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BOUND FOR GLORY
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 solo spectator.
Shot in the '50s, these movies seem to come from a much earlier decade: They 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: shimmying, gracefully waving her arms, pausing 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 a marvel, 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. Irving was happy to oblige; and Bettie, happy or not, obliged too. By modern standards, the results were mild. In films 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. This time, 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'll 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 granddads thought it was kinky.
It was 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. Irving 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.
THE FELONIOUS BETTIE PAGE
Her biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page, begins and ends in religious fervor. The film climaxes with its heroine being born again as a proselytizing Christian. It's an old-fashioned Hollywood resolution that couldn't be further from the sordid truth.
She did indeed become a lay missionary (assisting in a Billy Graham campaign) and spent about a year back at Peabody, to take credits for a Master's degree she never achieved. Fact is, though, her life was much more stable when she was posing for the Klaws' bondage films than it would be in the service of the Lord. In the decade after she left New York, Bettie was wed three times: to the teenager Armond Walterson, again to Billy Neal and finally to Harry Lear, a lineman for Florida Bell. Each marriage ended in divorce. But that was the least of her troubles of the trouble she made for herself and those she lived with. Her rap sheet, as persuasively documented by Richard Foster in The Real Bettie Page, is extensive, instructive and sad.