Swimmers, take your marks…
Esther Williams never set out to be a movie star. She was a champion swimmer who dreamed of competing in the Olympics. When the 1940 games were cancelled, she got a job working as a floor model at I. Magnin‘s Los Angeles store, and then landed a gig with Billy Rose’s Aquacade, swimming with Johnny Weissmuller. That was where an MGM talent scout spotted her and made her an offer to come work in the movies. Esther said no and went back to her job at I. Magnin once the Aquacade closed.
MGM was persistent, however. After a few more refusals, Esther only agreed to sign with them if they would allow her nine months to train with the studio’s various coaches. She was scared stiff that she would make a fool of herself in front of the cameras, and MGM thought she had a few edges that could use some polishing anyway. Besides, a chance to go through what Esther later called “MGM University” is nothing to sneeze at.
In 1942, Esther was ready to go. In addition to a few shorts, she kissed a bowled-over Mickey Rooney in Andy Hardy’s Double Life and chatted up Van Johnson in A Guy Named Joe. It wasn’t until 1944 that Esther landed her first starring role in a Red Skelton vehicle originally titled Mr. Co-Ed, later changed to Bathing Beauty. The film finally let Esther do what she loved best, and that was swimming. Well, there’s a lot of craziness in between the swimming, but there’s still swimming.
The movie opens poolside at a swanky California resort, where Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra are entertaining guests. Also hanging around is Steve Elliot (Red Skelton) who’s got Carlos Ramirez all ready to sing a song he’s written to his fiancee, Caroline Brooks (Esther Williams). Caroline is polite but slightly unnerved, and as soon as Carlos is finished she hops in the pool for her swim. She and Steve are looking forward to getting married tomorrow, and Steve is itching to tell his producer, George (Basil Rathbone) that he’s switching from writing pop music to composing symphonies. Caroline is going to leave her job as a swimming instructor and happily informs Steve that she can cook.
Steve and Caroline’s wedding day dawns. As the judge pronounces them husband and wife, in walks a woman named Maria Dorango (Jacqueline Dalya) who claims to be his wife and the mother of Steve’s three redheaded children. It’s all fake, of course, because George is trying to coerce Steve into writing the music for his aquacade. Still, Caroline buys it and jets across the country to her home state of New Jersey.
Caroline works at the prestigious girls-only Victoria College. It’s very rich, very proper, and very strict. The students, aided and abetted by one of the professors, Ethel Smith (Herself) play swing and Latin jazz on the sly, including what was Ethel Smith’s hit at the time, “Tico Tico.”
Naturally, Steve follows Caroline there, and naturally he’s rebuffed. He thinks he’s beaten until he finds out that men can enroll at the college. Caroline is incensed, but there’s really nothing she can do about it.
The school makes no attempt to accomodate Steve being a man except that he gets a basement bedroom. More of a storeroom, really, but it’s got a bed, and once Steve cleans it out it’s more than passable. He gets no such considerations in the other classes, where he’s got to get in line like a lady. Including ballet, where Steve has to wear a pink tutu. At least he’s allowed to wear slacks everywhere else.
The only place where Steve can breathe a little bit is the music class, where the professor dares him to perform an arrangement of “Loch Lomond.” Steve not only swings things up but brings along Harry James, Helen Forrest, and Carlos, with a little assist from Ethel and two of the students, Jean (Jean Porter) and Janis (Janis Page). They even work in a kickline, believe it or not.
Much to the shock of the faculty, especially Caroline, Steve excels at all his classes. George has also come east because he still wants Steve to write the music for his aquacade, and Steve will only deliver if George does his homework for him. Steve is busy trying to get Caroline back, so he has no time for such trifles as French and botany.
Just to keep things hairy, Caroline is dating a rather stuffy professor, Willis Evans (Bill Goodwin), who can’t go anywhere without his Great Dane. Said canine really doesn’t like Steve, who can’t get away from him fast enough.
Speaking of getting away, the faculty doesn’t want Steve hanging around on Parents’ Day, because how would it look if the school has a man in attendance? Caroline steps in to help, taking Steve out on the town. It’s a good thing Harry James is still around. And if Steve just happens to stay out past curfew, so much the better. Expulsion will make everything all nice and neat.
Except nothing is nice or neat. It gets crazy, in fact. So crazy that Maria shows up with a guilty conscience, George tries to do damage control, Caroline suddenly gets amorous, the girls try to initiate Steve into a secret society, the parents get curious about seeing Steve’s room, and everyone has to pile in Steve’s tiny closet, which can somehow hold a four-person tandem bike. Whew. And this is all in the space of ten minutes or so.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that this movie ends as it begins…poolside. Only the new pool is bigger, fancier, and has flames shooting out of the water. For starters.
Filmmaking was relatively smooth, once things got going. It was clear from the start that Esther’s stand-in would have to be another swimmer, as the first one to do a color test in the pool sank like a rock while holding the Lily. Esther called her old Nationals teammate, Edie Motridge, who ended up working with her in every film she made.
The first scene was filmed at the Lakeside Country Club (today the Lakeside Golf Club), which would have been great except that it was January and all the lawns were brown. Esther hit on the idea of dying the grass green, which the director, George Sidney jumped at. Problem was, the dye killed the lawns and MGM had to pay to have them reseeded.
To accomodate the elaborate finale, MGM built Stage 30 at a cost of $250,000, where they were able to film the underwater sequences as well as have Harry James and his orchestra playing off to the side. Esther remembered later the elaborate columns they set up to frame the scene also helped the swimmers hit their marks. Stage 30 is still in use today, not only for swimming and underwater filming but large sets (see a floor plan here).
The effort paid off, because when the film premiered as Mr. Co-ed, the audience response to Esther was so tremendous, MGM changed the title of the film to Bathing Beauty and played up Esther in a big way. Giant billboards declared, “Come On In! The Water’s Fine!”
Even though it was revamped, Bathing Beauty is still Red Skelton’s show–according to Esther’s autobiography, MGM was really trying to make him into another Bob Hope. Skelton is in most of the scenes, the schtick is his, and the major plot arc is his. Audiences roared over his comedy sketches, especially when he clowned in music class before the professor showed up.
In the end, though, Esther came out the winner. According to Skelton biographer Wes Gehring, the critics focused on her instead of on Skelton, and audiences were completely bowled over by her swimming. When Bathing Beauty released, it was a huge hit, with only Gone With the Wind bringing in more money.
Esther’s later films feature more elaborate swimming sequences, but Bathing Beauty was where it all began. It ushered in a very unique star and, as Esther said later, popularized synchronized swimming. Best of all, it’s wall-to-wall fun.
For more of the wonderful Esther, please see Michaela at Love Letters To Old Hollywood. Thanks for hosting, Michaela–hope we can do this again sometime. Thanks for reading, all, and see you Saturday with another blogathon and another review…
Bathing Beauty is available on DVD from Amazon.
Gehring, Wes. Red Skelton: The Mask Behind the Mask. Indianapolis: Indianapolis Historical Society Press, 2013.
Williams, Esther. The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.