A couple of box sets document swimming star Esther Williams’ career at its late-40s and early-50s heights, via a series of boldly Technicolor films shot for MGM studio. It can’t be claimed that all are masterpieces, but they seem to give a sense of this lost era of filmmaking, with its charms as well as its evident weaknesses. The latter largely involves Williams’ male co-leads, not least a stiff Howard Keel in Pagan Love Song (1950) and the perpetually unfunny Red Skelton in both Bathing Beauty (1944) — which, despite the title, largely focuses on Skelton’s annoying songwriter twit Steve — and Neptune’s Daughter (1949), and while the latter at least is a far more supporting role, it’s still hard to see what the laughs are supposed to be, and these end up being the weakest films in the set. Still, it’s not all bad for the men, as Esther’s pairing with Ricardo Montalbán in this latter film, as well as On an Island with You (1948) and the Mexico-set Fiesta (1947), is the strongest through-line to her films of this era. She doesn’t always end up with him, mind, but aside from some of Fiesta (in which both play Mexicans, somewhat less convincingly in Williams’ case, though her skills as a female toreador are rather more in question), the films are largely free of any ethnic stereotyping.
Fiesta, in particular, points up Williams’ proclivity to ‘brown up’ for a role (undoubtedly forced on her by the studio, as it’s more a sad reflection of the era), which is at its worst in Hawaii-set Pagan Love Song. It seems initially that something similar is taking place in On an Island with You, but her Hawaiian temptress in that film’s opening scene turns out to be a swimming-based acting star in a film within the film, though hardly one that makes any particular argument about the dubious practice, and when the film takes a turn into ‘romantic kidnapping’ on the part of the boring (white) US Navy love interest played by Peter Lawford, it gets a little bit hard to accept, even under the veil of historical difference. Among these 1940s films, 1945’s Thrill of a Romance almost passes without notice, feeling more like an excuse to bundle a bunch of disparate acts (a Danish opera singer, the Tommy Dorsey Band, a teenage pianist) together in a wartime variety revue, though Williams does at least shimmer in the Technicolor.
If anything, it’s the saturated colours of the celluloid process which is the most impressive star of all these films — no one looks quite so good in Technicolor as Esther Williams — though the early-50s features The Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) and Dangerous When Wet (1953) are the best of the lot for more traditional reasons. In the former, Williams is playing a version of herself in the real-life story of silent film star Annette Kellerman, an Australian, not that you’d guess it from Williams’ accent (she thankfully doesn’t try for an accent either her or in her Mexican role in Fiesta). It also features probably the most spectacular swimming sequence of any of the films, in a grand Busby Berkeley-choreographed setpiece. And then there’s Dangerous When Wet, which may even be her best film, and is certainly most charming in a celebrated Tom and Jerry sequence. Williams plays a young woman who takes up a challenge to the swim the English Channel, with romantic entaglements very much in the background. The plot means there’s some genuine tension in the way things unfold, and it ends up finishing rather neatly.
Bathing Beauty (1944)
Director George Sidney | Writers Dorothy Kingsley, Allen Boretz and Frank Waldman | Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. | Starring Red Skelton, Esther Williams | Length 101 minutes || Seen at a friend’s flat (DVD), London, Sunday 31 January 2016
Thrill of a Romance (1945)
Director Richard Thorpe | Writers Richard Connell and Gladys Lehman | Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. | Starring Esther Williams, Van Johnson, Carleton G. Young | Length 105 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 15 February 2016
Director Richard Thorpe | Writers George Bruce and Lester Cole | Cinematographer Wilfred M. Cline | Starring Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalbán, Mary Astor, Fortunio Bonanova | Length 104 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 17 February 2016
On an Island with You (1948)
Director Richard Thorpe | Writers Charles Martin, Hans Wilhelm, Dorothy Kingsley and Dorothy Cooper | Cinematographer Charles Rosher | Starring Esther Williams, Peter Lawford, Ricardo Montalbán, Cyd Charisse | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 February 2016
Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
Director Edward Buzzell | Writer Dorothy Kingsley | Cinematographer Charles Rosher | Starring Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalbán, Red Skelton, Betty Garrett | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 27 February 2016
Pagan Love Song (1950)
Director Robert Alton | Writers Robert Nathan and Jerry Davis (based on the novel Tahiti Landfall by William S. Stone) | Cinematographer Charles Rosher | Starring Esther Williams, Howard Keel | Length 76 minutes || Seen at a friend’s flat (DVD), London, Sunday 31 January 2016
Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)
Director Mervyn LeRoy | Writer Everett Freeman | Cinematographer George J. Folsey | Starring Esther Williams, Victor Mature, Walter Pidgeon | Length 115 minutes || Seen on a train (DVD), Friday 4 March 2016
Dangerous When Wet (1953)
Director Charles Walters | Writer Dorothy Kingsley | Cinematographer Harold Rosson | Starring Esther Williams, Fernando Lamas, Jack Carson | Length 95 minutes || Seen on a train (DVD), Sunday 6 March 2016