Judge Christopher Kulik owns more speedos than Michael Phelps.
Laughs, romance, music—just add water!
Esther Williams certainly had movie star chops. It's a shame they were constricted to a single formula, which consisted of music, romance, and mistaken identities. However, her films made millions, riding high on the heels of a newly-invented genre: the aqua-musical. Since Williams, Hollywood hasn't even tried to duplicate their success. Can you imagine Renee Zellweger, Cameron Diaz, or even Meryl Streep diving, doing breast-strokes, and singing in the movies? Well, perhaps Streep could pull it off; otherwise, the genre doesn't have a lot of commercial value today.
Back in the '40s and '50s, these films contained age-old clichés, mixed in with dazzling aqua-batic stunts and swimming. They were escapist entertainments, nothing else. Audiences expected the same ingredients, and when Esther was in the water, nothing else mattered. She was dubbed the all-American Mermaid, a stunning combination of wholesomeness, sexiness, and girl-next-door appeal. Even though she was cast alongside handsome leading men and talented singers, she single-handedly carried her movies to box office glory. MGM had hit the jackpot, and the cow would be milked for twelve years.
In TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams, Volume 1, Warner Bros. provides five Esther vehicles along with a gracious amount of bonus features.
Facts of the Case
Bathing Beauty (1944): Songwriter Steve Eliot (Red Skelton, Ziegfeld Follies) can't wait to tie the knot with his fiancée Caroline Brooks (Williams). On their wedding day, however, his agent (Basil Rathbone, The Spider Woman) decides to play a practical joke by paying a woman to be Eliot's wife with three kids in tow. Caroline is outraged, leaving Steve to re-claim her position as secretary at an all-girls college. Determined to win her back, he boldly enrolls as the first male student.
Easy To Wed(1946): A remake of the 1936 screwball classic Libeled Lady, with Esther tackling the Myrna Loy role as a socialite who sues the Morning Star for 2 million dollars over an article accusing her of being a home-wrecker. To make Esther drop the lawsuit and consequently save the paper, reporter Warren Haggerty (Keenan Wynn, The Absent Minded Professor) cooks up a clever scheme involving former colleague Bill Chandler (Van Johnson, The Caine Mutiny) and his bride-to-be Gladys Benton (Lucille Ball, I Love Lucy). Complications and misunderstandings ensue.
On An Island With You(1948): Movie star Rosalind Reynolds (Williams) is currently filming a picture in Hawaii. Navy Lt. Lawrence Kingslee (Peter Lawford, The Canterville Ghost) is brought on as technical advisor, and recognizes Reynolds as the girl he danced with during the war when she was called in to entertain troops. He falls madly in love with her, but she's already engaged to her co-star Ricardo Montez (Ricardo Montalban, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan).
Neptune's Daughter(1949): In a role which would foreshadow Esther's current profession, she plays Eve Barrett, a successful designer of bathing suits. Her partner Joe Backett (Keenan Wynn) has romantic fixations on Eve, but she isn't interested in men at the moment. By contrast, her little sister Betty (Betty Garrett, Take Me Out To The Ball Game) is a tremendous flirt…and vows to meet a visiting South American polo player at a tournament. Thinking she has met champion Jose O'Rourke (Ricardo Montalban), she falls all over his masseur Jack Spratt (Red Skelton), who's never had much luck with women. As for O'Rourke, he has his eyes for Eve, who obviously thinks he's after her sister, too.
Dangerous When Wet(1953): Katie Higgins (Williams) is the eldest daughter of a dairy-farm family which values exercise above anything else. When Windy Weebe (Jack Carson, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) arrives into town, he disrupts their routine by pushing them to promote a snake oil elixir, which is supposed to excel muscle growth. Windy has another idea to prove the elixir's legitimacy: having the Higgins family swim the English Channel! While there, Katie meets a handsome Frenchman named Andre Lamet (Fernando Lamas, The Merry Widow), who wishes to help her learn everything about the Channel.
Williams never intended on becoming a movie star. Swimming was her passion. She became a national champion in 1939, emerging as the strongest and fastest competitive swimmer in the United States. The 1940 Olympics was her ultimate goal and, by hell or high water, she was going to swim and garner some medals. When WW2 got underway, however, the Olympics were cancelled. As Esther states in her biography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, "my dreams were crushed, a minor thing in comparison to the horrors that soon engulfed the world, but to a teenage girl, the world can seem very small. It would not be until 1948 that the Olympics would be held again. By then, I was among the top ten box office stars in the world. Stardom would be my consolation prize."
Originally, Fox approached her with a movie contract. The studio behind the hugely successful Sonja Henie skating flicks no doubt viewed Esther as the next sports star to be groomed for the silver screen. When Esther failed the screen test, however, she was convinced movies weren't for her. Instead, she ended up at the San Francisco Aquacade doing water ballets opposite Johnny Weissmuller, of Tarzan fame, where she learned how to "swim pretty." These shows weren't designed for competition, as Esther learned how to swim with grace, precision, and beauty. MGM took notice of her talent and, in many ways, pestered her to come down for a screen test. Williams resisted for an entire year, only changing her mind when studio head L.B. Mayer requested to meet with her personally. Incredibly, she was offered a screen test with Clark Gable. After nailing it, she was soon offered to star opposite Gable in Somewhere I'll Find You after Lana Turner skipped town.
As excited as Williams was, even she knew she had no screen experience. And she certainly wasn't prepared to play opposite the King. She turned the role down, opting instead to start at the bottom. After appearing in a couple of shorts (Inflation & Personalities, the latter of which is included here in Volume 1), she got a small part playing a rival love interest in Andy Hardy's Double Life. She didn't get much screen time, but the audience was dazzled, labeling her the "Woo-Woo Girl." This led to another bit part, dancing with rising star Van Johnson in A Guy Named Joe. However, it was 1944's Bathing Beauty which catapulted Esther's career. Originally intended to be an average Red Skelton comedy called Mr. Co-Ed, the audience demand for more Esther goaded MGM to basically throw her into the film as well as the pool.
As uneven as Bathing Beauty is, it works. Filmed in early Technicolor and driven by some hilarious Skelton routines, his antics alone make you forget how anemic the plot is. In fact, the plot is virtually lost early on in favor of a series of vignettes of Skelton trying to win back Esther's heart and passing his classes. Some of the dialogue is genuinely stupid ("He has a thirst for knowledge and a heart to quench in our swimming pool"), but the physical comedy scores big time. As for Esther, she herself notes her performance as lousy, and it's true she isn't quite as effective on land as she is in the water—though all her subsequent performances suffer the same fate. Considering the fact she was new to the game, however, she acquits herself admirably; if only her role was punched up a bit and given nearly enough time as Skelton's.
The real reason to watch Bathing Beauty, however, is the water ballets. Master choreographer Busby Berkeley wouldn't work on Esther's films until later. Here, we have John Murray Anderson, who had handled the Aquacade with Williams several years earlier. The climactic sequence, which utilized a 90x90 ft, $250,000 pool, is mesmerizing, even if the underwater photography doesn't register as well due to the limited technology. What makes the sequence revolutionary is the invention of synchronized swimming, which became an Olympic sport approximately 40 years later. Complementing the dives and strokes is the terrific score by Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra, a Latin band which appeared in many MGM films. Warts and all, it's easy to see why Bathing Beauty was a smash hit with the public. That being said, it remains one of Esther's best films.
Considering the fact Bathing Beauty is now over 60 years old, the 1.33:1 full frame print is far from pristine. The colors are, for the most part, wondrous, aside from some occasional smearing. The amount of grain and splotches present won't ruin anyone's enjoyment. As with all the films in this collection, the mono track is expected and gets the job done. As far as extras, we have "Private Screenings with Esther Williams," a 45-minute interview with the star hosted by TCM's Robert Osborne. This is easily the best extra in the collection, with Esther graciously talking about her experiences at MGM and sharing stories. In keeping up with the studio's nostalgic Warner Night At The Movies, the studio also includes a short film (the Oscar-nominated Main Street Today) and a cartoon (the Tom & Jerry classic Mouse Trouble). As with Bathing Beauty, both are from 1944, and well-worth watching, either before or after the feature.
Jumping ahead to 1946, we now have Easy To Wed, an unnecessary remake of the legendary Libeled Lady. Much of what made the first film so memorable—and funny—is missing here, but the game cast gives it their all. Incidentally, the weakest element is Williams who, at times, appears to be struggling with the material. She just doesn't have the wit or sophistication of superior thespian Loy. It also doesn't help that screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley insists on stretching out the narrative to a tiresome 110 minutes. One of the reasons Libeled Lady worked so well, as with all '30s screwball comedies, is because of its manic pace and lightning dialogue. Only Lucille Ball is up for belting out her lines at machine-gun speed, while the other actors take their time in explaining the complicated story. In fact, I think Lucy is the best element of Easy To Wed, although she admittedly gives a love-it-or-loathe-it performance, as evidenced by the widely contradictory critical reactions.
As for Van Johnson & Keenan Wynn, both are capable actors who don't inject enough energy or panache to the proceedings—something which William Powell and Spencer Tracy supplied in grand doses in the original. Still, despite all its problems, Easy To Wed is watchable enough, with some nice musical numbers and many amusing moments. Star power is what keeps it afloat; if only it didn't feel so bloated.
To add insult to injury, the full frame image here is much worse than expected, with lots of smearing, flecks, and scratches. Extras are only marginal this time around, with a Pete Smith Specialty short and another cartoon. For the uninitiated, Pete Smith was a producer who specialized in "comic documentaries," usually providing an ironic commentary on a specific topic (in this case, it's Sure Cures). As for the cartoon (The Unwelcome Guest), it features Barney Bear attempting to stop a skunk from eating all his picked berries. I don't find Barney as interesting as Tom & Jerry, but this is still a fun romp.
Esther is at her most seductive and sexy in On An Island With You, a delightful little flick which requires a certain suspension of disbelief. The story takes some outrageous turns, most notably Lt. Kingslee flying Rosalind out to a tropical island against her will to simply dance with her (she turned him down earlier). Much of the second act takes place on this island, with Ricardo panicking back in Hawaii at his fiancée's absence. Montalban oozes charm, and certainly expands his range more here than he did in Fiesta, a painful fiasco with Esther which served as his film debut. (As before, he does a fabulous dance with the lovely Cyd Charisse.) As for Lawford, he's passable, but lacks romantic fire as the leading man. Esther, sporting a heavy tan, really owns the picture. The film opens and ends with some eye-opening water ballets, including a spectacular opening dive in which Esther plunges into a lush lagoon. The only downside to the film is a third act, which is stretched out, taking too much time to wrap up the story.
All in all, On An Island With You is a breezy excursion with a light plot, more Xavier Cugat music, and gorgeous Florida photography. What also elevates On An Island With You is a fine transfer, with popping colors and very little grain. This film looks even better than Bathing Beauty, possibly the best-looking one on this set. Extras start with the aforementioned short film Personalities, subtitled a "romance of celluloid," its primary purpose to showcase the newest stars at MGM and where they came from. A fascinating time capsule, this features Esther in her successful screen test for Andy Hardy's Double Life. Also included is another cute Barney Bear cartoon entitled The Bear And The Hare, with Barney trying to capture an elusive white rabbit in the winter.
Now we come to the real gem of the collection. Neptune's Daughter rises above most Esther Williams' vehicles thanks to its zippy running time (at only 93 minutes), wacky physical comedy (mostly provided by Red Skelton), and the Oscar-winning song "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Directed with flair by Edward Buzzell (who previously helmed Easy To Wed), the plot once again involves mistaken identities and romantic mix-ups, and also includes several dips in the pool provided by Esther. Showing off his buff physique, Montalban sings wonderfully and even swims around with Esther at several points. Skelton, once again, provides all the comic highlights, including going into drag to get away from some gangsters (who are, of course, really after Montalban). Xaviar Cugat delivers some more engaging numbers, and the legendary Mel Blanc shows up in a rare on-screen performance as one of Montalban's assistants. However, it's Betty Garrett (who co-starred with Esther in the same year's Take Me Out To The Ball Game) who really steals the show as Esther's feisty sister. Her constant attempts to keep Skelton on the couch in "Baby, It's Cold Outside" are, quite simply, comedic gold.
Warner Bros. scores once again with a beautiful transfer here, with hardly any blemishes, smearing, or grain. While the majority of the film's scenes are indoors, the Technicolor print is near-perfect. The Neptune's Daughter disc also houses the most special features. As an appetizer, we have a sequence from the 1951 feature Callaway Went Thataway, with Fred MacMurray and Esther's future co-star Howard Keel (the actress plays herself here). Next up is another Pete Smith Specialty called Water Trix, which is exactly what it suggests. Tom & Jerry return in Hatch Up Your Troubles, which has a baby woodpecker thinking Jerry is his mother. Tom meets a particularly violent end in this cartoon. Also included is Garrett's number "I Want My Money Back," as an outtake. Finally, we have a five-minute radio interview with Esther by Dick Simmons.
The final film in this Volume, Dangerous When Wet, is a real bummer. While Esther spends more time in the water in this outing, the story is so incredibly unbelievable and slow it makes the film an ordeal to watch. The jump to the second act in On An Island With You may have been an whopper, but it also kept your attention. I find it hard to believe that a family who has so much pride in their farm and business would travel to the English Channel at the recommendation of a slick con artist. It makes absolutely no sense!
Plus, while Esther has had her fair share of bland leading men, Fernando Lamas is all looks and no personality. He's remarkably dull, and it's highly questionable as to what Esther's character actually sees him. Evidently, Esther the actress saw something, because they married in real life in the mid-1960s. The highlight of Dangerous When Wet is a sequence where Esther swims with Tom & Jerry, which is all the film really has to offer. MGM had played with this idea before in Anchors Aweigh when Gene Kelly danced with Jerry.
At least the 1.33:1 image for Dangerous When Wet is on par with most of the others on this set. However, the picture is plagued by many foggy scenes which drain the film of all its life and color. The opening scenes shot in the California countryside are lovely, however, and grain is minimal. The disc also offers another solid batch of extras: a Pete Smith Specialty short (This Is A Living?), which features death-defying professions; another hysterical Tom & Jerry cartoon (The Cat And The Mermouse), which is set mostly underwater; a musical outtake ("C'Est La Guerre"); another Dick Simmons radio interview with Esther; and, last but not least, a collection of audio recordings by Johnny Mercer. Here is one instance where the extras eclipse the film itself in every single way.
While I think Esther could have contributed something exclusive to this collection, I'm pretty satisfied. Most of the prints are as good as one could hope for, and the vast selection of extras is overwhelming. If you've never watched an Esther Williams flick, I would go for a rental; otherwise, her fans should own this already.
Dangerous When Wet is found guilty of extreme tedium, while the other films are free to go. Warner Bros. is exonerated for their presentation of each of the films, as well as including extras for each.
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Scales of Justice, Bathing Beauty
Perp Profile, Bathing Beauty
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Bathing Beauty
Scales of Justice, Easy To Wed
Perp Profile, Easy To Wed
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Easy To Wed
• Vintage Cartoon
Scales of Justice, On An Island With You
Perp Profile, On An Island With You
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, On An Island With You
• Vintage Cartoon
Scales of Justice, Neptune's Daughter
Perp Profile, Neptune's Daughter
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Neptune's Daughter
• Bonus Sequence
Scales of Justice, Dangerous When Wet
Perp Profile, Dangerous When Wet
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Dangerous When Wet
• Bonus Audio
Review content copyright © 2010 Christopher Kulik; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.