Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)
This is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Fabulous Films of the 50s Blogathon which runs May 22-26. I’m thrilled to be participating, and it’s been great to read all the wonderful entries! Check them out here.
My fabulous film of the 50s is Million Dollar Mermaid starring Esther Williams as real-life Australian swimming star Annette Kellerman. I’m terribly fond of Esther Williams’ films and have written about several already: Thrill of a Romance (1945), Neptune’s Daughter (1949), Easy to Love (1953), and Dangerous When Wet (1953).
Million Dollar Mermaid has a very interesting production history and some of the most spectacular swimming numbers you’ll see in any of Williams’ films. It’s extra-fascinating because it’s a biopic of a woman who essentially paved the way for the existence of “Esther Williams’ movies.”
As an added bonus, Williams’ daughter, Susan, was kind enough to talk to me about this movie. She gave me great insights into Dangerous When Wet, so it was a pleasure to get her take on this film, too! Be sure to check out the official Esther Williams website!
Now for a bit of background. Annette Kellerman was born in 1886 to musician parents. Little Annette had a weakness in her legs which necessitated the use of metal braces. Her mom and dad made the fateful decision to enroll Annette in swimming classes to help strengthen her legs; this exercise helped so much that her limbs were “normal” by age thirteen. But swimming became more than just physical therapy. By age fifteen, Annette was swimming competitively and giving diving exhibitions.
At sixteen, Annette got serious. She set records in the 100 yard and mile swims, and turned her talents to entertainment. She started performing “mermaid” acts swimming in tanks, and wowed crowds with high diving displays. She continued her competitive swimming and became famous for long-distance feats.
Soon she was an international star performing water ballets (and basically inventing synchronized swimming), at the New York Hippodrome with its huge glass tank, challenging swimsuit norms in her “one-piece suit” when women still wore bloomers and long-sleeve dresses, and appearing in films in the teens and twenties. Very few of her movies still exist, unfortunately, but you can watch clips here and here. Like most biopics from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Million Dollar Mermaid is, well, quite liberal with the facts of Kellerman’s life, but it gets the essentials right. Usually.
Who could play Kellerman in a movie? No one but Esther Williams, of course! Williams was thrilled to make this movie. She wrote in her autobiography The Million Dollar Mermaid that “For once, swimming was really part of the story and didn’t have to be shoehorned into the rest of the plot. I loved the idea of playing Annette Kellerman, a real person, rather than a superficial character created to give me an excuse to swim” (213).
Fun fact: Annette Kellerman visited the set of this film and met with Esther Williams. Williams asked Kellerman what she thought about Williams playing her in the movie, and Kellerman’s only answer was that she wished that Williams was Australian. Williams answered, “I’m the only swimmer in the movies, Miss Kellerman. I’m all you’ve got.” (The Million Dollar Mermaid 214). And it was very true!
Victor Mature (perhaps best known for his “loincloth” roles in Biblical epics of the 1950s) plays Kellerman’s manager, American Jimmy Sullivan, and Walter Pidgeon is Kellerman’s father. Mervyn LeRoy directs, and Busby Berkeley was in charge of the water ballets.
To the film! We open with young Annette (Donna Corcoran, who plays Williams’ youngest sister in Dangerous When Wet) watching a ballet class on the grounds of her father’s conservatory in Sydney. (For some reason, this movie completely erases Annette’s mother from the story. Also, no one even attempts an Australian accent. Pidgeon and Williams sound exactly as they always do.)
The camera pulls back to reveal stout steel braces on Annette’s legs, and her wistful gaze at the other little girls frolicking on the lawn becomes more poignant. But Annette has a secret: she’s taught herself to swim! Her father finds her at the pond. I suppose it is more exciting for Annette to learn to swim in secret and “accidentally” heal her legs rather than the truth, which is that her parents sent her to swimming class for that very reason…The lesson here is don’t watch this movie to get the real story about Annette Kellerman. Watch it to get MGM’s unapologetically altered version.
Mr. Kellerman wants to forbid Annette from swimming, but she convinces him that she’s getting stronger, and that she loves being in the water. So he relents.Little Annette gets very good and her legs get all the way better! Soon she is winning races in that cute red swimming cap. Through a brief montage, we see Annette grow up into Esther Williams. The trophies have gotten bigger, too, but that red cap is still in use!
Here is Esther Williams in an uncharacteristically frumpy but accurate bathing suit between takes for this scene.
There’s a financial crisis in Australia, so people have cut back on things like music and dance lessons. Her father tells her that his friend has offered him a job at a music school in London.
Annette handles this momentous news pretty well. In fact, it’s almost amusing how quickly this scene goes from dismay to excitement! Exposition must move quickly; after all, we’ve got Busby Berkeley waiting with smoke cannons!
Next thing we know, the Kellermans are sailing from Australia to England. Their quiet stroll on deck is interrupted when a boxing kangaroo comes bouncing along, chased by his trainer, Doc (Jesse White, who was in just about every TV show ever, including Seinfeld!) and his owner/promoter Jimmy Sullivan (Victor Mature).
The kangaroo’s name is Sydney, and Jimmy is hoping that he will take London by storm. Jimmy is always hoping that something will be his golden ticket. He meets the Kellermans, and he seems very intrigued when he learns how many thousands of people came to watch her swim…
I’m intrigued by the blatant coordination between Williams’ and Mature’s costumes. Pops of red, anyone? Nice foreshadowing, Mr. Plunkett. It’s rather like what you see in Summer Stock and My Sister Eileen where costumes coordinate/clash and signal the couples before they are even formed.
Walter Plunkett (The Most Dangerous Game, Summer Stock, The Gay Divorcee) designed the costumes for this film, though Helen Rose designed Williams’ sparkly swimsuits. Plunkett was a prolific designer with special brilliance for historical films (he designed Gone with the Wind (1939)), and Rose worked with Williams on several of her films, including Easy to Love and Dangerous When Wet, as well as Good News and Gloria DeHaven’s costumes in Summer Stock.
She assumes he has come to romance her, when in fact he has another kind of proposal in mind. He wants to manage her. I like watching her face in this scene when Jimmy starts elaborating on her potential as a swimming attraction:
Annette’s father steps in, assuring Jimmy that Annette is not a trained seal who will swim around for an audience’s amusement. She plans to study ballet and music in London, and that’s that!
(This is another of MGM’s little twists. Remember that Annette Kellerman began performing as a teenager while still in Australia!)
The Kellermans arrive in London only to find that the music school is closed–there is no job for Mr. Kellerman. Annette pawns her trophies, one by one, while her father gives music lessons, but it’s not going well.
So when Jimmy and Doc show up at the Kellerman apartment one evening, Annette is very willing to hear their plan. They want to stage a five or six mile swim in the Thames to drum up publicity for Sydney, the kangaroo. (I’m not sure how Annette swimming the Thames would make people care about a boxing kangaroo, but they seem to think it’s a grand idea!) Annette’s only qualm is that Doc and Jimmy aren’t thinking big enough:
The real Annette Kellerman was a long-distance champion, so this idea is less farfetched than it sounds. Fun fact: Kellerman did actually swim the Thames as a publicity stunt. She also attempted to swim the English Channel three times, each unsuccessful, and she swam in races and other free swims in the Seine and Danube, among many others.
So, without telling Mr. Kellerman, Annette, Jimmy, and Doc embark on the Thames swim. The plan is to swim down the river to Greenwich, where Sydney is performing in a carnival. It’s a lot like Dangerous When Wet‘s Channel swim sequences.
(I’m glad that Annette’s red swim cap made the journey to England.) Jimmy is dismayed when the press doesn’t show up as they begin the swim, but eventually they attract attention. These boatmen are stunned to meet a young woman swimming to Greenwich!
He rushes to the Thames in time to see his daughter swim by Parliament.The current is with them and Annette is feeling good, just hungry. They don’t have the cool wire food baskets we see in Dangerous When Wet, though.
Then the current shifts, and it’s been hours and hours, and miles and miles…
The swim is a success, but not for Sydney. As anyone might have guessed, the reporters are far more interested in the pretty young swimmer than in the random boxing kangaroo. The next morning, Jimmy fields several job offers for Miss Kellerman, everything from stunt swims to lectures and personal appearances. But he has an idea for an show!
Now that he invented synchronized swimming, Jimmy suggests they go to New York and try to get Annette booked at the Hippodrome. He sells Sydney and off to America they go!
The Hippodrome producer Alfred Harper (David Brian) likes the idea but turns them down. The Hippodrome was currently staging massive dramas, as you can see from the marquee. Harper doesn’t want to risk staging a “water ballet” with an unknown star and no story.
He doesn’t mention Annette’s Easter-on-steroids bonnet, but it’s hard for me to see anything else.
Jimmy and Annette are disappointed, but they quickly (as in just a few steps outside of the Hippodrome) come up with another idea. Why not stage another stunt swim and use the publicity to start their own show? Jimmy has a friend at Revere Beach in Boston, so they decide to start the swim there.
No one tells Annette that her one-piece bathing suit is not appropriate in proper old Boston! She steps on the beach and it’s mayhem. Scandalized ladies and creepy gentlemen stare at her exposed limbs in shock!
Annette just wants to start her swim and get away from the gasps and horrified gazes. Her bathing suit certainly is a departure from those old-fashioned bathing costumes with their petticoats, stockings, long sleeves, and drawers!
She even presents a modified suit, her trusty one-piece with stockings sewn on to cover her legs, and asks if it would be allowed under the current law. The judge sides with Annette and drops the charges!
Fun fact: Most of this did happen to the real Annette Kellerman. She was arrested at Revere Beach in 1908, acquitted on all charges, and became famous as the “One-Piece Suit Girl.”
Riding Annette’s notoriety, Jimmy, Doc, and Annette open their own water show. (Mr. Kellerman provides the music.)The show is a popular attraction with diving, swimming, and of course the infamous bathing suit:
Here’s the real Annette Kellerman in the suit she made famous:
Although it seems so silly now, the one-piece bathing suit was very controversial at the time, and Kellerman paved the way for bathing suits as we know them. As Esther Williams’ daughter pointed out, when you watch Williams doing her thing in a gorgeous suit, remember to give credit to the original One-Piece Bathing Suit Girl! Susan found this great photo of her mother and Annette Kellerman on the set. Without Kellerman, Williams might not have been able to wear suits like that!
She’s pretty thrilled with him, too. They are in love!
And it’s not just acting. In Esther Williams’ autobiography, she confesses to enjoying an affair with her handsome leading man during the making of this film. She’d never fallen for a leading man before, and both she and Mature were married to other people, but they went for it anyway.
She wrote: “Fictional desire and real desire blended during the making of Million Dollar Mermaid, and it’s obvious, to me at least, in every scene of that film…we were shameless and happy” (213). Their affair didn’t last past the making of this movie, and she didn’t think it would, but she claimed not to regret even a moment. “Romances with beautiful leading men don’t last forever, but don’t knock it until you’ve had one,” she wrote (222).
But just as he’s about to propose, Annette drops by the carnival with a classy lecture promoter who wants her to give a series of talks about health and the body with perhaps some tasteful ballet thrown in. Jimmy can hardly contain his laughter. He’s clearly threatened at the idea of Annette moving on to bigger and classier things without him, so he cuts her down to size by reminding her that she’s just a pretty swimmer doing a tank act.
So Jimmy almost throws him into the tank. But Annette stops him. Later, Jimmy comes back to Annette’s dressing room, ostensibly to apologize. But when she brings up the lecture idea again, he just makes things worse with this gem:
She hurries back to the carnival to tell Jimmy the wonderful news, but he’s already moved on with a new act, a flyer in a rickety plane. He has left for Florida without a word to Annette. He works quickly, that Jimmy!
Annette is devastated, but fortunately she has a fantastic job waiting for her at the Hippodrome. She might be billed last, but she’s with Pavlova, Marceline the clown, and Sousa, in the world’s largest theater!
Ready for some Busby Berkeley madness, executed as only Esther Williams and MGM could? This first number proved to be one of the most notable in Williams’ career.
We start with a view of the Hippodrome before a spotlight picks out Annette in a sparkling gold bodysuit and crown atop the hydraulic lift. (MGM got its money’s worth out of its giant tank with its 50 foot hydraulic lift, geysers, pyrotechnics, and other special effects on this film. For more on the tank, read my post on Esther Williams.)
She was supposed to do a swan dive into the tank below. She writes in her autobiography that when the lift shuddered to a stop, she felt a sudden onslaught of vertigo. Her ear drums had been ruptured so many times from all of her underwater exploits that her equilibrium was gone. Fifty feet in the air, perched on a tiny Lucite disk attached to the lift, she suddenly couldn’t tell if she was leaning or straight. She froze. Berkeley yelled: “We’re waiting, Esther! Jump!” (219).
She “forced a smile for the camera” (219) and dove. On her way down, she realized that something horrible was about to happen. The crown on top of her head was made of aluminum–no big deal when doing shallow dives and frolicking in the water, but incredibly dangerous on a stunt like this. When her head hit the water, the crown snapped her head back, she heard something pop in her neck, and she knew she was in bad shape.
But they’d gotten the shot, so the director called for the lunch break and the crew skedaddled. No one thought to check on Williams–why would they? She was practically SuperWoman! So Williams was left in the pool, in tremendous pain and unable to move her upper body , frantically treading water with her legs to keep from sinking. She remembers imagining the headline: “Esther Williams Drowns in MGM Studio Pool,” and crying for her wardrobe lady, Flossie, the only crew member left on set (The Million Dollar Mermaid 220).
At first, Flossie thought that Williams was joking when she said that she couldn’t get out of the pool, but she finally believed that Williams was in trouble. She ran to get help.
Some men lifted a crying Williams out of the pool and called for an ambulance. While they waited, Flossie carefully removed the gold-sequined bodysuit. Williams wrote later that the 50,000 gold sequins being rolled off her body felt like tiny knives. Since it was Flossie’s job to keep the costumes in good repair, it never even occurred to her to just cut the damn thing off! (220)
Turns out that Williams broke three vertebrae in her neck, getting about as close to “snapping [her] spinal cord and becoming a paraplegic as you could without actually succeeding” (220). She was encased in a body cast from her neck to her knees, for SIX MONTHS. Williams eventually recovered, but according to her daughter, she suffered from neck pain, headaches and a smaller range of motion for the rest of her life. But she also knew how fortunate she was to escape with those relatively minor issues, especially after Christopher Reeve’s accident (221).
Filming stopped on Million Dollar Mermaid until Williams healed. They’d already shot too much of the movie to call it off, or to replace Williams; besides, there was no one who could replace her! It was pretty common practice to shuffle actors around if they were sick, pregnant, troublesome, whatever, but there was no replacement for Esther Williams. Williams wrote: “The fact that they had to wait for me was, in its way, quite a compliment as well as a comfort” (221).
What’s odd is to watch the fateful dive, knowing that she broke her neck, and then see Williams rise from the water a moment later as part of a shimmering tableau for the finale…Movie magic! But it gives me the creeps.
Williams saw this experience as an incredibly awful reminder that she couldn’t count on anyone else to look out for her. She didn’t blame Plunkett and Rose for the metal crown–how would they know it was so dangerous? Her director, Berkeley, and the rest of the crew also would not have known the danger, either. Williams was the only one who might have caught it, but she didn’t think about it until it was too late.
She took this lesson into her next films, especially Easy to Love with its Berkeley-directed water-skiing insanities. As I mention in my review of that movie, everyone just assumed that Williams could do anything, and her safety seemed very far down the list of priorities. Susan, Williams’ daughter, says that her mom used to joke about how the filmmakers were always trying to kill her! Williams had to look out for herself, because no one else was.
Anyway, Annette becomes a star at the Hippodrome. There’s a beautiful ballet interlude featuring Maria Tallchief as Pavlova performing Swan Lake. Annette watches from the wings, utterly entranced, and meets the ballerina backstage. She tells Pavlova how she’s always wanted to dance like that, but Pavlova tells her that what Kellerman does is just as special!
It’s a pleasing high-art validation of the new water ballet phenomenon, and it’s lovely to see Tallchief dance, too. She was one of the first major American ballerinas, plus the first Native American prima ballerina. She danced in Europe before Balanchine invited her to be his prima ballerina in his newly founded company, New York City Ballet, in 1946. We get to see her dance “The Dying Swan” solo. It’s a fun bonus in this film.
Next, we get a montage showing just how famous and fabulous Annette Kellerman has become. In an intertextual twist, alternating with images of Kellerman’s increasing billing at the Hippodrome are moments from Esther Williams’ previous films’ water ballets, including Bathing Beauty (1944) and This Time for Keeps (1947).
You can watch the original Bathing Beauty clip here. I suppose it was a lot cheaper and easier to raid MGM’s library of water spectaculars than to film new ones! But we do get some new ones, too, like this next ballet inspired number with garishly colored borders.
It’s all gorgeous pearls and underwater frolics until we get a shot of Mr. Kellerman collapsing as he conducts. He dies, but Annette doesn’t know so she keeps swimming. It rather puts a damper on the rest of the water ballet, though.
The red border turns green, and the shell closes with Annette inside. It’s enough to give you claustrophobia and make you gratefully suck in oxygen as you watch.
Fun fact: It was during this shell sequence that Williams almost died, again! Here is what happened: Each underwater shot was carefully storyboarded and timed. During the actual shot, someone would hold up cards showing Williams how long she needed to stay underwater.
Most shots were about 45 seconds long, but that was 45 seconds of actual filming, so it didn’t count the time it took Williams to get underwater, hit her mark, and wait for “Action!” She was therefore underwater for much longer than 45 seconds at a time.
Williams’ lungs would expand as she worked, so “whatever I could do at 9:00 in the morning, I could do double that by 4:00 in the afternoon” (The Million Dollar Mermaid 216).
She would string two 45-second shots together to save production time and avoid the necessity of a cut, which is why sometimes it seems as though she has grown gills!
Anyway, she must have been pushing herself during this giant pearl sequence, because suddenly she started experiencing something like “the rapture,” that weird, trancelike state that scuba divers can get. It happens when there is too much carbon dioxide and not enough oxygen, and it can make you want to fall asleep even as you’re running out of air.
Williams, in the grip of the rapture, sat on the shell and rested her head on the pearl…and stayed there. The director, Mervyn LeRoy, didn’t know about the rapture or that Williams was about to drown, but he knew that the storyboard did not include Annette Kellerman taking an underwater nap! He began yelling through the underwater speaker, “Get your head off that pearl! It’s just been painted and the paint may come off!” (217) Williams was confused but LeRoy’s nagging shouts brought her out of the trance and she managed to swim to the surface. Yet another life-threatening moment on the set of this movie!
Doc reads of Mr. Kellerman’s death as Jimmy works on his airplane. Jimmy is no longer managing flyers, now he is doing the flying himself!
It doesn’t mean much to Annette until she sees Doc waiting backstage. He has come to tell her that Jimmy is one of the twelve aviators attempting the almost absurdly dangerous flight. He begs her to stop him, somehow. She promises to try, but first she has a show to do. Smoke cannons, go!
In Tony Thomas and Jim Terry’s The Busby Berkeley Book, Berkeley described this number: ” [I] used one hundred boy and girl swimmers and for the background I had nothing but red and yellow smoke streams shooting up fifty feet. The effect was made by four hundred electrically controlled smoke pots. On each side of the pool, I had forty-foot-high ramps, from which the swimmers slid down at a terrific pace, standing up and carrying yellow lighted torches as they entered the water.” Are you ready?
Girls slide face-first through the legs of red diaper-clad men and into the pool as yellow, hopefully not sulfurous, smoke chokes the air. Then, in a sequence that reminds me of the Neptune’s Daughter finale with its slipping swimmers and streamers, the flag toting men slide down this tilted slip-n-slide, somehow managing to keep their feet until they dive into the pool at the very last moment.
I’m pretty sure it’s not Williams doing the slide, though. It looks more like Williams’ double, diver Edith Motridge. But it’s definitely Williams who emerges from the deep and gets pulled forward by an underwater line.Soon Annette is joined by yellow-clad ladies and gentlemen, and everyone gets pulled along.
And it’s off to the air! Berkeley remembered that for this sequence “I also had twelve long swings that swung down from high in the air through the smoke, and from which twelve girls and boys simultaneously dived into the water. Esther was also the center of attention in this number. I dropped her from fifty feet into the mass of swimmers below, which exploded into a Ferris wheel effect on the water.”
Then it’s Annette’s turn. She swings forward out of impenetrable smoke, smiling broadly. Fun fact: In truth this was a very unpleasant stunt. The smoke was so thick that it was disorienting and difficult to see where one was; especially nasty conditions in which to swing and then dive!
Williams actually broke a toe from clutching the swing so hard with her feet! To add extra tension, Berkeley shot a pistol to signal when each swing should be released and when each group should dive!
Williams (or is it her double?) dives into the pool:But the number isn’t over yet! Williams still has to rise from the water above Busby Berkeley’s favorite human kaleidoscope designs.And then she lets go, hoping she’ll fall right in that dark, deep circle and not land on one of the swimmers! Yikes!
Fortunately, a broken toe was the most severe injury sustained during the filming of this water ballet. Just like the gold one before it, this one ends with a slowly rising tableau. But this one was played back in reverse so that the sparklers light as they rise from the water! It’s a neat effect.
After some smiles and posing, the whole thing sinks back beneath the water, but not before Annette blows us a kiss. You can watch the whole water ballet here.
Here’s the suit worn by Edith Motridge for this water ballet:
Unfortunately, this is the last big spectacle in the movie. To me, this film’s trajectory slopes up to these crazy Busby Berkeley/Esther Williams extravaganzas, before swiftly sliding back down into pseudo-biopic territory. How can Jimmy and Annette’s seemingly doomed romance compete with floating kaleidoscopes, breathtaking dives, and 50,000 sequins?
But we’ll continue, anyway. Annette keeps her promise to Doc and goes to the airfield to try to stop Jimmy from flying off into almost certain death. He doesn’t listen, and even her legal attempt to stop him (something about missing money from the carnival days: he used it to buy the engagement ring, which he then hands to Annette unceremoniously) fails. She watches him fly off in a rickety plane. She looks very sophisticated and wealthy in that dark purple suit with attached capelet!Some time passes and Annette learns that Jimmy has crashed. She tries not to care too much, especially since she is engaged to Alfred! But she calls the hospital and learns that Jimmy will be fine.On their way to Hollywood to make a movie, Annette and Alfred run into Doc and Jimmy on the train. Jimmy is hawking Indian blankets, and Doc is his “brave.” It is embarrassing for everybody, for many reasons. Jimmy is also managing a dog named Rin Tin Tin…(a complete fabrication; the real Sullivan had nothing to do with Rin Tin Tin.)
There is only one more scene to shoot. The tank is all ready, the mermaid back-up swimmers are in position, and Annette is excited to finish the film and marry Alfred. She climbs up a really tall ladder and gets ready to dive. Action!
And we’re off! There’s a clichéd director in riding boots with a megaphone, and “mood music” just out of frame!
Fun fact: The tank did break during the filming of Kellerman’s Neptune’s Daughter. According to an eyewitness: “We saw them [Kellerman and Herbert Brenon] take a deep breath and once more go under the water. Hardly had they disappeared when there was a ‘Boom!’ like the echo of a firing cannon and immediately the canvas passage was swept away and tons of water rushed through the smashing glass. Their bodies lay motionless among the wreckage. They were shockingly cut and bleeding and we thought them surely dead.” They were badly cut, but fortunately both Kellerman and Brenon recovered and were able to finish the movie.
Cut to the hospital. Jimmy and Alfred are there and talk with the doctor. We find out that the doctor is cautiously optimistic, but there is a chance that Annette won’t ever walk again. As I just mentioned regarding the Neptune’s Daughter accident, the real Kellerman did not suffer a spine injury, just bad cuts. I don’t know if that major change from real life to this movie plot was inspired by Williams’ injury during the making of this movie? I’d like to see some scripts.
We don’t know if Annette will recover or not, but the movie ends on a positive note.
Fun fact: Million Dollar Mermaid premiered in December 1952, and in January Esther Williams was voted the number one female movie star in fifty countries by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the Golden Globe people.) Williams was the million dollar mermaid, a nickname that stuck with her and that she chose as the title of her autobiography.
Williams was aware even as she was making this movie that she owed a lot to Annette Kellerman: “Here was a woman whose career foreshadowed my own, who started out as a champion swimmer but ended up in the movies…” (The Million Dollar Mermaid 211). It was a thrill for Williams to get to bring Kellerman’s (altered) story to the screen, and to swim in the one-piece bathing suit of the legendary Australian mermaid!
Here’s the trailer–enjoy! For even more images (I know, I have a problem) visit my tumblr, pinterest, and Facebook pages! Thank you to Esther Williams’s daughter Susan for talking with me about this film!