28 February 2008

Esther Williams

Esther Williams Collection
Bathing Beauty - Easy To Wed - On An Island With You -
Neptune's Daughter - Dangerous When Wet

Dangerous When Wet!
Turner Classic Movies presents 
"The Esther Williams Collection"
reviewed by Donny Jacobs
Synchronized swimming is an Olympic sport today, but in the 1940s, it was novelty entertainment. It wasn't even called synchronized swimming back then. One of the few places you could see it performed was Billy Rose's Aquacade, an aquatically-themed music spectacular that played in New York City and San Francisco. For a time, swimming champion Esther Williams co-starred in that show with another champ, Johnny Weismuller. He was already a Hollywood star, having become the most famous Tarzan in movie history. Williams' screen stardom was a few years in the future, but her popularity with the public would match and arguably surpass Weismuller's.

Her fresh Southern California beauty and stylish strokes in the Aquacade pool brought Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer talent scouts knocking at her door. She rebuffed them for months, until curiousity got the better of her. The statuesque brunette met with M-G-M's Vice-President, the legendary Louis B. Mayer, and he put his powers of persuasion to work. The movie mogul convinced her to help him launch a series of waterborne musical comedies. This was a concept that had never been seen on screen before. Accompanied by bevy of beautiful choreographed swimmers, Williams would perform elaborately-choreographed swim routines for an international audience of millions. And so, the aquatic musical was born: A gorgeously-staged combination of fantasy, music, dance, sex appeal, daredevil stunts and white-hot glamour, seasoned with a generous dash of Technicolor razzle dazzle.

A giant water tank on the studio backlot became Williams' home base from 1944 to 1954, and it spawned sixteen of the most unique cinematic creations ever committed to film. Critics dubbed her "the million dollar mermaid", and she starred in a hit film of that name in 1952. Other hits included Fiesta(1948), Pagan Love Song(1950), Easy To Love(1953) and Jupiter's Darling(1955). Esther Williams comedies came to be known for three things: Stunning syncronized swimming routines, handsome Latin leading men, and hot Latin music. Not to mention numerous scenes of the lovely actress/athlete modeling high-fashion one-piece bathing suits! These factors, along with her winning girl-next-door personality, contributed to her becoming M-G-M Studio's highest-grossing female star during the years following the Second World War. Believe it or not, she was even more popular than Judy Garland!
Bathing Beauty

M-G-M had Williams make her feature film début in one of Mickey Rooney's Andy Hardy pictures, but 1944's Bathing Beauty was the film that launched her million-dollar career. A madcap comedy, it co-starred Basil Rathbone, Jean Porter and comedian Red Skelton (who took top billing) as her husband-to-be. If you doubt that Skelton could play a leading man convincingly, your doubts will be put to rest when you see his performance here. He's convincingly lovey-dovey with Williams when he's not cavorting in a ballerina's tutu or engaged in some other foolishness! His character is a Pop songwriter; hers is his estranged fiancée, a college instructor who looks really good in a bathing suit. The convoluted plot has Skelton enrolling at the women's college (he's the only male student) where she teaches.

As the story progresses, we see lots of cute, giggly college girls, clever comedy skits, jolly production numbers, and colorful musical interludes featuring organist Ethel Smith, Harry James and His Music Makers, and the Xavier Cugat Orchestra. Featured singers Helen Forrest, Carlos Ramírez and Lina Romay leave a most favorable impression. So does the first of many elaborate synchronized swimming sequences Williams would film. Her girl swimmers' moves aren't as polished in this film as they would later become, but the routines are beautifully staged (by former Aquacade director John Murray Anderson). Of course, Williams rivets your attention in fashion swimwear, regardless of whether she's in the water or not. Bathing Beauty is an impressive showcase for her, a kaleidoscope of riotous rhythm, melody, comedy, color and graceful athleticism.

1946's Easy To Wed was a remake of a 1936 romp called Libelled Lady. Van Johnson, Esther Williams, Keenan Wynn and Lucille Ball (yes, that Lucy) took over roles originated by Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, William Powell and Myrna Loy. The contrived plot revolves around an heiress (Willams) who files a slander lawsuit against a big city newspaper. A newspaper executive (Wynn) decides to blackmail her into dropping it. His scheme involves tricking her into eloping with a lothario-for-hire (Johnson) who's actually married to a showgirl (Ball) . . . only the showgirl is actually betrothed to Wynn, so isn't really married to Johnson (or is she?)

Esther Williams is surprisingly believable as a snooty rich girl, and not very likeable; fortunately, her demeanor changes after she warms to Van Johnson. When she turns on that down-to-earth charm of hers, watch out! Van Johnson seems miscast as a con man but, gosh, he's awfully nice to look at . . . especially dancing in the bolero-style tuxedo he wears for a production number with Williams. Keenan Wynn, who's just as good-looking as Johnson, would've made a better love match for Williams, but that would've robbed him of key comedy scenes with fiancée(?) Lucille Ball. In this film, she's a far cry from the kooky character she'll be playing five years hence on TV; very earthy and sexy. See Lucy flaunt her shapely legs in a choreographed dance number, and make drunken love to Van Johnson in a hotel room!

Colombian tenor Carlos Ramírez is on hand to fill the Handsome Latin Male quota. Joined by an enthusiastic mariachi troupe, he belts out a rousing version of "Viva México!" Latin sounds also emanate from the organ and drum kit of an exotically costumed Ethel Smith, who accompanies Williams and Johnson performing "Boneca De Pixe", a Brazilian song partially staged for them by an uncredited Carmen Miranda. The confusion over who's married to whom never really gets resolved, but when the cast is so attractive, the music is so catchy, the Technicolor photography is so vibrant, and there are glamourous swimming sequences to watch, who cares?
On An Island With You

On An Island With You from 1948 is undoubtedly one of the sexiest movies of the '40s. The female costuming is so provocative, you'd think you were watching a burlesque show or a dance sport competition! Williams, playing an actress shooting her latest flick on location at a Pacific island, is delectable in a clinging two piece sarong. If there's such a thing as "come hither" swimming, she certainly performs it in this film; in water ballets choreographed by Jack Donohoe, the camera lingers lustfully on her supple body as it coils and stretches in the water. Yipe! In a supporting role, slit-skirted Cyd Charisse is devastating when she performs a suggestive Apache dance number with Latin lover Ricardo Montalbán. They end up becoming an item, although at the beginning of the film, Montalbán and Williams are betrothed.

Coming between them is a totally miscast Peter Lawford. He plays a smitten fan of the actress who stalks her to the movie set, kidnaps her, and wins her heart. Lawford's wooden acting makes the premise that much more implausible, and he has no chemistry with Williams at all. The film works best when they're not on screen together. Compensating for Lawford's presence is the great Jimmy Durante, dropping one-liners and singing classic vaudeville-style numbers like "Can Broadway Do Without Me?" Xavier Cugat's absence was felt in Easy To Wed; here he returns with a vengeance, playing a pepper hot version of "El Cumbanchero" behind a vivacious new singer, Betty Riley. According to Cugat's biography, published around the same time this film was released, he also scored this movie.

Red Skelton returns in 1949's Neptune's Daughter, but not as Williams' leading man this time. That honor goes to Ricardo Montalbán, characteristically suave as a polo-playing Argentian playboy. As a beautiful swimsuit designer, Williams plays a cat-and-mouse game with him that predictably reaches its climax in a poolside scene. Keenan Wynn appears as William's business partner, and just as in Easy To Wed, M-G-M fails to exploit the on-screen chemistry he shares with her. At film's end, his character is left nursing a broken heart as he helplessly watches Montalbán sweep her off her feet.

Skelton romances Betty Garrett, cast as Williams' dizzy younger sister. Their scenes together are great (especially singing the standard "Baby, It's Cold Outside"), and Garrett, clearly a forerunner to Bette Midler, sings up a storm. She steals the movie performing "I Love Those Men", a specialty number with Xavier Cugat's orchestra, and she might've stolen it a second time if her manic song "I Want My Money Back" hadn't been cut from the film. Thankfully, it was preserved as a musical outtake. More comedic genius is on tap in the form of Mel Blanc, who appears a bumbling Argentinean stable hand. If you ever wondered what the man who provided the cartoon voice of Bugs Bunny looks like, you can see him in the flesh in Neptune's Daughter. One of the most exciting Latin music sequences ever filmed is found in this film: Xavier Cugat's orchestra sizzles playing the "Jungle Rhumba". Parts of this scene, masterfully edited by Irvine Warburton, would be excerpted in the 1991 Antonio Banderas vehicle The Mambo Kings.

Dangerous When Wet from 1953 is the least memorable of the five films, despite its inclusion of Williams' famous animated swimming sequence with cartoon characters Tom and Jerry. Set largely in a fog-shrouded London locale, it's the story of a woman who swims the English Channel for prize money in order to save her family's farm. There's no exotic scenery, few memorable production numbers and (gasp!) no Latin music at all! There is, however, a Latin lover to beat all Latin lovers: "Marvelous" Fernando Lamas, Williams' future husband. You can detect sincerity in the way he woos her on screen. In the course of wooing her, Lamas dares to sport a pair of thin white swim trunks that go transparent during their swimming scenes. If not for John McSweeney, Jr.'s skillful editing, this is one Esther Williams film that might've gotten slapped with an "R" rating!

While the movie itself is nothing to write home about, the co-stars are first-rate: Lamas, of course, who smoulders with leading man charm; Barbara Whiting, as Williams' man-crazy sister, shines in her musical solos "Ain't Nature Grand" and "I Like Men"; Charlotte Greenwood, as the mother, dazzles with her comedic dancing and acrobatic prowess; and William Demarest is great as Williams' grumpy athletic trainer father. Seen a decade before his residency on the TV series "My Three Sons", the elderly Demarest acquits himself admirably in a physically demanding role. But in the end, the only real reason to see Dangerous When Wet is to watch Williams and Lamas fall in love with one another on screen.

So maybe you don't like musicals? Maybe comedy isn't your bag? Maybe synchronized swimming bores you to tears? What about all three together? After watching an Esther Williams film, anybody would have to admit it's an unforgettable combination. Anybody who does enjoy these forms of entertainment can't afford to miss out on Warner Home Video's deluxe DVD set featuring the five aforementioned titles. In addition to the movies, it includes theatrical trailers, vintage cartoon and comedy shorts, rare musical outttakes, promotional radio interviews, and Private Screenings With Esther Williams, a career documentary that originally aired on the Turner cable network in 1996. This is Volume One in a projected series that's anticipated to bring all of Williams' M-G-M pictures back in print.
Million Dollar Mermaid

Read Million Dollar Mermaid by Esther Williams and Digby Diehl, 
an entertaining autobiography published by Simon and Schuster in 1999. 
Also, swim over to the Official Esther Williams website:


Jerry Maneker said...

ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT! I never cease to be amazed at the excellence of your posts, knowledge of what you write about, the details you know, and the eloquence and imagination you possess.

Can anyone say "GENIUS?"


Can anyone say "Don Charles is stuck in the past"? It's probably true, because today's popular culture really doesn't do much for me. Thanks for the compliment, Jerry.

Joey said...

Just checking out your blog! ;)

thombeau said...

I need these movies!

The book is a hoot!

Great post.