Esther Williams at MGM

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.


CREDITS

Bathing Beauty (1944)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 film posterThrill 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.

Fiesta film posterFiesta (1947)
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 film posterOn 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)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 film posterPagan 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 film posterMillion 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)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.

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Red-Headed Woman (1932)

Like Baby Face of the following year, this is a story of a woman using sex to advance in the world, though I’m given to understand from what I’ve read that the MGM house style (as opposed to Warner Brothers’) preferred to downplay the role of social class. Here, then, we have Jean Harlow as a young secretary looking to do better, who latches onto her wealthy boss Bill (Chester Morris), splitting him from his wife before setting her sights on the even richer tycoon Charles (Henry Stephenson). What’s particularly delightful here is that Harlow keeps the viewer on her side, and the screenplay by Anita Loos allows itself to set aside her questionable morals as she pursues her goals of wealth and happiness, never really punishing her as we might expect. That’s perhaps because Jean Harlow makes for such a transfixing presence in the title character of Lil, whose capricious whims are leavened by a streak of aggressively optimistic single-mindedness in her flirting, exemplified by her pinning a photo of her boss to her stockings when seducing him near the film’s outset. By the time she arrives in Paris near the end, she maintains her lavish lifestyle in pursuit of wealthy marks while retaining the services of her chauffeur boyfriend, Albert (Charles Boyer). Certainly not a boring film, then.

Red-Headed Woman film posterCREDITS
Director Jack Conway; Writer Anita Loos (based on the novel by Katherine Brush); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, Henry Stephenson, Charles Boyer; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 15 May 2014.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Films About FilmmakingAmong the more lauded Hollywood films that takes filmmaking as its subject is this classic musical, which casts a wry look back at the transition from silent to sound film. It’s not exactly the most accurate about how a film is made, but it includes some nice period detail nonetheless.


I’m sitting here in front of a blank computer screen wondering what there is, usefully, that I can write about this film, which as far as musicals from (and indeed, about) the Golden Age of Hollywood go is surely as classic as they come. If you haven’t already seen it then you’re missing out, and moreover you probably know perfectly well that you’re missing out and intend to rectify that at some point. Which is just as well, because even after all this time it remains a delightful motion picture, thanks in no small part to Gene Kelly’s athletic hoofing (a quaint term for dancing which appropriately puts the focus on footwork), the spry Comden & Green songs, and its self-referential story set in Hollywood’s own (at this point, relatively recent) history.

As a film about Hollywood’s mythmaking practices, one of the things the film does best is to dance on the line between make-believe and genuine feeling. Debbie Reynolds as Kathy enters the film as a high-minded young woman apparently resistant to the play-acting of (silent) film, rehearsing the actor’s dumb-show masks by contorting her face into clownish expressions of ecstasy, terror and surprise, as she drives Gene Kelly’s big star Don away from his overly adoring fans. Of course it’s clear even at this point that she’s baiting Don’s overinflated ego, but for much of the early part of the film, Kelly is seen almost permanently wearing one such mask — the widest of rictus grins, baring his startlingly white teeth — in a gratingly disingenuous way. Then again, as a big star he is always on show, and in this movie every new location is a film set on which he can perform, so it’s no wonder that it takes Kathy so long to figure out how he really feels.

As a film about performance, it’s suitable that it’s filled with excellent ones, particularly a number of duos between Kelly and Donald O’Connor as Don’s piano-playing accompanist friend Cosmo. Even though “Make Em Laugh” is conspicuous by the lack of laughter it engenders with its outrageous slapstick pranking (maybe I’m just hard-hearted), it nevertheless beautifully showcases O’Connor’s acrobatic agility, while “Moses Supposes” quickly returns a voice coach’s office into the dance studio set it clearly originally was. We also get to see some actual filmmaking taking place, for this is above all a story about Hollywood’s transition to sound films in the late-1920s (hence the voice coach). Being a musical, it’s naturally somewhat biased against the silent era, though its comedic points about the melodramatically affected acting style has some basis in truth. We also get an archetypally domineering yet ineffectual director and some hilariously inept early sound technology.

If the film has a misstep for me, it’s the treatment of Don’s acting partner Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), who is constantly ridiculed and humiliated for the temerity she shows in presuming to speak, for she is the very definition of the dumb blonde stereotype. She is a manipulative figure of negligible talent and a shrilly grating Brooklyn accent, and she seems created to emphasise the homely charms of Kathy. And yet Jean Hagen sort of steals the film with her, and in many ways (perhaps in spite of the filmmakers’ mean-spirited intentions) she is a rather transgressive character, outspoken and perfectly aware of the patriarchal way things work in Hollywood. It’s at the hands of this chummy band of old boys pulling on almost-literal strings that she gets her comeuppance at the end. I’m still not sure if we were meant to cheer, but it manages to feel quite nasty.

On the whole though, the film has much to recommend it, not least the extended “Broadway Melody” ballet sequence with the delightful Cyd Charisse, its own little silent film-within-a-film (at least, as far as I can recall, the only words are “Gotta dance!”) which seems to be more of a showreel for the transformative power of glorious, saturated Technicolor than sound, while Charisse’s vamping would not have been out of place on the silent screen. It all takes place on the same soundstage where earlier we’d seen Kathy and Don, not to mention the wind machine, and in its baroque wonder it’s an advert for the craft of the set designers and costume department, not to mention being the best showcase for the talents of both dancers. A Hollywood classic that continues to deserve that status.

Singin' in the Rain film posterCREDITS
Directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; Writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green; Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Jean Hagen; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 8 February 2014 (and years before in Wellington).