Friends, to say that the chorus girl was a popular stock character in old Hollywood movies (by which I mean the pre-Sixties studio days) is to state the obvious. But have you ever wondered whatever happened to her? Look around: she's nowhere to be found.
Showgirls, chorus girls, burlesque queens -- how many thousands of them danced across the screen in the golden days of Hollywood? They all had one thing in common: curves. The chorus girl represented sex, pure and simple, in the days when graphic sexuality wasn't just a mouse click away.
While there were chorus girls even back in the silent era, it really took sound to put the movie chorus girl front and center. With sound came the movie musical, and musicals started out as little more than an excuse to display beautiful, leggy young women in skimpy costumes. Later, when "book" musicals became popular (whose songs were integral to the plot) movies that took place in a show business milieu grew scarcer, and we didn't really need quite so many chorus girls. There weren't any in Gigi but there were plenty in backstagers like Forty-Second Street or Ziegfeld Girl.
Nearly every actress with the exception of Marjorie Main ended up cast as a showgirl at one time or other, even actresses better known for dramatic roles, like Barbara Stanwyck (in Ball of Fire) or Joan Crawford (in Dancing Lady or Flamingo Road).
The showgirl story usually told the tale of a poor girl getting plucked from obscurity (Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl), or rubbing up against social class distinctions (Ginger Rogers in Vivacious Lady), or both. Naturally, there were plenty of musical numbers thrown in just to keep it real.
Showgirls and chorus girls were beloved, not only because they were glamorous and sexy, but also because, like most movie audiences, they were working class -- invariably from Brooklyn or the Barbary Coast or Tenth Avenue or some other location associated with "low-down" living. Showgirls were "good" and showgirls were "bad" but there's no question they were everywhere, especially during World War II, when leggy stars like Grable and Hayworth were at their peak of popularity.
Movies that revolved around chorus girls allowed Hollywood costume designers like William Travilla, Jean Louis, Orry Kelly, Irene Sharaff, Adrian and so many others, to indulge their wildest showbiz fantasies in sequins, feathers, fur, lace -- the works -- though sometimes there was dangerously little of these on display!
After the major studios broke up in the Nineteen-Fifties, there was television, and well into the Eighties designers like Bob Mackie were still creating spectacular showgirl creations for musical variety shows starring Mitzi Gaynor, Cher, or Ann-Margret -- the last of the true "showgirl" types.
Today we still have shows (on Broadway, in Vegas) and occasionally there's still a chorus of "girls," but the chorus girl as pop culture icon is as dated a type as the screwball heiress, the shopgirl Cinderella, and the teenage soprano.
Sadly, for the home sewer, there never were any commerical chorus girl or showgirl-type patterns, even back in the Nineteen-Forties. A few costume patterns can be found for the occasional community theater production of Annie Get Your Gun or Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, but that's about it. It's a little sad, really.
What or who killed the chorus girl? So many things, readers! Before she died as a film icon, the chorus girl had faded away in real life. The popularity of television meant that more people were staying home rather than seeking out the nightclubs, stage shows, and burlesque venues that gave work to so many showgirls. (This echoes what happened to theater when motion pictures became popular decades earlier, and it's not a coincidence that so many movie musicals took place in the Gay Nineties or early decades of the Twentieth Century when most forms of entertainment were live.)
A slow loosening of censorship after WWII and more openness about sexuality in American culture meant that men could get their share of scantily clad ladies on the pages of Playboy or in porno theaters -- they didn't have to sit through The Dolly Sisters, waiting for Betty Grable to show a little leg. Today, when images of graphic sexuality are a keyboard click away, a low-cut bodice or tightly fitted dance costume may be alluring, but it's not the stuff of most contemporary straight male fantasies. A "burlesque" performer like Dita Von Teese is a sentimental throwback to an earlier era, but it's more homage than a true resurrection, even if it's meant to elicit a frisson. Judging by what I read on the vintage sewing blogs, performers like Dita Von Teese are more of interest to straight women of an intellectual bent than to men.
|Dita Von Teese|
Finally, the Pill meant that there were flesh-and-blood women to engage with, rather than just a celluloid or print fantasy.
Meanwhile, in the movies, films like the much-hyped Christina Aguilera vehicle Burlesque or the infamous cult classic Showgirls have ended up feeling dated, exploitative, or just plain embarrassing.
We're about as far from the risque charms of Gold Diggers of 1933 as we could be. Joan Blondell never gave a lap dance and Marilyn Monroe never licked a pole.
Finally, the demise of the showgirl reflects a culture in which it is no longer officially acceptable to objectify women. Most women don't want to be considered objects and would probably judge the role of the showgirl as she was depicted in movies of the past to be demeaning. We don't "glorify the American girl" anymore, even if we still have beauty pageants and the leggy-but-wholesome Rockettes.
Lindsay Lohan may be in this month's Playboy, in an homage to Marilyn, but the whole thing feels forced and joyless.
I had the privilege of watching a most fascinating film about chorus girls last night, Ladies of the Chorus from 1948. Cheaply made and just one hour long, it's nevertheless fascinating, hilarious, and highly entertaining, not the least because it's Marilyn Monroe's first starring role and we get to see her before she'd developed her dumb blonde persona. Here she seems like a normal young woman, or as normal as a woman can be playing a character who's the "Queen of Burlesque."
The entire film can be viewed on YouTube, and if you have an hour to spare today, please do take a look, if only to hear such hilarious showgirl pearls as "Why you gray-haired old hag, shut your mouth or I'll slap it shut!" and "I'm quittin' -- this turkey can fold for all I care!"
Your assignment, friends, is to watch Ladies of the Chorus (it's in roughly seven parts) and report back. Anything seem strange about this film, which occasionally has the feel of a high school health film and the production values to match?
What do you think of Marilyn, or "old hag" Adele Jergens, the woman who plays her mother (Jergens was just nine years older than Marilyn)?
In closing, do you have a favorite film featuring or focused on chorus girls? Do you find the chorus girl/showgirl of yore entertaining, demeaning, or a little of both!
Ever sewn a chorus girl outfit -- or wanted to?