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The Garbo of Bondage

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PICTUREHOUSE

Gretchen Mol stars as Betty Page in "The Notorious Bettie Page" which is set to be in theatres on April 14, 2006.

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BOUND FOR GLORY

Irving Klaw had run a newsstand for several years before he noticed that girls looking at movie magazines were cutting out pages with their favorite stars. So he corralled thousands of the display photos that theater owners threw out after the movie had played and sold them in his store, now called Movie Star News.

Decades later, when I edited Film Comment magazine, I spent many hours in that 14th Street walkup shop, trawling through those cramped aisles and groaning shelves for obscure film stills with the help of young Howard Mandelbaum (who now owns Photofest, a premier stills outlet). Irving was dead, but Paula still presided at the front desk, and her son Ira Kramer helped out. If I knew the name Bettie Page in those days, and I couldn't swear to that, I was unaware of the role Paula and her brother had played in the Pinup Queen's career. It was crucial.

Bettie could have done burlesque; she had the fan base and, heaven knows, the moves. She did appear in three filmed burlesque shows: Striporama (1953), Varietease (1954) and Teaserama (1955). But for Bettie and her fans, a public exhibition couldn't compete with a private audience. As mail-order products for an audience of one-at-a-time, the Klaw films — which Irving produced and Paula, usually, directed — helped Bettie create an intimacy with the

The movies, shot in the '50s, seem to come from a much earlier decade: the '20s, perhaps, since they are silent films, in black-and-white. But not the '20s of Hollywood features, with their pearly visual sophisticated and the actors' elegant miming. Really, Bettie's films have the feel of the first Edison documentaries, when the camera recorded ordinary events with ethnographic avidity. In most of the extant Klaw movies, all Bettie does is dance.

And, boy, could she dance.

In "G-String" Dance by Betty (available on the Bettie Page Something Weird Video and on the DVD Betty Page Uncensored), she gives herself a nonstop workout, long before Jazzercise or Ann-Margret. She shimmies, gracefully waves her arms, pauses briefly to adjust her fringed costume. But she never loses eye and mind contact with the viewer. The erotic pull is secondary to the emotional magnetism. This is plain old star quality, and the folks at Fox must have been blind to miss it.

Bettie was great, shaking her tush in those Klaw non-music videos. (Astonishingly, there was no music in the downtown lofts that made do as her movie sets; whatever she danced to was in her head.) But Irving had other aspirations than being the Busby Berkeley of schmutz. A businessman above all, he needed to please his clientele. Some wanted to see Bettie don leather frocks. That was fine with Klaw. He was open to suggestions, so long as there was no nudity; Irving thought that would keep him safe from the feds. And though Bettie posed nude for still photographers, she didn't strip for Klaw. If she did anything with clothes, it was put 'em on. ("Delightful Betty Dresses Up.")

A few of Klaw's patrons had more elaborate ideas... John Rund, who would represent Bettie in the '90s, told Robert Foster that she recalled these fetishists without judging them: "She said, ĹIrving used to get suggestions from his customers as to what kinds of pictures they wanted to see. A lot of Irving's customers liked to see me with a ball gag in my mouth.' Very matter of fact."

And, by modern standards, very mild. In movies with explicitly descriptive catalog titles (Hobbled in Kid Leather Harness), a woman will be tied up, or ball-gagged, or put in the trunk of a car. For a change, Bettie shared the screen with another woman, usually Roz Greenwood — the star couldn't put herself in bondage. But the performers never got hurt; at times you can catch them giggling at the indignities they were asked to portray. If there's kink it's pure nostalgia. Kids today, seeing these (and they do), probably think it's kinky that their grandfathers thought it was kinky.

It was Irving Klaw's misfortune that the FBI and the Post Office thought just that. They hounded him until he decided to burn the negatives of his films. He died in 1966, at 55. Paula, deputized to do the incineration, wisely saved some of Bettie's films from the flames, and gave her star a legacy.

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