Wednesday, July 07, 2010

She Started A Heat Wave By Making Her Seat Wave; Or, Having Fun With American Studies

Given that we are going into our third day of temperatures topping 100 degrees, I can't believe no one has posted this yet.

Since this is an academic blog, and a feminist blog, and since I am locked in my study with a small air conditioner roaring away, here is a brief teaching guide to this segment from There's No Business Like Show Business (1954). An utterly dull period piece about a fictional theater family, this movie is far is better remembered for Ethel Merman's belting version of the title song that valorizes the heartaches and spiritual rewards of "the business." The movie also starred legendary dancers Donald O'Connor, Mitzi Gaynor and Johnnie Ray (that's the group watching from the wings in the crazy pastel "Mexican" outfits) -- a who's who cast in what was even then a dying Hollywood genre, the big budget musical.

This little tidbit of Cold War popular culture, originally penned by Irving Berlin in 1933 for the musical "As Thousands Cheered," is a perfect way to spice up any class on the Cold War, whether you are teaching foreign policy, the crafting of South America and the Caribbean as a source of cheap goods and marketplace for American products, or the post-war sexual home front. I'm going to be using it for my Introduction to American Studies, to teach students how to read the politics of a film which they are just going to think, initially, is weird and racist.

Here, Monroe stalks the line between what remained of the Motion Picture Production Code after Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson (1952), and the openly dirty. She whips her skirt back and forth across her crotch, dips her breasts back and forth and wiggles her fanny, all the while teasing a manic group of "Latino" dancers who sing, dance, and carry around various indeterminate boxes and burdens (one of which, you will note, is an old phonograph.) They pull close to the thing they cannot have, only to be shoved rudely away -- and be beckoned once more. What we will learn, of course, is that they are laboring purely on behalf of us, and that their only function is to excite Monroe enough that she will offer herself to: You.

And You. And Maybe -- You.

This heat wave, we learn from lyrics added to the original Berlin song, was caused by Monroe herself. "She started a heat wave/By making her seat wave," the dancers sing in North American accents, as she is brought in on the shoulders of another group of male dancers stripped to the waist. "Gee, gee/Her anatomy/Makes the mercury/Jump!" they shout enthusiastically, as she alights and picks up the song:

"To ninety-three," the whiter-than-white Monroe sings richly, looking deep into our eyes, and ignoring the leers of these generic men from somewhere south of Texas, who have carried her in only to lose her to "America."

Why 93? I dunno -- because 69 is too cool for a heat wave and 96 doesn't rhyme? Monroe raises the temperature by teasing her "boys" -- who suddenly acquire "foreign" accents when speaking to her -- and pushing them away, because (of course!) they are only surrogates for us. They don't get to have this white woman, only help us possess her. Monroe makes it clear with skilled glances and winks, as the dancers flop to their bellies and knees around her, that it is only we -- each and every one of us -- whose temperature matters, as she struts back and forth across the stage gesturing to breasts and crotch. "What's your name, Honey" she inquires sweetly of the kneeling dancer leaning toward her, as her out-of-control behind starts to sway to the beat and her hands involuntarily pull her skirt apart in front.

"Pablo!" he whines in a hopeful voice. She whips the skirt closed abruptly, and turns away to another, and then another, calling for their names too.

"Pablo! Chico! Miguelito!" she repeats with rapid-fire ecstasy ("so many men! so little time," she is clearly thinking). Her eyes squeeze shut as she contemplates the sheer weight of their (our) lust.*

Perhaps the ultimate Monroe moment is when she snatches a newspaper from one of the dancers, and spreads it out on the ground to read the "weather report" as the ever-hopeful "boys" (who seem happy to share her) cluster around eagerly.

"Pabloooo," she croons, as he draws in; "It say....It say here under" -- and then she sniffs loudly as if they are all so obviously "in heat" you can just smell it through the camera -- "Weather report...."

That loud nasal inhalation --surely Monroe's own genius -- is. So. Deliciously. Vulgar: ditto the subsequent moment when she slams the skirt shut over her crotch at the exact moment that she informs us that "high pressure" will move in over "the Deep South."


OK. Reading list? I think this clip like could be best taught as part of a discussion about gender, sexuality and/or hemispheric politics in the 1950s. Depending on your course, and where you want to go with this, I would use it to lift out arguments from Elaine May's Homeward Bound: American Families In The Cold War Era (1990); Alicia Camacho's Migrant Imaginaries: Latino Cultural Politics in the US-Mexico Borderlands (particularly chapter 3, which contains an excellent reading of the left-wing labor movie Salt of the Earth also produced in 1954; or, if you want to make connections to the pre-war period, you might want to try Anne Rubinstein's Bad Language, Naked Ladies and Other Threats To The Nation: A Political History Of Comic Books In Mexico.

And if you want a really good book to read on the beach while we wait out the heat wave? Try Joyce Carol Oates' fictionalized biography of Monroe, Blonde: A Novel.

*I am reminded of Norman Mailer who, like many odiously sexist men, was capable of startling moments of insight about American sexual culture. He described Monroe at such moments as "fucky" (a word the New York Times did not allow Pauline Kael to print in her review of this 1973 book, but which appears on nearly every page of Mailer's text.) As a feminist, I both deplore this, and also think that there is something profound to attend to here about how fuckability is produced over and through women's bodies in mass culture. And by the way? I dare you to use the word "fucky" in class. Double-dog dare you.

1 comment:

Flavia said...

Thanks for this!

Brian Herrera is, I believe, working on a book on representations of Latinos in 20th C. popular culture, and their relationship to hemispheric politics. Not sure if any/how much of it is published yet.

The Andrews Sisters are also an amazing window into America's relationship to its neighbors to the south. My favorites (if "favorites" is the word I want) are "Rum and Coca-Cola" and "South America, Take It Away," the latter with Bing Crosby.