Easy to Love (1953)
This is my second favorite Esther Williams movie behind Dangerous When Wet (1953). It’s not surprising that these are my two favorite Esther movies as they were filmed only months apart, were both directed by Charles Walters, and both star Esther Williams at the top of her game and popularity.
Dangerous When Wet was filmed in August through October of 1952, and released in June of 1953. Easy to Love was filmed in February through April 1953, and released on Christmas Day. (I’m realizing I also have a thing for movies released in 1953. So far I’ve reviewed six: Roman Holiday, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Band Wagon, Calamity Jane, and these two Esther movies.)
Easy to Love was “Excitingly Filmed,” according to the poster, in Cypress Gardens in Florida, where Esther Williams would tape a very popular TV special in 1960. Although usually MGM stayed on the lot and used the monster pool they built for Esther, several of Esther’s movies are set in exotic locales like Tahiti (filmed in Hawaii), Sun Valley, and Mackinac Island, and each locale is heavily featured, but perhaps none more so than Cypress Gardens. The movie is almost a feature-length advertisement for “Beautiful Cypress Gardens,” but that’s all part of the plot.
Van Johnson plays Ray Lloyd, the man in charge of Cypress Gardens. Van Johnson was paired with Esther Williams five times (A Guy Named Joe (1943), Thrill of a Romance (1945), Easy to Wed (1946), Duchess of Idaho (1950), and Easy to Love, their last movie together). Here they are dancing together in Thrill of a Romance:
Johnson’s tall build, freckly visage, and terribly wholesome, healthy, and decent persona made him a natural match for Williams. They were the ultimate All-American boy and girl. Williams wrote in her autobiography that by the time they made Easy to Love, ten years after their first worked together, “Van and I were as synchronized as any two swimmers in the pool…We were family…We knew our lives, our secrets, and our public and private personas, even though off camera we had little or no contact.” So obviously Johnson and Williams are going to end up together. Though things get complicated, naturally.
Ray’s whole life is Cypress Gardens. He tells visitors that he personally picked out each plant and shrub around the grounds, (he’s a classic micro-manager) and he’s made a fortune with the water shows and by farming out his “girls” and the location for advertisements. The movie begins with Ray selling a potential advertiser named Barnes on the glories of Cypress Gardens, and the glories of one Cypress Gardens performer, in particular. That calendar shows Julie (Esther Williams) water-skiing on the shoulders of Hank (John Bromfield). As they gaze upon the splendor, Ray holds forth:
Sounds about right.
He then offers Barnes a Cypress Gardens logo pen, and shows him some examples of other ads. According to Ray, no one bought that freezer until he “put Marie on top of it, and now they can’t turn them out fast enough.” That Deltona TV is the “worst television set ever made. I had Cynthia make love to it, and it became a bestseller in two weeks.”
He’s got it all figured out; as he says, humbly, “American industry owes me a debt that can never be paid. I have made this country bathing suit-minded.”
In one of my favorite little moments, a girl in a mermaid costume is carried in for Ray’s approval. His stern judgment? “Trim her tail a little.” Unfortunately, we don’t get to see these mermaids in action.
Then Ray brings out the big guns. He hands Barnes a pair of binoculars and points him towards Julie, who’s currently water-skiing in a fabulous leopard suit. She somehow knows unerringly to smile in the binocular’s direction. And how great is the binocular-shaped view? Ray expounds on Julie, his greatest creation. In his mind, he’s a Svengali or Pygmalion who took a gangly fifteen-year-old who was just “bones held together with freckles,” and transformed her into, well, Esther Williams.
Ray tells Barnes: “Her smile has sold more toothpaste, her legs more nylons, her middle more girdles than you can possibly believe…She’d run away with the Miss America title every year if I’d let her compete.” Barnes asks why he won’t let Julie compete, and Ray’s smooth answer is: “Wouldn’t be fair to the other contestants.” All seems sunny and bright in beautiful Cypress Gardens (go merchandising! go product placement!), except for Julie.
She’s just tired. She’s the star of Cypress Gardens, but she’s worn out. And she’s in love with her boss, but he’s only interested in how many nylons, girdles, and tickets she can sell.
Ray and Barnes walk to meet Julie in her brief moment between performances as she changes out of her swimsuit and into a hoopskirt. They pass a Palm Beach advertisement: “Why don’t you shoot it in Palm Beach?” “This is more realistic.”
Julie’s in high dudgeon, hopping mad, completely fed up. Ray’s taking advantage of her talent and beauty to get every last cent he can out of her performances, modeling, and even secretarial skills. And now he wants her to shoot a water ballet/travelogue for Mr. Barnes that very night! Part of why I like this movie is because Esther Williams gets to be really feisty, quite fun, and even a little bitchy instead of her more typical mature, even-keeled characters.
This first meeting with Julie is a doozy. I love how they choreographed and shot Julie and Ray’s first onscreen spat. He’s trying to zip her up, fix her hair, adjust the diamond butterfly on her shoulder, (micro-manage much?) as she stalks and argues. The huge pink dress, beautiful beach view, and adorable tension between them doesn’t hurt.
Costume sketch break:
MGM costume designer Helen Rose outdid herself on this movie. Not only is this Scarlett O’Hara on crack, but it also becomes a nice sight gag later on in the film when Julie runs to take a phone call and can’t fit in the booth with that huge hoop skirt. So she shimmies out of it.
The tourists have a laugh and get some risqué photos. Though they could just wait until she’s even more naked in one of her many swimsuits… Julie at first refuses to swim in the water ballet because she has a date with Hank, but she has a hard time saying “no” to Ray. So off we go to a strange lagoon with gypsy fiddlers standing on tree trunks, a whole flock of swans, and a trippy floating carpet of blooms. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
It’s one of the oddest water ballets Esther Williams did. We’ve got a pretty intense high dive, spinning, lazy-Susan-esque platforms in the water, and plenty of extra stuff (gypsies, swans, parrots, flowers, a Tarzan-esque swimming partner, and a bronze bathing suit with jet beads) just in case you need something at which to gawk. Busby Berkeley dreamed up all the water sequences in this movie, so things get wild. When I watch this, I worry about water snakes.
I like how this movie with its focus on commercialism, advertising, publicity, performance, spectatorship, appearance, and the faux-reality of Cypress Gardens, becomes a nice little analogy to movie-making. It’s not that subtle: Ray watches anxiously behind the camera during this water ballet, and he’s almost always on hand arranging and supervising during modeling shoots and performances–much like a director, producer, or even studio head making sure his “properties” are being utilized to best advantage.
Ray talks about how he “created” Julie and basically owns her, which isn’t too far off from some of the rhetoric surrounding movie stars who were given new names and were molded, trained, plucked, curled, and bleached into stardom. Esther Williams’ Julie is a star in Cypress Gardens and a national modeling phenomenon, but she doesn’t see any of that income she’s generating, which was the case during the Studio era. Actresses would do tons of advertisements for cosmetics, clothes, etc., and appear in fan magazines with their newborn babies and weddings and break-ups, but the studio controlled it all and didn’t pass on any of the revenue to the actors themselves.
Since actors, like Julie in this movie, were under multi-year contracts and paid by the week, not per movie or endorsement deal, the studio had a lot of control over its “stable” of stars. Julie has no say in what performances or ads she wants to appear in–she does what Cypress Gardens commands. Esther Williams had very little say in what movies she did, either, and could be suspended or fired if she refused to do the studio’s bidding.
This is especially apropos for Esther Williams, and especially for Easy to Love. As I discuss in my Esther Williams post, since there were no other swimming movie stars, there was a lot of pressure on Williams to do what the studio wanted. MGM couldn’t sub in June Allyson or Jane Powell for Esther Williams if Esther was sick, pregnant, or just didn’t want to do a movie, the way they could for their other stars. For example, when she broke her neck filming Million Dollar Mermaid, the studio had to pause production on the film for six months! There was no replacement for Esther.
Why does this particularly matter for this movie? Well, Busby Berkeley “freed from the confines of the pool,” wanted to do a huge water skiing number. But Esther had never water skied. But Busby Berkeley wanted waterskiing. So Esther learned. And Busby wanted an 80 foot dive from a helicopter, and for Esther to go over jumps on water skis, and to dodge 60 foot geysers, and to weave under 30 water-skiing ropes while dodging said geysers, and to jump over an orchestra in the lake.
Oh, and Esther was pregnant. More on that later. At one point in this movie, as Julie threatens to quit her job and leave Cypress Gardens, Ray reminds her of the fantastic birthday party he threw for her in the middle of the lake. She reminds him that he sold the pictures of the party for a thousand dollars…
It’s a fun lens through which to view this movie. As Julie complains about having to swim, waterski, and pose for pictures for hours on end, remember that Esther Williams also had to swim, waterski, and pose for pictures, for hours on end. Which gives her feisty arguments with Ray a bit of added poignancy, especially when she asks herself in frustrated, tired anger:
Pardon the digression, back to the movie! Julie is fed up with her unrequited love and her work schedule. So she tells Ray that she’s going to marry Hank. (She’s rather cavalier about playing with poor, muscled Hank’s feelings…) Ray’s reply: “That leftover from a Mr. America pageant? I bet you’ve never even seen him with his clothes on!” But he’s maybe a little jealous.
So Ray invites her to join him for a “fun” weekend in New York. She rushes home to pack, and tells her roommate (it was probably hard being Esther William’s roommate) that she’s finally “hooked” him! This is it, she says, we’re going to New York for fun, not for work!
But it’s not that much fun after all, and it’s a lot of work. Ray’s lined up several photo shoots, and he’s entered Julie in the Citrus Queen competition. Julie’s mad, but I’m not. I love gratuitous modeling and pageant opportunities.
I especially love that pink and red ombre gown, and the clip-on hair she wears and then unceremoniously rips off after finishing that lingerie/perfume shoot.
Barry Gordon (Tony Martin) is shooting his album cover with a cute dog in the same studio where Julie is working.
She drops her hat, he picks it up (remember this!), and he’s smitten. She’s about to shoot a lipstick ad, so he finagles his way into replacing Ted, who was supposed to be her kissing partner. Since Barry’s a famous singer, Ray is just tickled about the extra publicity! He introduces Julie to Barry: “Angel, meet Barry Gordon, he’s willing to kiss you for Ted.”
But Ray’s enthusiasm begins to wane the longer the kissing session continues… It’s a very cute first meeting, and it’s fun when Julie claims they need to take more, and Ray gets jealous. Barry invites Julie to his show at a club later that evening, and Ray accompanies her, though he really thinks she ought to be in bed–the Citrus Queen competition is the next day! Julie puts on a beautiful black and white halter dress with a matching coat with big pockets.
Fun fact: Esther Williams also wore this dress for some Christmas publicity photos. Studios liked to release holiday photos like this of their stars:
Back to the film. Barry sings “Didja Ever” which is basically a cute, melodic way to ask someone about their sexual history. One of his back-up singer/dancers wears the same superbly collared, polka dot dress Denise Darcel wears as Gigi in Dangerous When Wet!
Ray whisks Julie back to her hotel and instructs her to be ready for the Citrus Queen pageant early the next morning.
But she sneaks out for some more time with Barry, including a performance of two pairs of legs. We never see the attached bodies. According to the Los Angeles Daily News review of this movie, the dancers are director Charles Walters and Cyd Charisse, but I’m not sure about that.
Barry hears her Cypress Gardens woes and gets her an audition with a big-time New York producer. He likes her. And she likes champagne.
There’s a great getting-dressed-and-then-undressed montage when Julie almost oversleeps and misses the audition. She jumps out of bed and throws on her clothes, then the film jumps to Julie in a dressing room at the theater where she takes off everything she just put on and changes into a sparkly swim suit.
She can’t decide whether she should stay in New York or go back to Florida. She goes to see Barry at his club where he is rehearsing the “Little Coquette” number. It sure sounds as though he’s crooning to his “Little Cokehead.”
Spoiler Alert: Julie goes back to Cypress Gardens. They arrive early in the morning, and Ray invites her to his house for dinner that night and tells her he has something very important to discuss with her. She assumes he is going to propose.
He intends to discuss a raise. He realizes she’s in love with him, and that scares him. So while she’s performing a truly ghastly swimming clown routine for a bunch of kids, he’s trying to think of ways to tell her he’s not the marrying kind.
It’s a poignant scene. She seeks to impress him and draw out that marriage proposal by making a perfect martini and telling him what a good cook she is. She’s earnest and thrilled to be there, and he’s uncomfortable and trying to let her down easy. But he fails.
The studio was constantly wondering “How can we get Esther into a bathing suit in as many different places as possible?” They do a heck of a job in this movie.
Hank’s upset, Ray’s upset, Barry’s pretty happy, and Julie is conflicted. But enjoying her time with Barry.
While Julie changes out of her soaking wet clothes, Barry serenades some elderly women, and Julie’s roommate watches it all, secretly in love with Hank. You know, typical.
Then Busby Berkeley,who also directed the water ballets in Million Dollar Mermaid, gets his long-wished for waterskiing finale with 68 professional water-skiers, the Aqua Maids from Cypress Gardens, a helicopter, and Esther Williams. Roll ’em!
“This was the kind of thing I loved,” Busby Berkeley said in an interview. “I had Esther and eighty boy and girl skiers whizzing along on skis carrying big flags.”
“I mapped out an intricate pattern of movements for them through the cypress trees and around huge geysers that shot sixty-foot sprays into the air.”
“…then diving from a height of eighty feet into a V-shaped formation of skiers traveling at thirty-five miles per hour across the lake…I wanted to create the effect that she might land right in the audience.”
Then Esther (think it’s a double, though) jumps over the orchestra conductor… …and is lifted high into the air where she gives her Esther Williams pose-and-smile. It’s ridiculous and magnificent. You can watch it here.
Esther’s waterskiing, dives, and swimming in this movie are especially remarkable because Esther found out that she was pregnant with her third child before filming began. She remembered: “When I realized what was happening, the first person I thought of wasn’t Ben [her husband], but poor Joe Pasternak [the movie’s producer]. This would be the third picture I did for him when I was pregnant. Under the best of circumstances, making a movie and making a baby are a head-to-head race against time. When you have to consider the bathing suit factor and the daredevil stunts associated with Busby’s water extravaganzas, it gets even more difficult.”
The race to shoot the movie before the pregnancy started to show was one thing, but the stunts Busby Berkeley wanted Esther to do are something else altogether. Never mind the whole “learn-how-to-water-ski-thing;” it’s all pretty crazy stuff. Busby has her ducking water-skier’s ropes, dodging geysers, and holding onto a trapeze as it lifts her out of the water. And if she falls, she’s going to get run over by the 68 other skiers, and possibly a boat or two.
She did most everything Busby asked, but she refused to do the 80 foot dive from the helicopter-trapeze. She wrote later, “Certainly the possibility that I might be injured was never a factor when Buzz was dreaming up his routines; he just assumed I could do anything.” You definitely believe that when you watch this finale. It’s seven minutes of jaw dropping craziness. Williams put her foot down about the dive and suggested Busby use her friend and expert diver, Helen Crelinkovich, as her double for the dive. She remembers Busby saying, “”I hate doubles,” to which she said, “Not as much as I hate miscarriages. I’ll do everything else you ask of me, Buzz – I’ll even ski-jump over the orchestra at the end – but not the dive.” She won the battle, and Helen did the dive perfectly three times! (Williams gave birth to a daughter in October.)
It’s happily ever after for everyone, and the movie ends on a lovely multi-layer joke. Remember how I mentioned that Julie dropped her hat and Barry picked it up for her? He does the same thing at the very end of the movie for a beautiful woman in a blue bathing suit. He slowly rises from the ground just as he did with Julie, before walking off with this very pretty lady.
Why, it’s Cyd Charisse, Tony Martin’s real life wife! They were married from 1948 until Charisse’s death in 2008. Don’t worry, Van and Esther aren’t the only ones to get a happy ending:
Here’s the trailer— enjoy! For more, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, Instagram at BlondeAtTheFilm, pinterest, and Facebook! Click here to buy this wonderful movie, and be sure to check out Williams’ autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid for a fascinating look at Old Hollywood.
This was originally published on July 8, 2013, on sallycooks.com