Cave of Forgotten Wet Dreams

According to the MGM musical On the Town (1949), postwar New York was a wonderland of unbridled sexual desire. The city, if you trust this fantasy, was bulging at the seams with visibly horny women (mature, professional women, mind you) desperate to bed naïve, sight-seeing sailors. So desperate, in fact, that they performed whole songs about it! Take Ann Miller’s introduction to the film, for example. She plays an anthropology student who’s spontaneously smitten with sailor Ozzie (Jules Munshin) because of his troglodytic visage.

How does a sloping brow translate to love at first sight? Miller explains through her song “Prehistoric Man”: “I still await my primitive mate / We’ve had a date since the world begaaaaan, my prehistoric man!” The song’s thesis is that “civilized” men of the 20th century are too oppressed and inhibited by all the accoutrements of modern living—top hats, psychoanalysis, bebop, ulcers, etc.—to be truly passionate lovers. It is, to be crass, her “I wanna fuck a caveman” song.

It’s deliciously unsubtle, both lyrically and in terms of Miller’s performance. When she’s not sensually sashaying, she’s casting bedroom eyes at Ozzie and his caveman ancestor; her suggestive tone, meanwhile, transforms every word of the song into a double entendre. (She really loves tom-toms.) The song also has a curious racial subtext: it’s paired with a dance around the Museum of Natural History that uses generically tribal masks and drums as props, more or less conflating “prehistoric” with everything non-white.

This conflation’s underlying racial logic has a lot in common with eugenic myths popularized around the turn of the century. These myths alleged that white men performed more mental labor than their non-white counterparts, making them weak, neurasthenic, and sexually deficient. Consequently, the white race was in danger of being reproductively outpaced, or at least diluted. “Prehistoric Man” taps into these anxieties when it describes the prehistoric/non-white man as a “happy ape… simple and free.” It’s insultingly racist, yet framed as sexually favorable.

The song’s outlook is the flip side of eugenic paranoia. Instead of fretting over racial purity, Miller’s ditching her neurotic white peers for the raw, carnal “self-expression” of a caveman relationship. She just wants to get laid.

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema, Sexuality

2 responses to “Cave of Forgotten Wet Dreams

  1. Andreas, I’m doing my year-end blogosphere round-up again. What would you pick for your top post of 2011? I’m hoping to put a final post together later this week (it will go up on the 19th).

    As for On the Town, I just saw this for the first time a few weeks ago. Rather silly, but kind of a blast – I couldn’t stop humming the songs for a day or two. It was also interesting to see the genesis of Kelly’s ideas, as he develops them over American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain – after all, you’ve got the imaginary dance intro to the ideal woman (ala American) and the climactic dialogue-free dance which here sums up the story, in American goes in another direction, and by Singin’ has nothing at all to do with the story anymore.

    “insultingly racist, yet … sexually favorable.” That should be somebody’s motto, but I’m not sure whose…

  2. Awesome post, dude. I re-watched this film fairly recently and this song stuck out to me more than it had in the past. I adore Ann Miller and all her sexual innuendo, especially since it comes off as pretty racy for a 1950’s fluffy musical. I too was confused by the conflation of cavemen and “tribal” cultures, but I know it’s all representative of “the primitive” in this context. I like that you pointed out a more positive aspect though, hadn’t thought of it this way before!

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