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Esther Williams is an acquired taste. She's gone from America's sweetheart to the halls of High Kitsch and back again. Rediscovered as the centerpiece of the aquacades in That's Entertainment!, she's finally taken her rightful place among authentic movie originals.
The movies made big stars of sporting figures like Sonja Heine and Johnny Weismuller. Swimmer Esther Williams' potential shot at the Olympics ended when the games were suspended for the duration of WW2. She was instead tapped as a performer in a customized line of Technicolor MGM musicals. Wartime audiences flocked to see Esther's bright face, along with that of Van Johnson. In her Louis B. Mayer found the perfect star around which to feature a range of supporting talent -- big band leaders, opera singers, variety entertainers. Williams was the queen of the MGM Stage 30 pool, where cameramen captured her perfect Technicolor complexion as she performed various swim strokes in then-revealing bathing suits. Williams exuded health and happiness; she also had an uncanny ability never to look like she just took in a nose-full of pool chlorine.
On the documentary for That's Entertainment III Esther discussed wearing waterproof makeup and the drawbacks of "working wet" for so many hours that it felt like her skin would slide off like a soggy sponge. But none of this is visible on film.
Warners' six-disc DVD set of Esther Williams, Volume 2 gathers six more of her star vehicles, including a larger-scale musical that goes full bore with the MGM production values. Ms. Williams' grace and ease communicated the security and prosperity of the post-war boom years: she made upwards of thirteen of these pictures, and most of them were enormously popular.
Thrill of a Romance from 1945 establishes the rules for the Esther Williams star vehicle. She's the center of attention in a minimal, tension-free plot. She's seen swimming four or five times, but plenty of support is offered from a variety of 'guest stars'. Family values are stressed. We're encouraged not to take things too seriously. In this show Henry Travers and Spring Byington provide easy comedy relief as Williams' dotty parents.
Esther is Cynthia, the new bride of a hotshot captain of industry (Carleton G. Young) who apparently wants her as a trophy; he literally picks her out while driving his limo past her L.A. neighborhood swimming pool, and buys her with daily gifts of flowers. Cynthia's honeymoon is ruined when hubby parks her at a Yosemite resort while he works a big deal in Washington. Abandoned in the pine trees she meets a famous Air Ace, Thomas (Van Johnson). They carry on a chaste friendship while other guests watch from the sidelines, like jealous Frances Gifford: "Ooh! He shot down twenty-six Japs!"
Opera star Lauritz Melchior fills the hotel courtyard and restaurant with loud singing whenever he feels like it; his huge smiling face even pokes through the main titles. He's on board to play cupid, and is at least less cloying than S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall over at Warners. After a few swimming lessons Cynthia and Thomas realize they've come too close to each other. They win audience approval, no mean feat considering the cornball context. Thomas becomes eloquent when he explains that he loves Cynthia too much to want her, "for just a little while".
The video on this title is very attractive. With the exception of a few shots that have registration problems, the images are bright, sharp and carry the full over-saturated Technicolor look. Audiences loved watching the glossy close-ups of Williams swimming, and this transfer tells us why.
Each title has it's own disc. The extras on this one begin with a Passing Parade short The Great American Mug, directed by Cy Endfield. The Tex Avery Cartoon is Wild and Woolfy, a Droopy vs Wolf saga that welcomes back the sexy dancer of Swingshift Cinderella fame. Three deleted musical numbers feature The King Sisters, who do not appear in the final film.
1947's Fiesta is an odd show for Hollywood in that it shows respect for its Mexican setting. Esther is Maria Morales, the twin of Mario (Ricardo Montalban, "introduced" in his tenth or eleventh picture). Their father Don Antonio (Fortunio Bonanova of Citizen Kane and Kiss Me Deadly) insists that Mario follow in his footsteps and become a bullfighter, when the young man would rather compose classical music. On the outside this makes Fiesta seem like a Mexican version of a Warners Depression story, the kind where one brother wants to be a prizefighter and the other a concert violinist.
In the middle of all this is Esther. She only swims once -- that dry-looking hacienda happens to be near a sylvan pond -- while seizing every opportunity to fight bulls herself, against her father's wishes. Sure enough, Maria ends up filling out a toreador's tight britches to defend the family honor in the ring. Through the miracle of movies, 5,000 Mexican bullfight fans don't notice that the shapely Williams is a woman. Excellent supporting performances by Bonanova, Mary Astor, Akim Tamiroff and Hugo Haas keep the rickety story upright. Even with all the Russians and Italians, Fiesta treats the Mexican culture with dignity, a Hollywood attitude that lasted a few years after the war, especially at RKO.
The music and the dancing are very entertaining. Ricardo Montalban dances with Cyd Charisse, who is given a supporting role as his girlfriend; considerable effort was expended to stage reasonably accurate folklorico dances of songs like La Bamba. Montalban and Charisse look great together and provide the real reason to watch the movie. To express Mario's artistry as a composer, Johnny Green adapted Aaron Copland's "El Salon Mexico" into a concerto-like Mexican Fantasia number. If Montalban can't play piano, he fakes it extremely well.
Some location work in Mexico makes Fiesta look fairly expensive. Williams takes the show seriously and makes a determined-looking matadora.
Fiesta appears to be taken from an older composite negative and doesn't have the full Technicolor range or appearance. Many scenes do look good but a few have a brownish tinge and some effects work looks a bit wilted. The key musical numbers are among the better-looking scenes. The nostalgic Passing Parade short this time is Goodbye, Miss Turlock, about an old-fashioned schoolhouse teacher. Tex Avery's Hound Hunters features George and Junior, a take-off on the characters from Of Mice and Men.
This Time for Keeps demonstrates that MGM was interested in maintaining the quality of the Esther Williams series; it has a larger aquacade number (with a couple of interesting underwater shots) and location shooting on Michigan's Mackinac Island. This time out Esther is Nora Cambaretti, the star of a swimming show; her accompanist and all-round good luck charm is Ferdi (Jimmy Durante). The underwhelming romance angle involves singer Dick Johnson (Johnny Johnston), the son of big opera star Richard Herald (Lauritz Melchoir, naturally). Dad wants Dick to sing opera but Dick wants to sing with Xavier Cugat's Cuban orchestra. Dick falls fast and hard for Nora, but just as they're getting down to marriage talk, his controlling father announces Dick's engagement to another girl. It takes Ferdi, Nora's ex-circus star mother (Dame May Whitty) and Dick's dad to straighten things out. MGM's idea of family unity is for meddling old folks to constantly arrange things for the young people without consulting them.
Karl Freund's camerawork keeps This Time for Keeps popping on the visual level; even an ordinary cutaway of four people watching a stage show has interesting lighting. The movie is at least 50% performances. By now the opera angle seems jammed into the story without much reason, although it must be said that Melchoir doesn't pipe up with a solo in as many inappropriate places as before. Jimmy Durante delivers his comedy specialty schtick, including a number where he partially dismantles his piano looking for "the lost chord".
Club singer Johnny Johnson had a big hit with the radio version of the song "Laura" but doesn't strike sparks with Williams; we feel guilty for wondering if he was on the lot because he was married to Kathryn Grayson. Xavier Cugat contributes some good rhythms but we miss the intoxicatingly sexy presence of his former lead singer Lina Romay. Stanley Donen's choreography is a cut above the usual, even when it's just Esther Williams trying out a few basic dance moves. Esther sings and prances a burlesque walkway for a faux strip number called "Ten Percent Off", showing us that there's not that much difference between her brand of exhibitionist grace and that of Gypsy Rose Lee, or for that matter, Lili St. Cyr.
The excellent color on This Time for Keeps indicates a partial restoration, either that or the title just happens to have a perfect composite negative. Williams looks fine in her proper context -- all sparkles and bright primary colors. The fur coat she wears in the snow scenes looks real enough to touch.
The Pete Smith Specialty Now You See It features macro photography of tiny watches and insects. The Tom & Jerry cartoon is Dr Jekyll and Mr. Mouse. Both were Oscar-Nominated.
Pagan Love Song ups the budget by sending stars and a movie unit to Tahiti. Williams is even more amusing than usual (it's said she was pregnant during filming) and Howard Keel does what he can with a basically unlikeable leading man role. Unfortunately, the filmmakers impose a few too many 1950s American values on the storyline.
Esther is Tahitian-American Mimi Bennett, a free soul who tools around Tahiti's dirt roads in her MG sports car (try getting it repaired out there, lady) and amuses herself by greeting boats like a native beggar. The foreigners own fine houses and plantations while the locals happily clean house and volunteer for work out of the goodness of their hearts. Full-blooded Tahitians Tavae and Terru (Charles Mauu & Rita Moreno) speak in Pidgin English and behave like colonial-fantasy simpletons. I doubt that Ms. Moreno lists this demeaning part among her better credits.
Mimi would like to go back to the mainland until she meets Hazard Endicott (Keel), an American who has inherited a run-down copra farm. He starts off a clueless Bwana type. Mimi deflates him with some good-natured teasing, so they come out even. Hazard eventually learns to stop thinking in terms of the American bottom line. He sort of "adopts" three cute tots after Tavae and Mimi explain that Tahitian children belong to everybody. A climactic non-crisis develops when Hazard thinks his lazy workers have allowed his copra crop to be ruined. All turns out well in a forgettable ending, as we still think Hazard is selfish and undeserving.
All those authentic locales guarantee that Pagan Love Song looks fantastic. As if throwing a bone to Hollywood's puritan censors, Mimi tells Hazard that "the missionaries came and taught us how to live". The smiling Tahitians are always good for a few laughs, as in a running gag in which they repeatedly fail to deliver a bathtub to Hazard's thatched plantation bungalow.
Williams sings one number but at least two others were cut; Betty Wand provides her singing voice. Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed's memorable title tune is a dreamy tropical come-on composed in 1929. It's used for the film's visual highlight, a dream sequence that begins with Hazard hallucinating a vaporous Mimi "swimming" in the sky. The dream then changes to a Kitsch-Dali island-scape setting. Mimi swims underwater in an impressive stylized aquarium surrounded by colorful plastic plants and rocks.
Pagan Love Song looks very good overall, with bright color but a tendency to be a little soft. A Pete Smith Specialty Curious Contests recycles amusing bits from old newsreels. Tex Avery's The Chump Champ has Droopy and Spike compete in a series of violent sports contests.. Seven deleted musical outtakes are included. In the outtakes, the dream island set looks far sharper than the corresponding scene in the feature transfer.
The bio-pic Million Dollar Mermaid takes the series up to MGM class AA production values, with two spectacular Busby Berkeley numbers. The screenplay by Everett Freeman perfectly casts Esther as Annette Kellerman, a turn-of-the-century swimmer, women's athletics promoter, New York Hippodrome headliner and movie star. Surely all but forgotten by 1952, Ms. Kellerman had a music teacher for a father, wore leg braces as a child and wore "shocking" one-piece bathing suits to publicize her swimming exhibitions. She's also frequently credited with being the first star to appear nude in a film.
The MGM treatment glamorizes the biographical particulars. The nudity is of course out. The music teacher father now has ambitions of opening his own conservatory, while Annette's mother has been eliminated. Annette's arrest in Boston for indecent exposure is an innocent mistake (on her part). Her husband James Sullivan (Victor Mature in one of his best movies) is fairly realistic up to the point where writer Freeman decides to make him an early aviator. He's also identified as the promoter of Rin-Tin-Tin, a total fabrication and surely some kind of joke for Hollywood insiders. Finally, an accident on the set of Kellerman's 1914 Neptune's Daughter is dramatized for the film's rather dark ending.
Much maligned for posing, smiling and swimming in her less ambitious pictures, Ms. Williams is very good in this character role, lending Kellerman poise and dignity. It's a liberating part, if one can forget the scene in which Annette is insulted with the advice that her achievements will by necessity make it difficult to have a good relationship with a man. The rather weird ending has one suitor (David Brian) step aside for another, without even being asked. Men always seem to be making strange romantic choices for Esther, as if she weren't there.
Director Mervyn LeRoy gets plenty of mileage from MGM's lavish resources. London is seen from the viewpoint of the River Thames as Kellerman makes an exhibition swim, with large crowds assembled on the famous bridges. Annette's Hippodrome aquacade extravaganza appears in montage form (courtesy of stock shots from a previous movie) and in two new Busby Berkeley numbers, easily the most fantastic of the series. In one extravaganza Williams perches atop tall fountains of colored water. A second even more elaborate number presents scores of performers swinging out of towering plumes of colored smoke to make synchronized dives into the Hippodrome pool.
I've seen the MGM stages where these films were made. They're big but not that big and not as deep as one might think. With the smoke, slippery water and flimsy swimsuit costumes, these stunts look extremely dangerous. Of course, Esther smiles through the entire thing, a happy mermaid in her element. The Esther Williams films have been derided as artless Kitsch but there's something to be said for their almost delirious excess. It certainly expresses America at the peak of its power.
Unlike other Williams movies, this one ends on a dramatically intriguing note. Audiences were encouraged to leave Million Dollar Mermaid with mixed emotions, which was perhaps a ploy to gain acceptance for Esther as a serious actress.
Walter Pidgeon is a bit lost as Annette's father. David Brian's accrued identity as a guy who slaps Joan Crawford around makes his big showman seem a bit suspect. Comedian Jesse White is amusing as Victor Mature's sidekick, forever dealing with boxing kangaroos and other indignities.
Million Dollar Mermaid is probably the best-looking title in the box, with only a few brief cuts exhibiting the mis-registration flaws that make us want to put on our 3D glasses. George Folsey's cinematography flatters what is obviously a more expensive and detailed job of art direction than usual.
The Pete Smith Specialty Reducing is an almost criminally insensitive cartoon that makes cruel fun of a fat woman. The Wise Little Quacker is a Tom & Jerry cartoon. An audio extra stars Williams in a radio show version of Million Dollar Mermaid, with Walter Pidgeon playing the David Brian role.
Williams' penultimate aquacade picture, 1953's Easy to Love shapes up as a highly entertaining soap bubble of a movie. Williams is Julie, an overworked showgirl at Cypress Gardens who seems to do everything to earn her meager salary -- water ski, swim, perform a clown act, pose for amateur photographers, even hawk Florida citrus fruit. Owner Ray Lloyd (Van Johnson) is Julie's aloof and manipulative boss. Fellow performer Hank (John Bromfield, notable victim of The Creature from the Black Lagoon) can't keep his hands off Julie, but she's holding out for a marriage proposal from Ray. A "pleasure" trip to New York turns out to be Ray's trick to get several days' worth of advertising modeling from Julie, presumably for free. She rebels, and is swept off her feet by big time singer Barry Gordon (Tony Martin), who pursues her back to Cypress Gardens. Gordon leaves behind a girlfriend played by a young Carroll Baker, not making much of an impression in her first movie.
The film could have been called Easy to Love your Wardrobe, as Esther changes costumes at the rate of 1.5 dresses per scene. She looks good in all of them. Julie manages to be camera ready at all times despite staying out all night and spending half of her working day in the water. But the script is reasonably funny, the pace snappy and director Charles Walters finds some great images, like a rapid Latin nightclub dance that plays out on two pair of fast-moving legs.
Busby Berkeley manages some striking images for the graceful swimming choreography. Julie and Hank swim among mangrove trees, each of which holds a musician. The pair ends up under twin spotlights on rotating beds of floating flowers. The extravagant ending seems aimed to top the water-ski scene in the previous year's This Is Cinerama. Coordinated lines of (very brave) water skiers plow through narrow passageways between tree trunks, never flinching at the danger. The wide shots show thirty or forty skiers moving in tight formation arranged in human pyramids. The wakes of multiple speedboats make this high-speed insanity look particularly difficult.
Van Johnson's exploitation of Julie serves as a good character hook and is a nice twist on his "guy next door" image. John Bromfield goes through most of the film breathing heavy in swim trunks, with the effect that he seems more of a sex symbol than the spirited but ladylike Esther. The least interesting corner of the romantic rectangle, Tony Martin sings at the drop of a hat. But Tony finds a nice exit gag by suddenly picking up on a stray beauty walking through a scene -- it's his wife Cyd Charisse in a guest cameo.
The bulk of Easy to Love is filmed in true Technicolor but we think that the water ski finale was shot on Eastmancolor and printed Technicolor through separations, a process that would become the norm less than a year later. The water ski scenes look excellent, but it's not the gaudy Tech look. Three-strip Technicolor and Esther Williams movies seem to have been phased out more or less at the same time.
The short subjects on Easy to Love are a Traveltalk short and a Barney Bear cartoon, Cobs and Robbers.
Warner Home Entertainment's Esther Williams, Volume 2 TCM Spotlight is presented in an attractive sleeve box with a folding disc holder decorated with an image of Williams and Bromfield amid those floating flowers. Each title also comes with an original trailer. Buyers still appreciate the extra care in restoration, the abundant extras and the fancy packaging, even as they become less frequent in classic DVD releases from major studios.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Esther Williams, Volume 2 rates:
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