Thursday, 19 March 2015

Top 10 Esther Williams Films


10. Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949, Busby Berkeley)


While not one of Esther's signature aquatic musicals, Take Me Out to the Ball Game has a lot of upside. Boasting a stellar supporting cast of Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Betty Garrett, this entertaining musical plays to everyone's strengths and gives Esther a chance to prove she doesn't need water to be a star (though there is a gratuitous swimming scene thrown in for good measure- this is an Esther Williams film afterall). The ending admittedly feels a little rushed but the final musical number (with the cast appearing as themselves before breaking into "Strictly U.S.A") is a lot of fun.


Trivia 

- The final film directed by the legendary Busby Berkeley. He would go on to serve as solely the musical director and choreographer for several more films over the next decade (most notably, the Esther Williams films Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) and Easy to Love (1953)).

- According to Esther's autobiography, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen had originally conceived her character with Kathryn Grayson in mind. When Kathryn turned it down, Judy Garland was next in line. Unfortunately, due to Judy's well-publicized issues with substance abuse, Esther was brought in as a replacement. Ironically enough, both Grayson and Garland are mentioned in the film's final musical number, "Strictly U.S.A".

- Gene Kelly and Esther Williams didn't get along during the filming of Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Esther recounts in her autobiography several instances in which Kelly and Stanley Donen (who staged the musical numbers with Kelly) bullied her, stating that "he and Donen made me the butt of their jokes". She describes her time working on this film as "pure misery".

- Busby Berkeley originally conceived a water ballet dream sequence for this film but, at Gene Kelly's request, it was never filmed.

9. Easy to Wed (1946, Edward Buzzell)


While this remake of the 1936 screwball comedy Libeled Lady (starring Jean Harlow, William Powell, Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy) isn't as good as it's predecessor, it is still an entertaining filmic experience. The cast assembled for the 1946 version is almost as good as the original, boasting Van Johnson (in the Powell role), Keenan Wynn (in the Tracy role), Lucille Ball (in the Harlow role) and, of course, Esther Williams (in the Loy role). 

What lets this film down is it's screenplay. Barring a few exceptions, the screenplays for Easy to Wed and Libeled Lady are almost identical. In fact, there are several scenes where the dialogue is word for word. As someone who has seen Libeled Lady several times, it is quite disconcerting and distracts from the excellent story.

What saves this film from being a cheap, technicolor imitation is the addition of several musical numbers. Unfortunately (like in Take Me Out to the Ball Game), Esther doesn't swim- but she does sing and dance in a memorable musical number titled "Boneca de Piche". Lucille Ball also performs a memorable (and colorful) rendition of "The Continental Polka" (which you can watch on YouTube here).


Trivia

- Dorothy Kingsley (who wrote the screenplay for several of Esther's other films) updated the Libeled Lady script for it's 1946 adaptation.

The legendary 'Brazilian Bombshell' Carmen Miranda taught Esther and Van how to sing in Portuguese for their musical number "Boneca de Piche".

- Esther and her co-star Lucille Ball had their difficulties off-screen. According to Esther's autobiography, Lucy accused Esther of "stealing" her then-husband, Desi Arnaz. The way Esther tells it, it was Desi who asked her out (an offer she flatly refused several times). At the time, Esther was in love with Ben Gage (whom she would later marry) and told Lucy that, even if she wasn't in love with somebody else, she wouldn't be interested in Lucy's "silly Latin singer". According to Esther, her rebuttal to Lucy's accusations made the latter cry.

8. Dangerous When Wet (1953, Charles Walters)


While Dangerous When Wet boasts one of the strongest scripts written for an Esther Williams film, it distinctly lacks the glitz and glamour of her other musicals. Esther's films are an example of escapism at it's finest and, without all that sparkle and shine that her musicals usually have, Dangerous When Wet just doesn't stack up against some of her other films. That's not to say that it isn't enjoyable (because it is), it just isn't as good as some of her other films.

In Dangerous When Wet, Esther stars as Katy Higgins, a young woman determined to swim the English Channel with her family. However, things become complicated for Katy when she meets handsome Frenchman Andre Lanet (portrayed by Fernando Lamas) and finds herself falling in love with him- which distracts her from her monumental swim. This struggle between her professional and personal lives serves as the pre-cursor to one of Esther's most famous water ballets. 

Even if you're are not familiar with her body of work, chances are you've seen clips or pictures of Esther swimming with Tom and Jerry. This spectacular sequence re-creates the plot of the film and is, without a doubt, the highlight of Dangerous When Wet. Despite being over 60 years old, the scene's effects hold up remarkably well and it is just as enjoyable now as I'm sure it was back in 1953 (you can watch the scene here).


Trivia

- Esther recalls (in her autobiography) that during the filming of Dangerous When Wet, the sexual chemistry between her and Lamas was palpable- both on-screen and off. She even goes as far as to detail a steamy encounter they had after a late-night shoot in Portuguese Bend, California. Though they wanted to be together, Esther sensed that, if she had left her desperately unhappy marriage and ran away with Lamas, he wouldn't have been faithful to her. After filming was completed on Dangerous When Wet, the pair went their separate ways and didn't see each other again until Esther cast Fernando as the male lead in her TV Special "Esther Williams at Cyprus Gardens" in 1960. By the time they were reunited, Lamas' womanizing ways had settled and Esther felt confident that they could have a lasting relationship- and they did. The pair were married in 1969 and remained so until Lamas' death in 1982.

7. Neptune's Daughter (1949, Edward Buzzell)


Neptune's Daughter stars Esther Williams as aquatic ballet dancer (imagine that!) Eve Barrett, who becomes the business partner of Joe Brackett (Keenan Wynn), the founder of the Neptune swimsuit company. Upon learning that the South American polo team will be coming to town, Eve's scatterbrain sister Betty (Betty Garrett) sets her sights on the team's star player, Jose O'Rourke (Ricardo Montalban). Unfortunately for Betty, she has never seen Jose O'Rourke in person and a case of mistaken identity leaves her courting O'Rourke's bumbling masseur instead, the equally scatterbrain Jack Spratt (Red Skelton) who plays along with Betty's mistake. Meanwhile, while organising a swimming spectacle for the South American polo team, Eve meets the actual Jose O'Rourke and falls in love with him. As expected, Eve is horrified when Betty announces that she is also in love with Jose O'Rourke (though, of course, her beau is actually a hapless masseur- not a star polo player).

While rather whimsical in plot, Neptune's Daughter is an entertaining farce that features one of the strongest supporting casts to appear in an Esther Williams film. Each actor is perfectly suited to their individual roles and enhances what could easily have been a film to forget (had they miscast the key roles). Neptune's Daughter is also considerably enhanced by the addition of Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra, who had become a staple in Esther's aquatic musicals.


Trivia

- Esther was pregnant with her first child, Ben Gage Jr., while filming Neptune's Daughter.

- The third (and final) pairing of Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban- the other two being Fiesta (1947) and On an Island With You (1948).

- The first on-screen (and live-action) appearance of legendary voice actor Mel Blanc (who voiced such infamous characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Tweetie Pie). The voice he uses in Neptune's Daughter is very similar to that of his character Speedy Gonzales.

- Not many people realise that Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban introduced the Christmas standard "Baby, It's So Cold Outside" to the public. You can watch the Williams/Montalban rendition here.

- Neptune's Daughter is one of the first films to depict the use of a television set.

6. Bathing Beauty (1944, George Sidney)


This was the first Esther Williams film I ever saw. Unfortunately, it was her untimely passing in 2013 that catapulted my discovery of her incredible filmography (I frequently lament that I didn't discover her films while she was still alive). Since my first viewing of Bathing Beauty, she has become one of my all-time favourite actresses and has gone on to occupy a very special place in my heart. Her beauty and talent will never be surpassed- there was (and always will be) only one Esther Williams.

Bathing Beauty stars Red Skelton as Steve Elliott, a prominent songwriter who is preparing to marry his long-time sweetheart, Caroline Brooks (Esther Williams). When Steve's producer (George Adams) hears of his plans to give up his career once he and Caroline are married, he concocts a plan of his own (designed to keep the couple from marrying). After Steve's "wife" (an actress hired by George) interrupts their wedding ceremony, Caroline dumps her cad of a fiancé and accepts a job as a gym teacher at an all-girls school. Steve, desperate to win Caroline back, finds a legal loophole that allow him to enroll in the school for a two week probationary period- despite being a man. Naturally (as is common in a Red Skelton picture), hijinks ensue as Steve tries to convince Caroline that he loves her- and only her.

This effervescent musical set the standard for the Esther Williams films to come and features one of the most impressive aquatic musical numbers she ever performed (which you can watch here).


Trivia

- Esther's first technicolor film and the first ever "aquatic musical". 

- The film was originally titled Mr. Co-Ed and was a vehicle for Red Skelton. However, upon watching the film's first cut, MGM executives realised that the film's real star was Esther Williams. Her role was subsequently bulked up and the named changed from Mr. Co-Ed to Bathing Beauty. Esther also receives top billing, a distinction formerly belonging to Skelton.

- At the time of it's release, Bathing Beauty was the third-highest grossing movie in MGM history (behind Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ (1925) and Gone with the Wind (1939)).


5. Easy to Love (1953, Charles Walters)


In Easy to Love, Esther is Julie Hallerton, the star attraction in a hugely successful water show at the glorious Cyprus Gardens resort in Winter Haven, Florida. Despite being overworked and underpaid, Julie performs her role willingly in the hopes that her boss, Ray Lloyd (portrayed by Van Johnson), will realise that she is desperately in love with him. After announcing her imminent marriage to aquatic co-star Hank (portrayed by John Bromfield- and whom she has no intention of actually marrying), Ray decides to whisk her off to New York instead, an offer Julie sees as having romantic designs. Once in New York, Ray lines up several business appointments for Julie and she soon realises that he is still clueless to her romantic intentions. After a night on the town with handsome singer Barry Gordon (portrayed by Tony Martin)- whom she meets at a photoshoot- Julie is introduced to several promoters who promise to treat her (and pay her) better than Ray does, leaving her with an impossibly tough decision to make about her future. 

While the plot sounds incredibly simple, the chemistry between Esther and frequent co-star Van Johnson (in their fifth and final pairing together) and the spectacular aquatic musical numbers make this a film to remember. Easy to Love, which was shot entirely on location in Florida, boasts one of the most incredible (and daring) aquatic sequences to ever be captured on film. The film's flagship number, conceived by legendary musical director Busby Berkeley, features Esther and a cast of hundreds performing intricate water ski stunts just off the shore of the Cyprus Gardens resort. The number, which Esther performed while pregnant, is a remarkable and everlasting tribute to her talents as a performer (you can watch the exquisite number in it's entirety here). 


Trivia

- Esther's favourite of all her films.

- Esther was pregnant with her third child, Susan Gage, while making Easy to Love. Despite being pregnant, she performed all her own stunts in the film's spectacular water ski finale.

- The final film pairing of Esther Williams and Van Johnson. The pair made a total of five films together from 1943 to 1953 (four of which were specifically tailored Esther Williams vehicles).

- Tony Martin's wife, the legendary Cyd Charisse, makes a cameo appearance in the film. The couple were married from 1948 until Charisse's death in 2008.


4. On an Island with You (1948, Richard Thorpe)


In this bright and vibrant summer musical, Esther stars as Rosalind Reynolds, a glamorous film star shooting her latest picture, which happens to co-star her fiancé Ricardo Montez (Ricardo Montalban), on location in Hawaii. Conflict arises, however, when the film's military technical adviser Lt. Lawrence Kingslee (Peter Lawford) arrive on set with designs on Rosalind- whom he met years earlier at a USO show. 

This gorgeous musical, shot on and around Anna Maria Island in Florida, is easily the happiest of all Esther's films- a distinction not easily achieved when you look at her filmography. This colourful, highly entertaining production boasts a lively soundtrack featuring Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra and a host of impressive aquatic musical numbers. On an Island with You also stars the incomparable Cyd Charisse, who performs several dance numbers throughout the film- the most memorable of which is a sensuous dance duet performed with Ricardo Montalban (which you can watch here). 

While the plot of On an Island with You isn't the strongest, it is easily one of her most entertaining films, with a superb supporting cast and plenty of musical numbers to drive the plot along.


Trivia

- Cyd Charisse broke her leg while filming the elaborate ceremonial dance number. Luckily, she had filmed the bulk of her scenes already (including her memorable dance with Ricardo Montalban)- however, she is replaced by a body double in wide shots of the ceremonial dance, which she wasn't able to complete. Charisse was slated to next appear in Easter Parade (1948) but her injury meant she had to bow out (she was ultimately replaced by Ann Miller, who made her MGM debut in the film). Ironically, Gene Kelly also had to bow out of Easter Parade (and was replaced by Fred Astaire) due to a broken ankle.

- In the scene where she falls into a hole covered by jungle camouflage, Esther sprained her ankle due to the production crew failing to pad the bottom of the hole with cushions to break her fall. Esther ended up finishing the film on crutches.

3. Thrill of a Romance (1945, Richard Thorpe)



Thrill of a Romance begins with beautiful swimming instructor Cynthia Glenn (Esther Williams, of course) catching the eye of a handsome stranger, Bob Delbar (Carleton G. Young). After a whirlwind romance, the two marry and head off on their honeymoon. Unfortunately, on their first night at the resort, Bob is unexpectedly called away to Washington on business, leaving Cynthia alone at the luxurious resort in the breathtaking Sierra Nevadas. After befriending war hero Tommy Milvane (Van Johnson) on the first night, the pair begin a whirlwind romance of their own- leaving Newlywed Cynthia with an impossible choice to make.

While my #1 spot was a definite lock, I had an extremely difficult time deciding which film should be #3 on this list and which should be #2. I absolutely adore Thrill of a Romance- but, in the end, it landed at #3 purely because of it's musical elements.

While it boasts a superbly rich screenplay (one of the strongest in Esther's filmography), the music isn't as vibrant and fun as it is in her other films. Featuring famed tenor Lauritz Melchior in his first ever film role, Thrill of a Romance has a whopping 7 operatic numbers (most of which are accompanied by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra). While they are wonderfully executed by the supremely talented Melchior, my opinion is that musical numbers in this film don't compliment the Esther Williams formula as well as, say, Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra (who appeared in Bathing Beauty, This Time for Keeps, On an Island with You and Neptune's Daughter). This film also fails to showcase Esther in an extravagant water ballet number (though she does swim several times in the film).


Trivia

- While filming the backstroke sequences in Thrill of a Romance, Esther had to keep her hand under Van Johnson's back to keep him afloat.

- Esther states in her autobiography that MGM tried to manufacture a relationship between herself and Van Johnson. Despite being close friends, the pair were never romantically involved.

2. Duchess of Idaho (1950, Robert Z. Leonard)


While some people (including Esther herself) consider Duchess of Idaho to be a rehashing of all her previous films, I disagree. In my opinion, this is one of the most entertaining additions to her filmography- with the chemistry between Esther and Van Johnson at an all-time high. Coupled with two incredible cameos by MGM legends Eleanor Powell and Lena Horne, this film is bursting with energy and, more importantly, fun. Even Van gets in on the action, performing two vibrant musical numbers (including the incredibly entertaining "Let's Choo Choo to Idaho", which you can watch here). Unlike in their other films together, the script plays to Van's strengths (not just Esther's) as an actor and performer and he really gets a chance to showcase his own talents. The film also features two impressive Esther Williams water ballets that will no doubt take your breath away.

In Duchess of Idaho, Esther's character Chris plays matchmaker for her lovelorn roommate Ellen Hallit (Paula Raymond) and the man she loves, her boss Douglas Morrissen (John Lund). In a misguided attempt to bring the two together, Chris follows Douglas to Sun Valley, Idaho in order to seduce him. Chris' hope is that, having been subjected to a clingy, overattentive woman, Douglas will call Ellen to Sun Valley to help end the romance (something he has done in the past, with Ellen frequently pretending to be Douglas' wife in order to drive women away). Things become complicated, however, when Chris catches the eye of bandleader Dick Layne (Van Johnson) and she begins to fall in love with him. 

In the 1940's and 50's, people loved Esther Williams' musicals because they were escapism personified- and that's exactly what Duchess of Idaho is. No, it's not Citizen Kane- but, for 98 minutes, you are guaranteed to forget all your troubles, listen to some great music and go swimming with the incomparable (and truly unique) Esther Williams. 


Trivia

- This film marks Eleanor Powell's first film appearance in six years- and also her last. In Esther's autobiography, she notes that Powell rehearsed her dance scene until her feet bled. You can watch her sensational cameo here.

- This isn't technically trivia but there's a really cute excerpt from Esther's autobiography about the making of this film that I would love to share;

As happy as I was to be working once more with Van, the recycled plot lines were getting to me. At one point I turned to Van and said, "Didn't we do this scene before in an elevator?". He laughed. "Esther, this is our fourth picture together. We've done this scene in an elevator, at the side of the pool, and we've even done it swimming in the pool together, with you holding me up so I could say my lines and not go blub-blub underwater". 

1. Million Dollar Mermaid (1952, Mervyn LeRoy)


In my experiences talking to other classic film fans, it seems that everyone has a different favourite Esther Williams film. Some people love Bathing Beauty. Other people love Pagan Love Song. Much like The Marx Brothers, it seems to me that Esther's films cater to different personalities- despite all being of the same basic formula. If you asked me the question, my answer would always be Million Dollar Mermaid. 

Million Dollar Mermaid is a biopic of Australian swimming champion and aquatic entertainer Annette Kellerman- with Esther, of course, playing Kellerman. The film follows her rise to fame, culminating in a successful run at the New York Hippodrome and, eventually, a foray into silent films. While the film takes considerable creative license with Kellerman's life, the story is excellent and Esther's performance is superb. For me, there's no comparison between Million Dollar Mermaid and her other films. It not only has the best narrative of any of her films but also features the most impressive water ballets (and Esther's body suffered as a consequence- as you'll find out in the trivia section). While I could take or leave her leading man Victor Mature, their chemistry is insatiable and their scenes are the perfect blend of sexual tension and tender romance.

In my opinion, not only is Million Dollar Mermaid the best film from Esther's body of work but it is also one of the most entertaining biographical musicals produced during the studio era.


Trivia

- In the scene where Esther dives off the 50-foot platform in her golden lamé swimsuit, the impact of the golden crown adorning her head hitting the water caused her to break three vertebrae in her neck. When the director called cut, Esther was unable to move her arms and was immediately transported to hospital. She spent the next six months in a body cast before returning to complete the film. As Esther describes it, "I'd come as close to snapping my spinal cord and becoming a paraplegic as you could without actually succeeding".

- Esther and Victor Mature began a passionate affair during the filming of Million Dollar Mermaid. According to Esther, her marriage to Gage was desperately unhappy (just as it was during Dangerous When Wet) and Victor Mature was exactly what she needed at the time- emotionally and physically. Esther recounts that their relationship ended shortly after she broke her neck, despite Victor being "exceptionally sweet" during her convalescence.

- Esther broke one of her toes while desperately clutching on to the trapeze in Busby Berkeley's spectacular smoke number.

- Esther almost drowned while shooting the ballet where she curls up inside a scallop shell. After several hours of filming underwater, she started to experience "something like 'the rapture' experienced by scuba divers" and went into a trance. As Esther describes it, "It's a very dangerous dreamlike state caused by excess carbon dioxide in the body, and when it takes over; all you want to do is go to sleep even as the oxygen is running out". If it weren't for the speakers built into the pool (so she could hear the director call "action" and "cut"), Esther believes she would've drowned.

- Esther refused to take the role unless she had approval from the real Annette Kellerman. Upon talking to Esther, Kellerman said she was very pleased with MGM's choice. 


Did you agree with my choices? Did I leave out one of your favourites? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

2 comments:

  1. I think my favorite film of hers so far is probably "Thrill of a Romance". Or maybe "Easy to Love". Well, any film with her and Van Johnson is a favorite of mine, really. :) I still have to watch "The Duchess of Idaho", though.
    Funny fact: "Bathing Beauty" was the first Esther Williams film I saw too. ;D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Bathing Beauty" is such a great starting point for Esther's filmography. Considering it was her first starring role, MGM's handling of her in this film was exquisite (and pretty much guaranteed she would become a star). She gets plenty of close-ups (so we can see her gorgeous smile!) but, really, it's Skelton who carries the bulk of this film, so she never looks overwhelmed or green. Plus that sensational water ballet (who am I kidding, all of her water ballets are sensational)!

      You should definitely watch "Duchess of Idaho" soon! It's so much fun! Silly, yes, but her and Van's chemistry steals the show. Compared to "Thrill of a Romance" (WHICH I LOVE), it's less Lauritz Melchior, MORE ELLIE POWELL AND VAN SINGING!

      Delete