The quality of badinage among chorus girls has apparently declined since the '30s, when, at least in movies, the resilient young women who shared big dressing rooms could always be counted on for nifty zingers. In "Legs," tonight's ABC "Monday Night Movie" at 9 on Channel 7, a present-day Rockette says to one of her colleagues as they dismantle themselves after a matinee, "Did you see that pervert in the first row this afternoon? I thought he was gonna flash me!"
Alack--another sign of the times. "Legs" may be decrepit where dialogue is concerned, but the film, written and directed by Jerrold Freedman, has its kicks. The backstage stories of three Rockette recruits prove not very interesting in themselves but are deftly performed, and the on-stage footage of the Rockettes in action is enhanced by the swooping and gliding of the Steadicam, which takes the viewer on a joy ride right through the chorus line.
Through it, among it and under it. "Legs" adds an "l" to "t & a"; it's a "t, a & l" film, resembling at first one of the "Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders" pictures, since hardly have the Rockettes begun to undress backstage when one of them starts a water fight. The movie might also be considered one big "I Love New York" commercial, one that pretends the Music Hall is in its golden age (when, in fact, they all but shuttered the place a few years ago) and that every little girl in America dreams of one day dancing about in feathers and sequins on its stage.
In between numbers, the film tells its tales of Lisa (Shanna Reed), a former Rockette who wants to return to the line after a disastrous marriage; Terry (Deborah Geffner), whose mother (Sheree North, always a bolstering asset), a former Rockette, wants daughter to follow in her dance steps; and Melissa (Maureen Teefy), a naive but devout novice who aspires to this show-biz equivalent of a holy order and is told she does have the proper "spirit" for it, if not the requisite Betty Grable gams. Other Rockettes are played by real Rockettes.
Keeping the line in line is veteran Broadway hooftress Gwen Verdon, who is fine in the dramatic portions, such as they are, and genuinely exquisite in one too-brief dance solo on a bare Music Hall stage, from which Freedman lyrically dissolves to a pan of the Manhattan skyline. Most of the time, Verdon stands around chanting "5-6-7-8," as characters in these dumb things about dancers usually do, but Verdon lends even to that ritual the poignance of an aging gamin.
John Heard, a young actor who always comes across as a dirty old man, plays the fox dropped into this particular chicken coop, a photographer for "West Coast" magazine who spends an entire month shooting the Rockettes and is also, the script claims, a writer (haw, haw!) who tells Lisa, with whom he has an affair, "I'll make stuff up. All writers embellish." Of course, that is an outrageous lie.
There really is no story here, just a few interlocking vignettes, but at least the film has more on its mind than the threadbare topics of fame and celebrity. The depiction of chorus-girl life is almost insultingly innocuous, yet a truthy sort of moment emerges now and then, and anyone who ever wondered what it would be like to wade through the Rockettes in the middle of their routines will find out--the easy way.