My last blog title was taken from the Esther Williams movie, which was fitting, but sort of pretentious because I had never seen it. Since then, that has changed. In fact, I’ve been having a mini Esther Williams fest at my house lately, and it feels fine. These movies are fun, frothy, and just right for summer or dreams of summer.
Bathing Beauty (1944): Esther Williams’s first starring role made quite an impression on the movie-going public in 1944–it was (and is) a welcome break from reality.
Esther plays Caroline, a teacher at a stuffy, straight-laced girls’ school in the East. She was engaged to Red Skelton’s Steve Elliot, a renowned songwriter who wanted to leave the music industry behind. Steve’s producer wasn’t about to let his famous employee split, though, and broke up the couple by parading what he said were Steve’s wife and children in front of Caroline. Caroline then headed back to her school, and Steve followed her, but Caroline refused to see him. Much to her (and the school board’s) chagrin, Steve found a loophole in the school charter that allowed him to register as a student. Yes. A grown man at a girls’ college. And yes, he had to observe all of the rules and regulations.
This is one of those movies that gets crazier as it goes on, and then just a little more. We’re talking Red-Skelton-in-a-pink-tutu kind of crazy. And people-riding-a-tandem-bike-through-a-basement kind of crazy. Esther later said Bathing Beauty was her least favorite of her films, mainly because she didn’t feel her acting was up to par. She may have been right, but for a debut film, it’s not too shabby, even if it’s not the best–MGM introduced Esther as a leading lady very nicely. As long as the viewer checks their credibility, there’s plenty to enjoy.
On An Island With You (1948): This time around, Esther was Rosalind Reynolds, a famous actress shooting an island-themed musical. She seemed to have everything going for her, even being engaged to elegant Ricardo Montez, played by Ricardo Montalban. Predictably, though, things don’t go…ahem…swimmingly. The technical consultant on the film, Lieutenant Larry Kingslee, was on the receiving end of a kiss from Rosalind when she entertained his outfit in the Pacific during the Second World War, and he was put out that she didn’t remember it as well as he did.
One day, Larry took matters into his own hands. During a flight with Rosalind for a scene in the musical, Larry got her alone by flying all the way to the island where he had been stationed. Five hundred miles away. Rosalind wasn’t too happy about this new development, particularly once pieces of Larry’s plane mysteriously went missing.
I could give more details about Island, but it isn’t particularly long on plot or much else, and is easily predictable. However, it can be forgiven for that because it’s very diverting. Great cast, great music, lots of antics from Jimmy Durante, and definitely not a waste of time.
Neptune’s Daughter (1949): At this stage in my film fest, I was starting to see a pattern forming. Esther in the water? Check. Glorious Technicolor? Check. Xavier Cugat and his orchestra? Check. Crazy stuff happening? Check. However this jaunt had a twist: Esther played Eve, a fashion designer sketching swimsuits (natch) and keeping watch over her man-crazy sister, Betty, played by Betty Garrett.
Betty’s fancy lightly turned to thoughts of the visiting South American polo team. Problem was, she mistook the lovelorn masseuse, Jack Spratt, for the the star player (and rumored ladies’ man), Jose O’Rourke. Thinking she was protecting her sister from Señor Lothario, Eve took it upon herself to date the real Jose, who’s really in love with Eve. Confusing? Yep. Funny, too.
For today’s viewers, Neptune offers little flashes of familiarity. Remember the famous shower scene in Elf? The song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” originated with this movie, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to hang a Best Song Oscar on it (Yay, M-G-M!). Another fun part is Mel Blanc in a bit role as Pancho, one of the stable-hands. Even if an audience doesn’t know what he looked like, his voice will be a huge tip-off.
Neptune might seem to be another formulaic Esther vehicle, but it’s not without its charms.
Dangerous When Wet (1953): This one is probably my favorite of the set. Esther played Katie Higgins, one of a dairy farm family in Arkansas, and the film opened with the whole bunch of them trooping off to the pond for their morning swim. Katie, clad in Daisy Dukes with a bikini on top (decades before Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”), seemed more interested in farming and keeping her nose in a book than in swimming.
When Wendy Weebe, Liquipep (read: snake oil) salesman rolled into town, Katie had to just about beat him off with a stick. She softened very slightly when Wendy suggested the whole family swim the English Channel as a publicity stunt for Liquipep, which Pa thought was a terrific opportunity, and off they go to England. Only Katie was really up to the challenge, though (what a shock), and one day during training, Katie loses Wendy in a fog. However, just when she started to get desperate, a masculine-looking hand with a pinky ring reached out to her, and before she knew it, Katie found herself sitting in Frenchman Andre’s rowboat. He had been out on the water with his own protege, who had also gotten lost. Why anyone would coach in a tux is a little baffling, but whatever. Anyway, the rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
Honestly, I enjoyed Dangerous all the way through. The plot seemed to be a natural one for a champion swimmer, and Fernando Lamas playing a Frenchman is a nice bonus–it’s worth it just to hear him twist his Argentinian accent into something passably Gallic. Esther’s acting in the movie looks much more seasoned too, one example being a scene in which she drank an entire bottle of Liquipep. This was a year after Lucy’s infamous Vitameatavegamin show, and Lucy played pep-tonic-drunk better, but Esther did it in color.
These four films make up Volume One of TCM’s Esther Williams Collection, and they’re a welcome addition to my library. I will be definitely buying Volume Two one of these days. Her films weren’t meant to be on the same level as, say, Ingmar Bergman or Abbot and Costello, but they’re still a unique and entertaining part of film history. It’s yet another cliché, but Esther is impossible to compare to any other star.
Oh, and a little housekeeping before we wrap up. I don’t usually do previews, but here’s what’s coming up in July:
If anyone is interested in participating, feel free to pay Crystal a visit. Until next time, friends…
Buy this collection on Amazon.