Thrill of a Romance (1945)
I wish it was summer, and after last week’s journey into Freudian psychoanalysis I need something delightful in Technicolor. So here is Thrill of a Romance (1945) (released the same year as Spellbound!). It stars Esther Williams, and Van Johnson, who worked together on five films over a decade. This was their second movie together, but the first in which they played the romantic leads.
Esther only had a small role in A Guy Named Joe (1943), but after Williams and Johnsons’ immense popularity as a couple in Thrill of a Romance, MGM paired them in Easy to Wed (1946), Duchess of Idaho (1950), and Easy to Love (1953).
Notice “That Loving Man” beneath Van Johnson’s name on the poster? He was a big star, a real heartthrob, when this movie was made. The trailer trumpets: “The thrill of Van Johnson making love to Esther Williams” as one of the movie’s selling points, and at previews of the movie, the comment cards were full of sweet nothings about Johnson.
One read “I love him more than Frankie” (Sinatra). When the movie premiered in Hollywood, Johnson was mobbed by female fans who ripped his clothes and even pulled out some of his hair. Yikes.
The poster proclaims this film as “MGM’s Big Technicolor Show,” and they do have a big time demonstrating the extraordinary range and brightness of Technicolor technology, as you can tell from the opening titles. Just about everything in this movie is chartreuse green, hot pink, bright white, or turquoise. You might need sunglasses.
Besides All-American couple Esther and Van, the movie stars Metropolitan Opera star, Lauritz Melchior, in his first film role. Melchior was born in Copenhagen and became one of the most famous Wagnerian tenors of the 1920s-1940s.
Just in case audiences didn’t recognize his name, he pops up on the screen and sings for the rest of the credits. He would go on to appear in several more MGM musicals, including another Esther Williams’ film, This Time for Keeps (1947).
If you like Wagnerian tenors, have I got a treat for you! If you don’t, it’s easy to fast forward through his (many) performances in Thrill of a Romance.
If your taste tends to big band, this movie also features Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra. This was a big deal; Dorsey and his band were extremely famous and popular. I rather like this publicity photo showing Williams, Dorsey, and Johnson on a diving board.
At one point, soprano Kathryn Grayson was considered for Esther Williams’ role, which would have made sense because she and Melchior could have killed some duets. But instead Williams got the part, and I assume the movie was re-written to include fewer songs and more bathing suits.
There aren’t any synchronized swimming spectaculars of the kind you see in Bathing Beauty, Easy to Love or Million Dollar Mermaid, and odder still, this movie doesn’t have a single underwater shot! But we still get some pretty suits:
Even Dangerous When Wet interrupted its real plot to bring you the Tom and Jerry underwater dream sequence, but this movie contents itself with some lovely dives, one short swimming duet, and three Esther Williams’ solo jaunts in the pool, all filmed from above.
Esther Williams is Cynthia, a swimming instructor who lives with her nutty aunt and uncle. Van Johnson is Major Tommy Milvaine, a war hero on leave. They meet when Cynthia is on her honeymoon–what? She’s already married to someone else when she meets Van Johnson? It cannot be! As we learned with The Palm Beach Story (1942), the Production Code demanded that marriage be treated seriously and sacredly.
We’ll back up to explain how Van Johnson gets away with wooing a married woman. One day Cynthia is at the pool teaching children how to swim and dive.
She is poised on the high dive when a car pulls up and a man requests a swan dive.
She’s taken aback, and very beautiful in her black swimsuit standing against a very fake backdrop, but she says, “Alright,” and executes a perfect swan dive. And he seems very taken with her. She climbs out of the pool, dismisses the class, says goodbye to the strange man, and heads home.
The man tells one of her students, Julio, that he’ll give him a dollar if Julio tells him about the woman, including her name and address. To his credit, Julio asks if the man is a villain. Then he gives him everything he needs to track Cynthia down. Like so many of these movies, it’s a good thing the man isn’t dangerous…
Cynthia greets her scatterbrained aunt (Spring Byington), who wasn’t able to make dinner because the gas wouldn’t come on. Oh, and the telephone isn’t working. (It’s not because the man cut the phone line and severed the gas in order to isolate and terrify Cynthia.)
It’s because Cynthia’s aunt and uncle sometimes forget to pay their bills. But it’s cute, I guess.
Flowers arrive for Cynthia, along with a copy of Fortune magazine with a note instructing Cynthia to turn to a certain article.
Bob Delbar, the “new tycoon” sent the flowers. What an obnoxious way to introduce oneself…Bob is played by Carleton G. Young, who mainly worked in radio and TV. He’s wooden and pompous in this movie, but I guess he’s supposed to be.
He’s decided he wants to marry Cynthia, and he always gets what he wants. He has his secretary start the “sales campaign.” She arranges for their dates, (to the races, the ice follies, fancy restaurants) in an office designed to show off Technicolor’s glories. We’ve got a blue wall, magenta books and matching lipstick, chartreuse desk accessories, and crisp black blouse and phone. Win.
The secretary does a great job making Bob seem like a human being. She even gets tickets for Cynthia’s aunt and uncle for the Ice-Follies, explaining to Bob that it will help if Cynthia’s family likes him, too. Fun fact: it’s funny and quite fitting that Williams goes to see the Ice Follies since MGM started making swimming musicals after figure skater Sonja Henie made a series of profitable films for 20th Century Fox. Also, apparently in 1945, the Ice Follies included people dressed up like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette standing around the rink.
Cynthia has a lovely time over a month of dating with Bob, and she wears some nice (non-bathing) suits, too.
Bob wines and dines her, and leaves her alone at the table when he sees business associates nearby. It’s every girl’s dream. Bob eventually returns, explains that he’s basically had her investigated (she got good grades in high school and college, and she was popular) and then announces he’s going to marry her.
You’ll see the eye trick a lot because this movie is chock-full of gorgeous medium shots and close-ups of Esther Williams. (Interspersed with long shots to show off her amazing wardrobe designed by Irene.) The movie is essentially 90 minutes of glamour-shots of Miss Williams.
That’s not so unusual–the stars are supposed to shine! But when I watched this movie again I was struck by just how many close-ups there are, and how beautifully Esther is filmed.
This is a little ironic, because veteran director Richard Thorpe helmed this movie, and he and Esther weren’t pals, though he would direct three more Esther Williams’ films: Fiesta (1947), This Time for Keeps (1947), and On an Island With You (1948). Apparently, he wasn’t a fan of hers, and treated her rather poorly, which she, of course, did not appreciate.
In her autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams remembers one situation in particular that did not go very well. They’d finished filming a dialogue-heavy scene, and just started the lunch break when Esther realized that she had forgotten some of her lines in one of the takes. She told Thorpe her mistake, knowing that it could cause problems down the road if they didn’t re-shoot the dialogue.
He summoned the crew back, telling them “Turn the lights back on, boys. This lady wants to act.” Well, she responded by locking herself in her dressing room. After that, he was a little nicer to her.
Despite his apparent disdain for Williams as an actress, Thorpe made sure she looks good. That was his job, after all. The camera lingers on her face and form, which is great because costume designer Irene crafted some amazing costumes. The bright Technicolor explosion, shallow focus, and glamour lighting doesn’t hurt, either.
The next thing we know, it’s wedding time. Cynthia’s aunt and uncle feel out of place in Bob’s mansion and one of the servants keeps a close eye on them as they stroll amongst the wedding gifts. This whole scene reminds me of the delightful Frank Sinatra/Celeste Holm “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” number in High Society (1956).
I’m shocked that extravagant MGM would be so thrifty!
Sometimes those simple, straight, pre-New Look, 1940s silhouettes can be dull or masculine with the exaggerated shoulders and tailoring, but not when Irene designs them for Miss Williams.
Bob is a real stick-in-the-mud, but Cynthia seems to love him. And he seems to like how pretty she is, and her worshipful gaze.
In the dining room, we learn that famous opera star Nils Knudsen (Lauritz Melchior) is on a diet and constantly complaining about it. It’s a subplot that gets old, no matter how many schemes he concocts with waiters or even Tommy Dorsey.
It continues through the whole movie, with jokes about his rabbit food, and his attempts to sneak desserts and steak without the hotel manager seeing (she’s his diet enforcer). There are several other subplots, too, but I’m going to focus on a young Major who can’t take his eyes off the new Mrs. Delbar.
He watches as Bob and his bride enjoy their dinner…
…until Bob takes a phone call at the table. The Major sees Cynthia reacts to bad news:
Thorpe and cinematographer Harry Stradling, Sr. nail the shallow focus look in this movie. Deep focus is more prestigious, and holds more cachet in film circles, as I discussed in my Roman Holiday post, but golly! Shallow focus like this can be extraordinarily beautiful and interesting, too. I prefer to think of the two styles as different, not in a value hierarchy. (Of course that’s a selfish determination, since dismissing shallow focus as less means dozens and dozens of my favorite movies are somehow less important and less worthy…)
Back to the phone call: there’s a big business deal going down in Washington, D.C., and Bob decides to attend. Never mind that he and Cynthia were married just a few hours ago. (Family first, unless there’s a business thing.) She’s only a little bitter when he says it’s lucky that he hadn’t unpacked yet…You can watch it here.
Bob scurries off to D.C., leaving his bride alone at the hotel. She paces around the hotel room, (excellent gown viewing time), and then falls on a chaise (bright green with pink trim, natch) to cry.
She’s not alone for long; Major Tommy was stargazing on his balcony next door. He hears crying, and peers over the hedge.
He’s just darling to her, very sweet and kind. He’s also shocked when he grasps the entirety of the situation.
The next day, the camera follows her lovingly (thanks, Thorpe) as she strolls to the pool in a white suit, strappy gladiators, and a punchy robe with matching hair ribbons tucked into her (partially fake) braid.
Sydney Guilaroff and his hair wizards really nailed her swimming-hair in this movie. I’ve never seen so many complementary hair ornaments, and the baby oil-Vaseline mixture keeps things shiny and immovable even when she dives. Oddly, out of the water she sticks to tried and true bouncy curls with nary a variation. For more on the techniques MGM invented to keep Williams looking gorgeous in the water, read my post here.
Cynthia meets Maude Bancroft, played by Frances Gifford, whose biggest claim to fame was starring in a B-movie 15-chapter serial in 1941 called Jungle Girl. Don’t worry, the pool furniture sticks to Technicolor’s darlings, chartreuse and turquoise.
What a coincidence! Maude’s father is one of Bob’s business associates, and he’s in Washington working with Bob on the big deal. Maude is working on a deal of her own: she’s on the hunt for Major Milvaine. And now we get Tommy’s backstory: he’s a famous war hero! Maude heard he’s staying at the hotel, but she doesn’t know what he looks like, and she’s a bit confused on other details, too.
Cynthia doesn’t realize that the man in the Army uniform (hint, Cynthia) who comforted her the night before is the famous Major Milvaine.
Maude assumes that a muscly man showing off his physique in the pool is the Major (he’s actually a boxer; add this to the list of subplots), and Cynthia wishes her luck and goes swimming.
She backstrokes right into the handsome, freckle-speckled gentleman from the night before. The first time she swims away after saying hello, but when she swims into him a second time, she stays.
He admits he can’t swim, so she offers to teach him. The whole thing is adorable, mainly because of Van Johnson’s amusing, spluttering attempts to stay afloat. He’s charmingly goofy and boy-next-door-handsome in this movie; I can see why bobby-soxers went wild.
After the swimming lesson Cynthia miraculously appears in time for lunch in a midriff-baring dress (I know there was rationing during WWII, but surely they could scrape enough fabric together to make a whole dress?) and perfect hair. No two piece bathing suits in this movie, though they were very popular, but a two-piece dress is okay. But of course no belly buttons on display! For more, read History Through Hollywood: Fashion.
This movie was filmed in August-October 1944, with a few days of additional work at the end of November; WWII was still raging. The film premiered in New York on May 24, 1945, just over two weeks after Germany surrendered, and a few months before Japan officially surrendered and ended WWII in September.
I imagine that watching Van Johnson in his uniform falling in love with Esther Williams, while tales are told of his incredible bravery and the many “Jap” planes he shot down, must have been a happy respite from the real war for audiences in 1945. But besides Van Johnson’s character, the war does not intrude. It’s all happy times by the pool watching Esther Williams dive:
The war does intrude indirectly in the absence of silk: it was rationed to be used for military purposes, so costume departments had to make do with other fabrics. You won’t find any Carole Lombard-esque silk gowns in movies made during the war!
Esther Williams’ dresses aren’t made of silk, and even her wedding dress appears to be made of jersey or something similar. You’ll also notice that she wears relatively straight silhouettes; part of that is her body type, but part of it is wartime fashion, influenced by government mandated rationing. When fabric is harder to come by, short sleeves and straight skirts suddenly become trendy. You can compare her costumes in Neptune’s Daughter, Dangerous When Wet and Easy to Love to see the difference, keeping in mind that Dior’s “New Look” of tiny waists and full skirts was introduced in 1947.
If Van Johnson’s character was changed from a soldier into a businessman, athlete, firefighter, etc., it would be easy to forget that this movie was made in 1944. It’s all swimming pools, dancing, and beautiful clothes.
In fact, the Office of War Information, a government agency set up to “help” Hollywood support the war effort, was concerned that Thrill of a Romance was too glamorous and portrayed America as too elegant, opulent, and bright. They worried that it would not play well overseas, and might even be resented by America’s allies and soldiers.
Hollywood had to toe a fine line: make movies audiences wanted to see, that also supported the war effort, didn’t offend anyone, and couldn’t be used as propaganda against the United States. They had to be patriotic, but not slide into overt propaganda, and they had to make America look good, but not too good. This movie gets around some of the blurred lines by essentially ignoring the war, except for Major Tommy’s backstory. It’s a bit like the “Buy War Bonds” banner in the train station in Spellbound, or the few mentions and songs in Cover Girl–the war is there, but not much.
Tangent ended. A phone call interrupts Tommy and Cynthia’s lunch. She assumes it’s Bob, and is rather excited to hear from her husband. But it’s her aunt and uncle, and she gets nervous because she doesn’t want to tell them that Bob left her on their honeymoon. They take her confusion as extreme happiness.
She continues Tommy’s swimming lessons, which gives her a chance to amaze us with her bathing suits and matching hair ornaments. Like Cynthia, I always travel with flowers dyed to match my swimsuits, just in case my outfit needs a little kick. It’s also a nice chance to get Van Johnson shirtless.
And he knows he can’t hang around with her anymore, either. It’s too painful for both of them. So they part…or do they?
Perhaps Tommy follows Cynthia on her hike, perhaps they get lost and are forced to spend the night in the forest; perhaps they finally find their way back to the hotel just as Cynthia’s husband is arriving, and perhaps he doesn’t like the look of things…
I can hardly remember; I’m so distracted by this incredible dress: Who needs silk?
Disclosure: this movie isn’t the greatest film ever, and you can tell that Esther Williams is a novice actress (this was only her fourth movie and second starring role after 1944’s Bathing Beauty), and I will admit that sometimes the musical performances are a teensy bit tiresome if you aren’t into 1940s big bands or Wagnerian tenors…but I still love it.
It’s MGM at its best, churning out bright, beautiful, almost-fantasies created by skilled craftspeople and stuffed with talented performers. They were masters at creating another world, and that’s what this movie, and others like it, provide. It’s another world, close to reality but prettier and softer and much more musical.
This impression is helped along by the Technicolor explosions in this film. I’ve never been anywhere where the furniture ranges from lime to chartreuse, the pool water is bright blue, and the people are dressed in shockingly bright, but never quite garish, colors. This movie is a great example of mid-1940s color design. You can see similar shades in Romance on the High Seas, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Harvey Girls, On an Island With You, and Easy to Wed.
Fun fact: the set people painted the cement of the swimming pool with a new kind of paint to get that glorious Technicolor turquoise that looks so nice against Esther William’s pink bathing suit. (You can see where the navy edge ends and the turquoise paint begins in this image of Cynthia diving.)
But it wasn’t the right kind of paint, and when they filled the pool, the chlorine in the water dissolved the paint, filling the pool with a nasty gloopy mess. They had to drain the pool, re-paint it, and re-fill it before they could shoot the swimming scenes. But golly it looks nice against that pink suit!
I’m not the only one who enjoys this movie. It was the 8th highest grossing film in 1945, even though it didn’t get great reviews.
Here’s the trailer–enjoy! For more, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook. You can shop for this movie here, as well as Esther Williams’ autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid.