postponed demolition for the filmmakers.) A portion of an elevated train station 30 feet tall and 56 feet long was built. Exteriors were shot there for two weeks.
British comedian Norman Wisdom had made a series of low-budget star-vehicle comedies for the Rank Organisation, beginning with Trouble in Store in 1953. The film earned him a BAFTA Award for Most Promising Newcomer to Film in 1954. Never highly thought of by the critics, they were very popular with domestic audiences and Wisdom's films outsold Sean Connery's James Bond features from 1955 through till 1966. That year, Wisdom moved to New York to star on Broadway in the James Van Heusen-Sammy Cahn musical comedy Walking Happy. His highly-acclaimed performance was nominated for a Tony Award. The Night They Raided Minsky's was his first American film, and he received good notices. Variety wrote: "So easily does Wisdom dominate his many scenes, other cast members suffer by comparison." And Time compared him to America's comedic Old Guard: "Wisdom recalls Keaton in his split-second spills and deadpan pantomime."
Bert Lahr, best known for his role as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, was a burlesque veteran. On November 21, however, Lahr was hospitalized for a back ailment. In Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr, John Lahr wrote: "Bert Lahr died in the early morning of December 4, 1967. Two weeks before, he had returned home at two a.m., chilled and feverish, from the damp studio where The Night They Raided Minsky's was being filmed. Ordinarily, a man of his age and reputation would not have had to perform that late into the night, but he had waived that proviso in his contract because of his trust in the producer and his need to work. The newspapers reported the cause of death as pneumonia; but he succumbed to cancer, a disease he feared but never knew he had."
Most of Lahr's scenes had been shot. Norman Lear told the New York Times that "through judicious editing we will be able to shoot the rest of the film so that his wonderful performance will remain intact." The producers used a double to fill in for Lahr.
Filming was scheduled to wrap on December 22, 1967. The movie was released exactly a year later, on December 22, 1968.
According to an interview in the Manchester Evening News (10/22/07), The Night They Raided Minsky's is Britt Ekland's favorite film. Ekland divorced Peter Sellers four days before the film was released. They were married in 1965 and have a daughter, Victoria Sellers, born the same year.
Rosenblum wrote, "I had taken Minsky's on not because I believed it would be a great editorial challenge but because I saw it as a lark. I had just come off six months on The Producers, a trying experience that pickled my nerve endings, and I badly needed a soothing job...The script revealed a frothy, unimportant film full of musical numbers, the kind of thing that might be snapped into shape in six to eight weeks of editing. I loved cutting musicals; I expected a short stretch of mindless fun."
It took him over nine months to cut the film.
He wrote: "From the very beginning, the idea behind The Night They Raided Minsky's had been to create an 'old-fashioned musical with a New Look'...although what it was and how it was going to be accomplished no one knew...Had anyone dared to acknowledge that the New Look we hoped to achieve in Minsky's was essentially a [Richard] Lester look, we all might have been saved some anguish; but such an acknowledgement would have been considered inappropriate, if not blasphemous, and so it barely crossed our minds."
Rosenblum called the screening of his first cut with Friedkin and Lear "disastrous." "The chief drawback of Minsky's dramatic episodes was their predictability," Rosenblum wrote. "The script had aimed for an old-fashioned charm, but, with a few important exceptions, no new twist of sophistication was added to please a modern audience." When the cut was screened for David Picker, an executive v.p. of United Artists, he called it "the worst first cut I've ever seen." However, since there was no release date set for the film, Picker told Lear and Rosenblum, "Whatever you want to do, go ahead, take your time, and do it."
Drawing on his background editing documentaries, Rosenblum turned to the huge stock film libraries in New York and began selecting clips from the 1920s. By arduous trial and error, this footage was used not only to evoke a sense of time and place, but also to comment on and enhance scenes in the film. Rosenblum created montages of this material and Friedkin's footage, often marrying vintage footage with new by transitioning from black and white into color. The effect, Rosenblum wrote, was "magical."
While Roseblum worked over the cut throughout most of 1968, Lear was developing other projects, including one that would become the TV series All in the Family. Friedkin, meanwhile, was in England, directing The Birthday Party. Not long after he saw the first cut of Minsky's, Friedkin was interviewed on British TV, and called Minksy's "the biggest piece of crap I'd ever worked on." According to Rosenblum, "I'd heard that [Friedkin] would be barred from screenings [of Minksy's] because of his talk show blunder and would have to pay to get in."
Eventually, The Night They Raided Minsky's was remade in the cutting room. "Above all, this emerging Minsky's was highly contemporary," Rosenblum wrote. "One might even conclude it had a New Look. The obvious fact that had eluded us from the beginning suddenly struck me now: The avant-garde quality Richard Lester had achieved in films like Help! could only be accomplished through editing. From the moment the Search for the New Look began, Minsky's was destined to be a cutting-room picture." Rosenblum claimed that there are 1,440 cuts in the film. By comparison, Annie Hall, a film of the same length, has only 382.
Of course, most of the credit went to Friedkin, who, according to Rosenblum, "may not have even seen the film." Friedkin later admitted to having "no vision" for Minsky's and instead borrowed from Rouben Mamoulian's film Applause (1929), an early talkie about burlesque notable for its innovative camera work.
New York Times critic Renata Adler wrote, in part, "The nicest thing about the movie, which is a little broad in plot and long in spots, is its denseness and care in detail: The little ugly cough that comes from one room of a shoddy hotel; the thoughtfully worked out, poorly danced vaudeville routines; the beautifully timed, and genuinely funny, gags. 'I hear the man say impossible,' a man on the stage says when the man here hasn't said a word. And the vaudeville [sic] routines of innocence forever victimized, for an audience of fall guys, works pretty much as it must have worked in its time." (12/23/68)
Time magazine called the film "a valedictory valentine to oldtime burlesque. In legend, the girls were glamorous, and every baggy-pants buffoon was a second W. C. Fields. In truth, the institution was as coarse as its audiences. Minsky's mixes both fact and fancy in a surprisingly successful musical...Minsky's was 58 days in the shooting and ten months in the editing—and shows it. Marred by grainy film and fleshed out with documentary and pseudo-newsreel footage of the '20s, the film spends too much time on pickles, pushcarts and passersby. But it compensates with a fond, nostalgic score, a bumping, grinding chorus line and a series of closeups of the late Bert Lahr, who plays a retired burlesque comedian. Like Lahr, the film offers an engaging blend of mockery and melancholy." (1/3/69)