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Case Number 18218

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TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams, Volume 2

Thrill Of A Romance
1945 // 105 Minutes // Not Rated
Fiesta
1947 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated
This Time For Keeps
1948 // 104 Minutes // Not Rated
Pagan Love Song
1950 // 78 Minutes // Not Rated
Million Dollar Mermaid
1952 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Easy To Love
1953 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by Warner Bros.
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // January 30th, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge Christopher Kulik would like a new set of water wings for his birthday.

The Charge

Come on in, the water's fine!

Opening Statement

Complementing TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams, Volume 1, Warner Bros. has opened up the MGM library again and selected six more films from aqua-star Williams' oeuvre. While the collection presented here is fairly hit-or-miss, Esther fans should have nothing to complain about. Let's take a dip, shall we?

Facts of the Case

Thrill Of A Romance (1945): Esther plays Cynthia Glenn, a diving instructor who quickly marries a kind businessman without giving it a second thought. While on their honeymoon, her husband informs her he must fly to Washington, D.C. to settle an important deal, leaving her alone to simply swim in the pool. To combat her loneliness, she strikes up a conversation with war hero Major Thomas Milvaine (Van Johnson, The Caine Mutiny) and, naturally, generates feelings toward him.

Fiesta (1946): Set in Mexico, this odd fiasco stars Ricardo Montalban (Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan) in his American debut as Mario Morales, a young man who yearns to be a music composer. His father Antonio (Fortunio Bonanova, Citizen Kane) strongly disapproves, however, pressuring him to abide the family tradition by becoming a bullfighter. Unbeknownst to Antonio, the one who really wants the training is Mario's twin sister Maria (Williams), who soon becomes a star in the ring!

This Time For Keeps (1947): Broadway actress Nora Cambaretti (Williams) is pursued by Dick Johnson (Johnnie Johnston, Man From Texas), a war veteran who's also the son of a famous opera singer. Dick is in love with Nora, although he's hiding from her an arranged engagement. What concerns Nora's manager and partner Ferdi Farro (Jimmy Durante, The Man Who Came To Dinner) is her involvement with a guy she barely knows.

Pagan Love Song (1950): Esther gets a major tan to play Mimi, a half-American/half-Tahitian girl who loves swimming and yearns to meet an American man. Enter Hap Endicott (Howard Keel, Annie Get Your Gun), a schoolteacher who has come to Tahiti to take control of his late uncle's coconut plantation. They meet, sing some songs, and fall in love…need I say more?

Million Dollar Mermaid (1952): Williams plays the title character of Annette Kellerman, who overcame a leg disability to become a champion swimmer in her native Australia. She became the first woman to successfully swim the English Channel, and later caused a scandal by wearing one-piece bathing suits at a time when it was considered indecent exposure. In America, Kellerman's water shows would garner huge audiences, and soon N.Y.C.'s Hippodrome would call with a big paycheck. Now, Kellerman must choose between the Hippodrome, or her manager/boyfriend James Sullivan (Victor Mature, Samson And Delilah).

Easy To Love (1953): In Cypress Gardens, aquatic star Julie Hallerton (Williams) is sick and tired of working for Ray Lloyd (Van Johnson), even though she's had a long-time crush on him. When singer Barry Gordon (Tony Martin, Casbah) walks into her life and offers her a job with higher pay, she takes the chance immediately…but comes crawling back to Ray to try to get it through his thick skull that she loves him. Along the way, she does several aqua-shows, including a show-stopping number on water skis.

The Evidence

Esther Williams became a star overnight, thanks to 1944's Bathing Beauty. The former swimming champion lost her chance for Olympic glory when WWII broke out and cancelled the games. However, MGM approached her with a contract, and soon Williams became one of the ten biggest box office stars with a series of "aqua-musicals." Bathing Beauty has a plot which would never stand up to close scrutiny, but the antics of comedian Red Skelton and Esther's water ballets are enough to keep audiences enthralled. This simple formula of Esther, romance, music, and poolside hijinx would spawn a good dozen vehicles. Only a few (Bathing Beauty, Neptune's Daughter) of them could be singled out as gems, while all the others range from enjoyable fluff to forgettable flukes.

Esther's second big hit, Thrill Of A Romance, was rushed into production once Bathing Beauty made box office waves. Fairly typical of MGM's glossy musical comedies, this one makes several strange leaps outside of reality. If you can get past the stupid excuse Glenn provides in leaving his wife, you might find the movie easier to digest. Logic aside, this is an overlong, overcooked contrivance, with far too many musical numbers by Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra. Even more frustrating is the lack of romance. Much of the supporting cast, such as opera star Lauritz Melchior, is awkwardly introduced, feeling like they're visiting from other films. What does work in the film's favor is the chemistry between Williams and Johnson, who would be paired up multiple times. When Thrill Of A Romance sticks with them, it's accessible enough; doldrums set in when the film wanders about with no clear focus, only to jump out of its reverie with another song.

Thrill Of A Romance was the first of four Esther vehicles to be directed by Richard Thorpe. MGM considered him highly economical, but his antagonism towards actors would damage working relationships, particularly with Esther herself. At one point, Thorpe downright humiliated Esther in front of the crew, and the intimidation would repeat on every project they worked on together. I consider On An Island With You their biggest success, as it was the most breezy and relaxing. All of the others, including Thrill Of A Romance, Fiesta, and This Time For Keeps never rise above mediocre in either the performances or narratives.

The Technicolor print of Thrill Of A Romance contains numerous visual hiccups and anomalies, including shots where the focus is terribly off. The colors are bright, but damage is evident in every frame. As with all of the films in this collection, we have a 1.0 mono track which gets the job done. Extras follow the Warner Night At the Movies paradigm, with each disc containing at least a short and a cartoon. The live-action short The Great American Mug is part of John Nesbitt's Passing Parade series, and it takes a look at the barber shops and smoking paraphernalia back in the day. The hilarious cartoon Wild and Woolfy features Droopy as an outlaw dog who frequents Rigor Mortis Saloon ("Come in and get stiff!"). Finally, we have three outtakes (adding up to 7 minutes), which feature more of Melchior singing and Tommy Dorsey & his orchestra.

"I should have known my next picture would be trouble as soon as the Mexican tailor demanded that my bosom would have to go. Almost from beginning to end, Fiesta was jinxed."—-- Esther Williams

Esther knew she was miscast as a toreador's twin sister, but what was she do? She looks completely lost here, not even trying for a Spanish accent. To say Fiesta is as bad as its production would be an understatement. Much of the cast and crew were sick, with Montezuma's revenge serving as the chief malady; to make matters worse, one of the cinematographers died of cholera after eating the local cuisine. The bull ring sequences took forever to shoot because the director didn't want the bulls killed. Thorpe eventually recycled a lot of bull footage, and it sadly shows onscreen. Trust me, there's a lot of bullfighting here, and much of it is comprised of shots in a loop, with rear projection blatantly obvious. This is one of hundreds of things wrong with Fiesta, which has laughably bad performances to boot. Ricardo Montalban's first American role is inauspicious, lacks fire and flair; Akim Tamiroff (The Buccaneer) is wasted as the loyal family servant; even Mary Astor's (The Maltese Falcon) role as the matriarch comes off as flat.

Indeed, Fiesta is arguably Esther's worst film. We see her get wet in only scene, which leaves the rest of the film for her to be caked in dust. The only plus on the casting front is the lovely Cyd Charisse, who does a couple of dazzling dances with Ricardo; she would have an even bigger role alongside Ricardo and Esther in On An Island With You. Some of the Oscar-nominated Johnny Green score does emerge unscathed as well, particularly when they do "La Bamba." Otherwise, Fiesta is a waste of time.

The full frame image on Fiesta is shoddy, faded, and full of scratches. The print has a string of white claw marks near the right hand corner of the screen which is notable—it really does look like crap. Extras aren't much of an improvement, but they are certainly better than the feature. We have another interesting Passing Parade short called Goodbye, Miss Turlock, about a grim school teacher who taught in an early-20th century schoolhouse. Complementing the short is more Tex Avery lunacy in Hound Hunters, which stars George & Junior, two bears which would appear in only four MGM cartoons. Not bad, but they surely aren't in the same league as Tom & Jerry or Barney Bear.

Esther's established repertoire would return in This Time For Keeps, another song-and-swim cliché. This entry is a step above Fiesta, but that isn't saying much. Xaviar Cugat and Lauritz Melchior are back to supply some wonderful music, but the ludicrous story is for the birds. For one thing, I don't think any girl in their right mind would generate feelings for Dick Johnson, who pulls a dirty prank on Esther early on and then spends the rest of the film lying to her (he lives up to his name, that's for sure). Second, the film takes its sweet time executing its thin—and extremely tiresome—plot, which once again depends on music numbers and the occasional dip in the pool to stretch things out to feature length. Third, aside from Williams, who's clearly growing as an actress, the rest of the cast (including an upbeat Jimmy Durante) is left out to dry. As for Johnston, he's one of the weakest leading men to be saddled with Esther, his charmless persona leaving a bad taste in one's mouth.

The one highlight of This Time For Keeps is a water ballet by Stanley Donen, which looks fine in the full frame print. There is much less grain present here than in Thrill Of A Romance and Fiesta, though the faded colors and off-focus shots are still present. Extras here include Now You See It, another fun Pete Smith Specialty short; this one is in color and focuses on macro-photography. Also included is the fun Tom & Jerry cartoon Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Mouse, as well as a musical outtake with Durante.

Every Williams' vehicle contains a "meet cute" moment, in which the two romantic leads meet awkwardly or by chance, then generate a relationship from there. Pagan Love Song is essentially one long meet cute moment with Keel and Williams. The plot here is nonexistent, with zero conflict and complication, but the sexy leads are so likable and the Hawaiian photography so gorgeous that most viewers shouldn't mind. Pagan Love Song works due to its purity and harmonious rhythm. At only 76 minutes, the film is a treat with surreal dream sequences and some luminous underwater photography. Keel is ten times more appealing than Johnnie Johnston or Victor Mature, proving to be a grand singer as well as a perfect match for Esther in the water. MGM did right by dropping our favorite mermaid into another tropical habitat; she feels more at home there than in a studio swimming pool.

After watching three films with lots of damage, Pagan Love Song was a positively refreshing experience. The full frame image has minimal grain and hardly any scratches. The colors pop out of the screen, flesh tones are delicious, and black levels are appropriately deep. Next to Easy To Love, this is the best looking film in the collection. Extras begin with another Pete Smith Specialty called Curious Contests. As the title suggests, it looks at such weird contests as basket races and diaper derbies. Next up is a Droopy cartoon called The Chump Champ, where our favorite poodle must compete in a series of physical challenges against a mean bull dog. Finally, we have nearly 15 minutes of outtakes, which consist of mostly deleted songs and extensions.

To many, Million Dollar Mermaid is the crown jewel of Williams' filmography. The actress considered it her dream project, a chance to portray one of her idols while at the same time doing a lot of aqua-batics. For once, the diving, swimming, and water shows were actually central to the story. It was Esther's chance to work with Mervyn LeRoy (Little Caesar), a musical director who had much more clout and respect than most at MGM. She also got to work with master choreographer Busby Berkeley, who worked overtime on this picture by placing Esther in a wide variety of splashy water carnivals. In fact, this is the film in which Esther was almost paralyzed when swan-diving from a tiny platform fifty feet above the water. The result put her neck in a brace for six months.

Sad to say, I found Million Dollar Mermaid to be a middling effort. The Berkeley water ballets are indeed spectacular, and Williams carries the film well enough. However, the insistence of injecting a superficial love story tarnishes the power of the proceedings. I would have been satisfied to see Kellerman's story with only a few Hollywood indulgences. Instead, we have to deal with an entire third act where Mature is debating on whether he should go back to Williams or not, making Million Dollar Mermaid more of an ordeal than a pleasure. Eventually, the movie becomes bloated, and its biopic angle all but disappears. Since we have to deal with the clichéd love triangle, Kellerman's movie career is all but ignored. (Did you know she was the first woman to appear fully nude on film in 1916's A Daughter Of The Gods, which was also served as the first million-dollar production?)

What's equally as disappointing is Mermaid's flat print. The colors look like they've been powdered and only marginal detail is exhibited at every nook and cranny. The image does get a little better as things go along, but a restoration still would have been beneficial. At least Berkeley's aqua-musical numbers look good. Extras include the Pete Smith Specialty Reducing, looking at 1940s dieting techniques; Wise Little Quacker, a Tom & Jerry cartoon involving a baby duck; and, lastly, a Lux Radio Theater special re-telling Kellerman's story with Williams and Walter Pidgeon. I recommend the latter feature only for die-hard fans, as the audio is frequently hard to hear and it lasts for an exhausting 42 minutes.

Warner Bros. decided to save the best for last. Easy To Love may not be Esther's finest hour, but it provides more entertainment value than all of the films in this collection combined (yes, including Pagan Love Song). Sure, this is another variation on mistaken identities and unrequited love, with Esther being pursued by three men this time around. And, yes, it's pretty easy to guess who Esther will end up with at the end of the movie. All of these debits still don't camouflage the fact that Easy To Love is great fun, a winning musicomedy punctuated by some of the most astonishing water carnivals ever captured on film. There are two sequences, one where Esther is a clown and the climax, where she leads some champion water skiers back to Cypress Gardens, which serve as Berkeley's final bow as a choreographer. And it's a hell of a way to go!

Easy To Love also marks the film debut of 21-year-old Carroll Baker (Baby Doll) as Clarice, one of the other performers at Cypress Gardens.

Easy To Love's full-frame print looks terrific, with hardly any spots or scratches. What grain there is gets eclipsed by all the bright, bold colors and sharp black levels. Extras include a Technicolor short, Romantic Rivera (from the TravelTalks series by James A. Fitzpatrick), and a Barney Bear cartoon called Cobs and Robbers.

Closing Statement

Since there are only five unreleased MGM films left in Esther's filmography, it's likely we will see a Volume 3 surface. One of them, 1945's The Hoodlum Saint, co-starring Angela Lansbury and William Powell, is going to feel out of place, simply because it's in black-and-white. The others include Texas Carnival, Duchess Of Idaho, Skirts Ahoy! and Jupiter's Darling.

The Verdict

Warner Bros. is found not guilty for giving us better-than-average, full frame presentations of these films, as well as arming each disc with some vintage bonus features.

Aside from Fiesta, which is sentenced to life in a Mexican trash can, all of the films here free to go.

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Scales of Justice, Thrill Of A Romance

Video: 80
Audio: 85
Extras: 83
Acting: 76
Story: 78
Judgment: 79

Perp Profile, Thrill Of A Romance

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1945
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Thrill Of A Romance

• Vintage Cartoon
• Outtakes
• Short Film

Scales of Justice, Fiesta

Video: 64
Audio: 85
Extras: 80
Acting: 58
Story: 31
Judgment: 47

Perp Profile, Fiesta

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1947
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Fiesta

• Vintage Cartoon
• Short Film

Scales of Justice, This Time For Keeps

Video: 80
Audio: 85
Extras: 86
Acting: 73
Story: 66
Judgment: 71

Perp Profile, This Time For Keeps

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1948
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, This Time For Keeps

• Vintage Cartoon
• Outtake
• Short

Scales of Justice, Pagan Love Song

Video: 90
Audio: 85
Extras: 88
Acting: 90
Story: 25
Judgment: 87

Perp Profile, Pagan Love Song

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 78 Minutes
Release Year: 1950
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Pagan Love Song

• Vintage Cartoon
• Outtakes
• Short Film

Scales of Justice, Million Dollar Mermaid

Video: 68
Audio: 85
Extras: 93
Acting: 82
Story: 64
Judgment: 77

Perp Profile, Million Dollar Mermaid

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 1952
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Million Dollar Mermaid

• Vintage Cartoon
• Interview
• Short Film

Scales of Justice, Easy To Love

Video: 95
Audio: 85
Extras: 86
Acting: 90
Story: 90
Judgment: 93

Perp Profile, Easy To Love

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1953
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Easy To Love

• Vintage Cartoon
• Short Film








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