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When Love Had a Leg to Stand On : An Inquiry Into an Old-Fashioned Courtship Ritual

March 06, 1985|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

June Allyson did it. June Haver, too. Never June Havoc.

Gloria DeHaven says she did, but nobody remembers seeing her do it.

Gloria Swanson would have died first.

Rita Gam, a putative natural, came along too late.

Debbie Reynolds? Incontrovertibly. Anybody named Debbie is a lock. Or Judy, or Midge, but never Deborah, Judith or Margaret, as in Kerr, Anderson and Rutherford. Ann Rutherford, yes, but last names don't count (unless it happens to be Ouspenskaya).

Cute girls did it, perky girls, wholesome girls. Evil girls--the "other women"--didn't: Tarnished images are too hard won to be compromised on a frivolity.

Mature types--Greer Garson, Madeleine Carroll, Marjorie Main--would have looked silly.

Cues From the Silver Screen

Femmes fatales didn't have to.

Yet an entire generation of young women, getting their cues from the Silver Screen, did it in slavish imitation, risking limb, if not life. A lot of them broke their heels. Some even broke their legs. None of them, as near as can be determined, ever broke a heart--ironic, since that was the object of the whole tsimmes. By its very nature, the exercise was totally lost on the target of seduction. Assuming he was tending to business, he couldn't even see it, for crying out loud!

The maneuver--which we shall call the Gambit, from gam plus bit, as in shtick--was and is calculating in concept, precarious in execution, obscure in origin. (Who was the first? And why? Did Eve amble on a bramble in mid-smooch?)

A young lady--somehow she had to be young--standing and ordinarily fully clothed, would reach up to embrace her boyfriend, usually around the neighborhood of the shoulder or neck. As they kissed, one leg would rise until parallel with the ground or a little higher, depending upon the degree of devotion. The other, less comely, limb would maintain contact with the ground or reality, whichever came first.

Lip Bone to the Thigh Bone

Smack, slurp--and whoop went the leg. The lip bone connected to the thigh bone.

The leg in question, of course, was the more shapely of the pair. Studies were made, generally in front of the mirror. Like fingerprints, no two legs, even those employed by the same owner, are alike. You could look it up.

"We were taught to do it," Debbie Reynolds said from Reno, where she was headlining her own show.

"It was a pose, to show off the leg, I would guess.

"Or maybe it was supposed to mean you got so excited one of your legs went numb."

Reynolds, of course, was one of the prime perpetrators of the Gambit--young, cute as a bug's ear, vivacious and the proud progenitor of one of the world's best pair of pins, then as now.

"Sure," she said, "a certain type would do it and a certain type wouldn't. The 'cute' ones would do it, the ones who wore Peter Pan collars and bangs. The others would do things much more sexy, at least for that era.

"Remember, too, it was pin-up time, Varga time, and you had to have the legs to pull it off. Betty Grable, naturally, and all the dancers--dancers have good legs. Heck, even Joan Crawford did it--before she forgot how to dance.

"I don't think it was a natural motion. It was just something a girl learned to do--probably from the movies--when she was 16 or 17."

Did Reynolds do it when she was 16 or 17?

"Me? Hey, I never kissed when I was 16 or 17. I was raised a Nazarene. No matter what, your feet stayed firmly on the floor."

Most influenced by the Gambit, rampant in movies and mags from the early '40s to the mid-'50s, were American women who are now of uncertain age--i.e. uncertain, at least for publication, as to whether they are closer to 40 or 60.

Whatever, they all admit to having done it--those with at least passable legs, that is--and reflecting on their semi-savory pasts, they confess that they were basically emulating their celluloid counterparts.

"Railroad stations," said Betty, 40-60. "That's what I associate with the Gambit. Railroad stations or some other place where you'd be meeting your guy or seeing him off. I mean, you wouldn't be doing such a damn-fool thing if nobody was around to see it."

(A reporter, 40-60, concurs, remembering with moronic affection the regular Saturday milk run, Smith-Holyoke to Dartmouth. For 15 quasi-lustful minutes, the platform would resemble a forum of flamingos in bobby sox. It made the blood bubble. It really did.)

"Oh, and there was one other circumstance, too," added Betty: "When your parents were watching you kiss a guy. Up went the leg, zingo, so the kiss wouldn't look too serious."

Linda, 40-60: "It looked so good in the movies; so--I don't know-- romantic. I did it because I thought it would make the kiss better. It never did, really, but I kept doing it, hoping it would put a little zip into the smooch. All it put was runs in my stockings. Still, it seemed sophisticated somehow."

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