Instead of writing about one Esther film, here’s an entire Esther Williams post, dedicated to that incredible million dollar mermaid.
I think Williams is absolutely incredible: gorgeous, strong, immensely and uniquely talented, independent, funny…I could go on.
I adore her movies, I am obsessed with her fabulous autobiography The Million Dollar Mermaid, and I own one of her swimsuits (that she designed, not that she actually wore). I collect vintage Esther Williams fan magazines and photographs, I wanted to write my dissertation about her, and I named my dog “Esther.”
This is my Esther. Like her namesake she’s a good swimmer, and she loves to paddle board with me, hence the life jacket. So far we haven’t tried water ballet, but she’s only three-years-old.
This is Esther Williams in a golden suit leading a troupe of synchronized swimmers in an underwater ballet in Neptune’s Daughter (1949). Wild, right?
I first saw her movies when I was just a little kid rapidly exhausting the Classic Movie section at my local Action Video. I was captivated.
Not many of her films were available on home video until TCM released these wonderful box sets, but I taped her movies whenever they played on TCM, even waking up at crazy hours of the morning to press Record on the VCR. And I am assuredly not a morning person. But I’d wake up for this:
I was (and still am) enthralled by Williams’ “aqua musicals” with their elaborately choreographed synchronized swimming numbers and Busby Berkeley overhead shots, like this one from Million Dollar Mermaid. (Although Esther Williams didn’t invent synchronized swimming, she did popularize it and take it to new heights…)
Then I stumbled upon her autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, at the public library. I started reading old Hollywood stars’ auto/biographies in middle school, and often the dark tales hiding behind the gorgeous smiles stunned and upset my little naive self.
But I still devoured them, until I turned the page of a Marilyn Monroe biography and found myself staring at a picture of Monroe’s dead face. They took a photo of her the day after she died, and someone decided to include it in the book.
That book went back to the library very quickly, and I took a hiatus. I think I was eleven or twelve, and I was not ready for cadaver portraits. (That’s why I’m not nearly as obsessive about Monroe as most people assume I am, though of course I have a Gentlemen Prefer Blondes poster. Publishing a picture of her cadaver is so over the line, and so endemic of how she was and is treated. So I give her some space in an effort to be respectful.)
The point of that digression is to say that it was with some hesitation that I picked up Esther Williams’ autobiography. But once I did read it…it was all over. My sister Sally, of SallyCooks.com, gave me a copy of the book for my 15th birthday: her inscription reads “Cam: Instead of checking this book out of the library for the the fifth time, I thought you’d like to add it to your collection. This book is so you.”
I highly recommend The Million Dollar Mermaid. It’s funny, poignant, chock-full of wonderful stories, and an invaluable resource for anyone interested in that era in Hollywood. I might get in trouble for this, but I learned more about how MGM worked and how movies were made reading this highly entertaining autobiography than slogging through the Hollywood Studio class in graduate school.
But back to Esther Williams. I was interested in writing a dissertation on her (and Sonja Henie, the ice-skating star) because I find that phenomenon of movies built around athletes, particularly female ones, completely fascinating. Can you imagine Shawn Johnson, Michael Phelps, or even LeBron James starring in not just one but many movies, that are written and tweaked just to showcase their particular skill set?
That’s what happened for Esther and Sonja, and it’s so of that moment (the Old Hollywood studio era), and so completely absurd yet wildly successful…Sonja was one of the highest paid stars in Hollywood during her career. You can read about one of her movies, It’s a Pleasure (1945), here.
Esther’s films were consistently among the years’ top grossing films, and she was one of the most popular stars. I won’t argue that her movies are cinematic masterpieces or that the plots are unique and creative (sometimes the same actors are thrown together with only a slightly different plot and maybe a new setting), but I will argue that they are entertaining, special, and important.
So, how did Esther Williams get to be MGM’s mermaid? The Williams family lived in Salt Lake City, but after Marjorie Rambeau (Primrose Path), a well-known actress, “discovered” Esther’s older brother Stanton in 1919, her family moved to Los Angeles, hoping to get Stanton into the movies. Esther was born after the move to California in 1921. Stanton was the star of the family, and it was devastating when he passed away after his colon burst in 1929. Esther never had much interest in showbusiness–Stanton had been the child star. She spent her time at the pool, instead.
Esther was a fantastic swimmer who had won three national championships by the time she was sixteen. She set national records and qualified for the Olympics, but it was 1940…
She got a job at an upscale department store, I. Magnin, as a salesgirl who also modeled. These were the days when customers would come in and get a live fashion show of the clothes. Here she is modeling a $250,000 pearl dress in 1940:
Williams married a medical student and hoped to become a buyer for the store. But show business kept trying to drag her away from that life. She was asked to audition for the Aquacade, a synchronized swimming live show. The story goes that when she swam for Billy Rose, the impresario behind the Aquacade, she raced across the pool swimming as fast as she could.
He told her that he didn’t want “fast,” he wanted “pretty.” And she said that if you aren’t strong enough to swim fast, you probably can’t swim pretty, either. She got the job. She swam in this water show for several months, where she learned to swim “pretty” (head and shoulders above the water so the audience can see her smiling face!)
MGM scouts spotted her at the Aquacade, and asked her to make a screen test. She kept turning them down, though! She hadn’t enjoyed the Aquacade with its seedy backstage life, and she didn’t believe MGM could make her into a star. Who’d ever heard of a swimming movie star?
But eventually she agreed to give the movie thing a try. She was in an Andy Hardy movie Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942), and A Guy Named Joe (1943), before her first starring role in Bathing Beauty in 1944. This is the first “Esther Williams’ movie” showcasing her talents and MGM’s commitment to a swimming musical.
MGM made a massive investment in Esther Williams. They built her a $250,000 (in 1943 money!) tank that was ninety by ninety feet, 25 feet deep, equipped with fountains, fireworks, and a pedestal on a hydraulic lift, with windows below the water-line so they could film her underwater “ballets.”
They taught a bunch of dancers to swim, after realizing that it was easier to teach dancers to swim than to teach swimmers to dance!
Scriptwriters kept coming up with ways to get her in the water, which usually included a tame strip tease, and I’m still in awe of how the cinematography, costume, hair, set, and make-up departments pioneered new technologies to produce these shimmering movies.
Bathing Beauty was a hit, so the MGM machine went into action. The public wanted to see Esther swim, and to see her in greater and wilder stunts, so the studio worked to make it happen even though no one had made movies like this before. (There were “water spectaculars” like the Aquacade, where Williams swam alongside Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), and also fended off his daily advances, but it had not been done on film.)
If you subscribe to the problem-solution theory of artistic change, look no further than Esther Williams and her films. Esther’s hair needs to look picture-perfect for twelve hours of shooting in the pool? No problem: after much experimentation, Sidney Guilaroff and his crew in the hair department created a mixture of Vaseline and baby oil which kept Esther’s hair (with fake braids attached to a metal bar pinned to her scalp) looking gorgeous and contained even underwater.
Need to film underwater? No problem: soon there was a special unit of cameramen with experience scuba diving who enjoyed filming in the MGM tank.
Want to make it look as though Esther and her swimming chorus girls are underwater for an impossible amount of time? Why, a strategically placed column/plant/pole will hide that cut very nicely! Or even get Esther to swim with cartoons? Done. (Animators drew in the bubbles after a preview audience said they didn’t believe Esther was actually underwater in the sequence…)
To promote Esther’s first aqua musical, Bathing Beauty, MGM put a six story tall billboard of Esther in a bathing suit in Times Square with the tagline, “Come on in, the water’s fine!” And a star was born!
Fun Fact: It was in that gold bodysuit that Esther dove fifty feet off of the hydraulic lift in the tank and broke her neck. See that tiny gold crown on her head? It was made of metal, and when she hit the water the impact snapped three vertebrae. To add insult to horrific injury, she almost drowned when the crew didn’t realize she was hurt and couldn’t get out of the pool. The costume department did not make that mistake twice.
Esther was usually paired with tall manly men like our old friend Howard Keel or Van Johnson, and there was usually a swimming-scene-of-love akin to a Fred and Ginger dance–they swim/dance together and you know they’re a couple.
But unlike Ginger who danced with the best of the best, Esther’s co-stars were usually very poor swimmers, and it’s amusing to watch them. Howard Keel looks a little panicked as he tries to stay afloat, and Peter Lawford loses the rhythm of the strokes entirely as he thrashes about. Sometimes Esther had to hold her romantic lead up by surreptitiously sliding a hand or foot under their back or tummy as they swam beside her.
But in Dangerous When Wet her co-star was Fernando Lamas, Argentinean swimming champion, and her future husband. She said it was a delight swimming with a great swimmer for a change!
When you watch Esther swim with these men, you realize how amazingly easy she makes it look. Compared to their inept attempts to stay afloat, and even to her swimming chorus girls, Esther looks like a real mermaid. She swims effortlessly, powerfully, smoothly. When she’s frolicking under the surface, it’s easy to forget that she is underwater. She seems so comfortable, so entirely at ease.
Unfortunately for Esther, she was both star and guinea pig/stunt double. No one had done these types of things before, and often Esther’s safety seemed very far down the list of the filmmakers’ priorities.
She had to look out for herself, because Busby Berkeley and other directors sure didn’t.
She ruptured her ear drums multiple times from being underwater so much, broke a toe from clenching a swing with her feet as she swung fifty feet above the tank, and almost drowned in a scary wave when filming in Hawaii.
One particularly close call came when she was filming an underwater dream sequence taking place in a hotel room for Texas Carnival (1951). MGM built a room in the tank, and someone decided to put a ceiling on it.
The walls and ceiling were painted black, and after Esther had completed her underwater, forty-five second take, she couldn’t find the trapdoor in the ceiling. At first, the crew didn’t realize she was trapped underwater, but finally someone noticed and opened the door…she almost drowned on a movie set, surrounded by dozens of people.
It’s astounding to think about, especially when you hear how there are stunt and body doubles to do the smallest, simplest things in movies now. Filmmakers don’t mess around with valuable stars, but with Esther Williams everyone seemed to have had a “let’s see what happens!” attitude. There was also the problem that she was the only swimmer capable of most of the stunts, and that she was able to handle everything the studio threw at her…
Easy to Love (1953), another of my favorites, was set and filmed in Cypress Gardens, FL. Instead of being limited to the tank on the soundstage, MGM had the ocean to play with. So they told Esther she needed to learn to water ski because Busby Berkeley had a big finale in mind and had hired 68 champion water skiers. So she learned. And she is amazing at it:
But she did put her foot down on diving from a helicopter into the midst of dozens of water-skiers, and of skiing off a huge jump over a stage and into the water…because she was pregnant. A diver friend of Esther’s performed the dive, and another skier did the jump, but Esther did everything else…
She didn’t just swim/dive/waterski, either. She has a nice voice and sings in some of her movies. Esther, Ricardo Montalban, Betty Garrett, and Red Skelton sang “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in 1949’s Neptune’s Daughter, and the song won the Oscar for Best Original Song! I don’t know why it became a Christmas standard, but that’s for another post.
She looks great in the tailored 1940s and 1950s styles:
She dances well:
Oh, and she wears bathing suits quite nicely, too!
She’s sensational playing independent, confident, successful women. She’s often a swimming instructor/swimming star (it’s easy to justify big water ballets that way!)/swimming businesswoman/model/or performer of some kind. She’s less believable as a toreador (seriously, in Fiesta (1947)). But she’s delightful no matter how strained the plot may be.
I wrote my senior thesis in college on “sister comedies,” and one part of the paper was about how lots of classic movies are about two sisters, one independent and successful, the other immature and floundering. Well, Esther was in a lot of sister comedies, but she never played the latter.
When the studio system began to crumble, Esther realized she couldn’t go on making “Esther Williams’ movies.” But before she left MGM she did something pretty gracious: she knew that Grace Kelly was next-in-line for a “star” dressing room.
Without telling anyone why, Esther asked the studio if she could re-decorate her dressing room. The studio agreed, and Esther replaced her tired, beat-up red, white, and blue chintz with soft tones of sea foam and green, just perfect for a cool blonde.
After the room was finished, she announced her departure from the studio, and turned her dressing room, now decorated to suit Grace, over to Miss Kelly. Isn’t that lovely? Rather than leave new-star Grace at the mercy of MGM, established, powerful-star Esther made sure she had a beautiful new dressing room to move into!
Esther did a few more movies at other studios, but her era of aqua musicals was over. But life does not end when the movies stop! In the 1940s she had worked with a swimsuit company, Cole of California, to create a better bathing suit, and even convinced the Navy to order 50,000 to replace the sad cotton swimsuits that had been part of the uniform.
She played a swimsuit designer in Neptune’s Daughter, and she started a business in real life, too:
Esther Williams Swimwear still sells beautiful vintage-inspired suits, as well as aboveground pools.
Esther Williams did several extremely popular television specials, and she worked as a commentator in the 1984 Olympic synchronized swimming competition. She passed away at the age of 91 on June 6, 2013. The world lost a magnificent woman!
Well, if you’d like more, read her book. And watch this lovely overview of her career from That’s Entertainment, including a montage of some of her most spectacular spectaculars, and definitely check out The Million Dollar Mermaid and her films . If you’d have liked less, well…I just think she’s the greatest. For more on Esther, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, pinterest, Instagram at BlondeAtTheFilm, and Facebook!