Million-Dollar Legs and a Taste for the "Primitive": Taming Ann Miller's Virtuosic Body in and Around 'Prehistoric Man'

Haworth, C. (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation

Description

Ann Miller's appearance as Claire Huddesen in On The Town (d. Kelly/Donen, 1949) is typical of her casting in Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and 50s; a featured speciality role designed primarily to exploit Miller's own star persona as one of the fastest tappers in the business whose legs were insured for a million dollars. Miller's association with the black form of tap, her energetic performance style, and charismatic ability to front extended solo dance numbers formed the basis of both her appeal to casting executives and her disruption of typical cinematic constructions of white femininity – an issue underlined by her usual appearance as vamp or comedienne, rather than romantic lead. Miller's onscreen performances frequently reference jazz, blues, and other Hollywood signifiers of 'non-­‐white' ethnicity and deviant gendered identity to further codify her presence as liminal, fetishizing the physical virtuosity of her star image in a way that aims to commodify and also contain it.
On The Town's 'Prehistoric Man' can be understood as both an echo of Miller's earlier roles and a prototype for later appearances. Via the racist presentation of the 'prehistoric' masculinity that Claire desires as non-­‐white, primitive, and forceful, the number constructs her previous agency, independence, and intelligence as a mask for an underlying feminine subservience. It is this shift that permits Claire's showstopping tap, containing it within a non-­‐white textual space that is also used to deal with the problem of her unruly femininity. This elision and subsequent repositioning of multiple differences takes place on two levels: the assimilation of Claire into the film's wider community, and the exploitation and containment of the extra-­‐textual presence of Miller herself – a simultaneous promotion and effacement of the star text that typifies both the musical's celebration of the spectacular and the employment of this spectacle to reinforce reductive visions of identity.
Period4 Apr 2013
Held atThe Performing Body in the Holywood Film Musical
Event typeConference
LocationHamilton Village, United States, New York
Degree of RecognitionInternational