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.