Bathing Beauty (1944)
Although this wasn’t Esther Williams‘ first movie (she had small parts in Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942) and A Guy Named Joe (1943)), this was the first ESTHER WILLIAMS movie!
Originally this film was titled Mr. Co-ed and was intended to showcase the comic gifts of Red Skelton. But when MGM looked at the footage, they knew that Esther Williams was going to make a big splash (sorry, can’t help myself.) So they retitled the movie Bathing Beauty and switched the focus of their promotional photos and posters. You can see the original publicity photos taken before the name change:
Compare those to the poster, where Williams looms large and Skelton is just a disembodied head. The movie still showcases Skelton, and he’s got more screen time than Williams (sometimes it feels as though they just slotted some random Williams stuff in wherever they could). But what stuck out to critics and audiences was the beautiful swimmer and the glorious Technicolor water ballet.
Bosley Crowther, the long-time reviewer at The New York Times, wrote that audiences were “sprayed in brilliance by a water carnival,” for MGM “has put on another of its spectacular musical shows combining all the Technicolor of the rainbow and much of the talent on its lot.” Esther Williams “adorn[s] the title role,” and “hundreds of beautiful maidens make themselves conspicuous everywhere.”
He quibbles over the title, as it doesn’t really relate to the plot, but then magnanimously lets it go, stating: “…Miss Williams’ talents as a swimmer–not to mention her other attributes– make any title the studio wants to put on it okay by us. When she eels through the crystal blue water in a rosy-red bathing suit or splashes in limpid magnificence in the gaudy water carnival which John Murray Anderson has brought to pass, she’s a bathing beauty for our money…”
Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times deemed Williams “one of the finds of any year,” calling her a “pleasing personality in addition to being super-attractive.” Another review found the plot lacking but didn’t seem to mind: “There is no plot to the story, but the beautiful production scenes and the gorgeous gals make up for every bit of this.”
Yet another review called Williams “a siren of substance” who, “besides being a ravishing beauty and champion swimmer, reveals unexpected talent as a young actress.” The review closes with a description of the “multi-colored magnificence of the water carnival and ballet…with Miss Williams as its central figure, this mammoth conception presents a spectacle of beauty and imagination such as no screen ever before has approached.”
But before we get to that water carnival, we start with this charming disclaimer that’s a little odd, as the great majority of the movie takes place in New Jersey.
Then we’re poolside at a beautiful resort. Xavier Cugat‘s band is putting on an intricate performance for the lounging swimmers. Cugat, who was born in Spain but grew up in Cuba, also appears as himself in two other Esther Williams films, On an Island With You (1948) and Neptune’s Daughter (1949). He was a very popular bandleader who pops up in many MGM musicals in the 1940s, and he led the Waldorf-Astoria band in New York for sixteen years. That’s him in the light-colored suit. You can watch the opening scene here.
There was a huge Latin American craze in Hollywood in the 1940s with stars like Xavier Cugat and Carmen Miranda, films set in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, etc., and cartoon characters visiting our neighbors to the south. This “craze” reflected and influenced trends in music and fashion, but it wasn’t accidental.
The Latin American infusion in Hollywood films was an extension of the Good Neighbor Policy and part of a coordinated propaganda campaign during WWII led by a government office called the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA). This office worked with Hollywood to get “positive” depictions of Latin America into the movies. That might mean including Xavier Cugat, sending Jane Powell or Betty Grable south in movies like Holiday in Mexico (1946) or Down Argentine Way (1940), respectively, adding a musical number in Spanish or Portuguese, or starring a “Latin Lover” like Ricardo Montalban or Cesar Romero.
Or dressing Esther Williams in a matador-esque bathing suit cover-up.
Besides Bathing Beauty, some of Esther Williams’ other films show the influence of the Good Neighbor/Latin craze; for instance, in Neptune’s Daughter, she’s paired with Montalban who plays a South American polo player, and in Fiesta (1947) she’s cast as Montalban’s twin sister in Mexico!
Steve asks Carlos to really sing his heart out to Caroline (Esther Williams) as soon as she appears. Steve is a songwriter who has penned a special song, “Te Quiero Juste” or “Magic is the Moonlight” for Carlos to sing to Caroline.
While they wait for the elusive Caroline, Carlos sings to other bathing beauties. This movie thrills to show us reflections in the water, so get ready for that.
Caroline strides to the pool in her aforementioned pink and white cape. Carlos chases her down and sings his heart out, despite her efforts at attempts to elude him. You can watch Carlos serenade Caroline here.
In some scenes, like this one, it’s fairly obvious that Williams is not an experienced actress. She overdoes the widening of the eyes, flaring of the nostrils, and otherwise “busy” face to emote her embarrassment. But in other scenes she does quite well!
Carlos follows her to the diving board and gets a nice view:
When he finishes, she dives into the water, her natural habitat. Fun fact: Although Crowther mentioned Williams “eel[ing] through the crystal blue water in a rosy-red bathing suit,” I think he meant this scene. She doesn’t wear red in this movie.
Fun fact: “Magic is the Moonlight” became one of Williams’ first “signature songs” after she swam to it in this movie. She recalls in her autobiography that “Later, when I would enter nightclubs like Mocambo’s or Ciro’s, or the Stork Club in New York, the orchestra would stop what they were playing and begin the strains of magic is the moonlight” (The Million Dollar Mermaid 109).
The pool that was crowded just moments before is suddenly emptied to give Caroline space to splash and smile. The camera even dives beneath the surface with the pink mermaid:
Fun fact: Williams remembered asking the director, George Sidney, what he wanted her to do in the pool. He said that he knew nothing about swimming and told her to “Just do what you do, Esther” (110). When she’d performed in the Aquacade, everything had been choreographed and rehearsed, so she was nervous to just jump in and improvise. But she did, and it’s lovely!
After a pleasant interlude, she pops up by Steve for a kiss and a chat.
They’re in love and engaged, and they have cute conversations like this: Caroline says, “I have a surprise for you. I can cook!” to which Steve responds: “I have a surprise for you. I can’t eat…”
Then he goes in for another kiss, but she sinks beneath the water and Skelton the clown follows her, oblivious:
Red Skelton was a vaudeville, pantomime, film, TV, and radio entertainer, as well as a writer, composer, and painter. Bathing Beauty includes two of his most famous routines, the ballet class and “waking up” sketches, which we’ll get to later.
But back to Bathing Beauty. Fun fact: the “resort” scenes were shot at Lakeside Country Club in the San Fernando Valley. But they were filming in the middle of winter, so the club’s lawns were brown. But according to Williams’ autobiography, MGM spray-painted the grass green to make it look like summer!
The beautiful faux-green lawns looked great while they were filming, and “We left the Lakeside Country Club a prettier sight than when we arrived. However, no one told the club that the paint destroyed their lawns for the rest of the year. The studio had to send a crew to reseed acres of painted lawns” (The Million Dollar Mermaid 109).
Anyway, from their brief conversation we now know that Caroline and Steve are going to be married very soon, and that she sent a letter to the dean at Victoria College announcing her resignation as swim teacher. And Steve sent a telegram to the guy he writes songs for, announcing his retirement. He wants to focus on serious, important music, not boogie-woogie tunes.
Cut to that guy, George Adams (Basil Rathbone), who has tracked Steve to the resort to figure out why his top songwriter has fallen out of touch. George is a water pageant producer…think that will come in handy later?
Cugat tells George that Steve has fallen in love and spends all day at the pool, and George is incensed and confused! He declares that Steve “hates water!” to which Cugat answers: “Wait until you see what’s in it!”
Then Maria (Jacqueline Dalya), the charming woman in pink, arrives on the scene and accuses George of using her very ill.
Apparently they met before, and he promised to “make her a star.” Maria hasn’t heard from him since, and she’s furious.
But George is only interested in his star songwriter. He and Maria head to the pool, where they spy on Steve and Caroline, whose hair is miraculously dry and bouncy. George issues a threat as only Mr. Rathbone can, though in this case his villainy seems overblown.
He doesn’t even try to talk with Steve and come to some kind of agreement. Maybe Steve could keep working for him on a more limited basis after his marriage, or George could feature some of Steve’s serious music in his water pageants! It’s not life or death here.
Anyway, Maria and George hatch a plan, and poor Caroline and Steve’s wedding is interrupted just after they are pronounced man and wife. Maria pretends to be Steve’s wife, and brings three red-headed kids as proof.
Poor Steve has no idea what is happening, and Caroline doesn’t wait for an explanation. Those ginger boys are proof enough of Steve’s bigamy. She flies east to New Jersey to resume her post at Victoria College. Steve is heartbroken, but unfortunately for George, he decides to follow Caroline to New Jersey rather than throwing himself into writing George’s songs. Everybody loses.
Cut to Victoria College, a bucolic woman’s college where the gate man has strict orders to refuse men entrance, especially red-headed ones!
Steve has been thwarted in his attempt to see Caroline, so he retires to the nearby nightclub (so convenient!), where “George Adams presents Harry James and his Music Makers!” MGM stuck just about everybody they could in this movie. Steve and Harry James are buddies because Steve writes music for him. But even the grand tones of the brass can’t shake Steve’s melancholy.
But then he meets a sad lawyer (Donald Meek) who drunkenly reveals that Victoria College’s charter has a loophole that he has been hired to fix.
It seems that the charter actually allows men to attend the college…which is just the opportunity that Steve has been looking for! And so he decides to become “Mr. Co-Ed.”
The faculty meeting the next day is interrupted by the startling announcement that a man is asking to enroll. Caroline has a bad feeling about this.
She goes to deal with her husband, whom she calls a “Red-Headed Bluebeard.” She tells him that she has started annulment proceedings.
But he refuses to leave, and since he is legally allowed to become a student, she shows him to his room, a nasty underground storage space with plenty of comic opportunities. But I’m distracted by Caroline’s elegant valise.
Steve is thrilled just to be alone with Caroline, and he acts like it. He locks the door and maneuvers her into a corner as he pleads his case. But their chat is interrupted when Professor Evans (Bill Goodwin) who has a huge dog and a crush on Caroline, arrives to check on the new student. He’s attempting to break down the locked door when Caroline opens it, sending the professor careening into the room and his dog leaping at Steve.
Once all that is cleared up, our story resumes. The faculty is in a tizzy because Parents’ Weekend is in a few weeks, and if the parents arrive and find a man at this exclusive girls’ school, Victoria College will be ruined! So the faculty decide to use the demerits system to its full extent. If a student receives 100 demerits in her first two weeks, she will be expelled.
So the faculty agree to give Steve as many demerits as possible, and hope that he will be expelled long before the parents arrive.
But Steve is determined to win back Caroline, so he wears his freshman beanie and cleans his room and follows the rules. Unsurprisingly, his classmates are pretty excited to have a man around.
But they’re even more excited to have a jam session with their music teacher, Ethel Smith, a famous pop organist. She plays herself in this film, and seems to be wearing a statement necklace from J.Crew.
After one song, everyone gets their “Latin” instruments and joins in on “Tico, Tico.” Smith’s recording of this song reached no. 14 on the pop charts in 1944! You can watch the scene here. Ahh, it reminds me of my collegiate days.
Don’t worry, there are many more random musical interludes coming up.
Steve becomes a class favorite, entertaining the students with his “woman waking up” routine, in which he mimes a woman’s morning beauty rituals:
It’s a tamer version of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s “Sexy Getting Ready Song” 70-ish years earlier.
Then Steve accepts his music professor’s challenge to liven up a classical piece. With the help of fellow students, Harry James, Carlos Ramirez, singer Helen Forrest, and Ethel Smith, he blows his audience away. Seems a bit unfair to bring in the big guns like that for a school project, but MGM wanted to use its roster of talent! Caroline is not amused. You can watch it here.
Steve also continues to try to win Caroline back. But she’s not having it.
She even invites Professor Evans over to really spite Steve, who is hiding in a closet.
Steve eventually gets trapped in the closet when Caroline and the Professor go to the movies, leaving the dog standing guard at the closet door. Steve clowns around, even putting on Caroline’s clothes to trick the dog. He’s desperate to get back to his room by curfew! He eventually escapes by removing the hinge pins on the door and using it to trap the dog inside while he gets away.
Fun fact: Skelton remembered that this scene almost got cut because “they had written themselves into a corner” and could not think of a way for Steve to escape the dog and the house. They were about to scrap the whole scene when Buster Keaton visited the set. He apparently “took one look and told them how to do it.”
When Steve returns to his room in Caroline’s clothes, George Adams is waiting. He wants his songs!
Steve tells him he doesn’t have time to write the songs because he has so much homework, so George agrees to do the work for him.
Then Steve calls Cugat, but he’s busy performing. But fortunately for us, the guy on the other end asks Steve if he’d like to listen. He puts the phone down backstage so that we have an excuse to watch another Cugat performance!
It’s one of the silliest, most contrived musical number excuses I can think of, so I love it.
The silhouettes are replaced by an exuberant, bright number showcasing MGM and Cugat’s troupe.
Fun fact: the color scheme of this number is a great example of mid-40s Technicolor color design! That deep cornflower, slightly grey blue, the pops of emerald, yellow, red and bright white show up all over the place in films from this era. Observe:
Anyway, After Steve “listens” to the number, it’s back to college!
When the faculty next meet to discuss their Steve problem, they are very disappointed to learn that he is doing great in all of his classes, and he has not gotten enough demerits for expulsion! Horrors!
But there is still hope, as Steve has not yet been to Madame Zarka’s Eurhythmics class! We watch the girls in tutus dance and prance, then Steve arrives…Skelton’s gift for physical comedy sees him taking some spectacular falls. Plus, Madame Zarka keeps slapping him and stretching him. It’s almost cruel!
Fun fact: Skelton had to shave his chest and underarms for this scene, and he wasn’t happy about it.
After the early falls, he seems to be doing okay until he gets a candy wrapper stuck to his shoe. The sticky wrapper gets transferred from his shoe to his hand to a classmate’s hand and on and on until every ballerina has struggled with the wrapper and passed it to her neighbor between twirls and arabesques.
The wrapper finally makes its way back to Steve, who throws out his hand in a final flourish and accidentally smacks Caroline in the face with the crinkled wrapper. She’s furious. Fun fact: this ballet scene would become one of Skelton’s most famous film moments. It was even included as a flashback in his film The Clown (1953).
The whole matter of demerits drops out of sight now, though surely they could have made it work if they’d really tried. Caroline and the dean get together for some indoor s’mores, as most deans and their faculty do. The dean, who knows about Caroline’s marriage, suggests that maybe she could take Steve somewhere and bring him back to the college past curfew so that they could expel him for that. They haven’t much time–parents are arriving soon!
Caroline reluctantly agrees. Anything for Victoria College! So she and Steve go to the nightclub where she pretends to be softening towards him. I love her pink and green sequined-stripe gown, huge emerald earrings, and matching green purse.
Fun fact: In her autobiography, Williams writes that she was wearing this same dress at a fundraising event (studios often loaned costumes to its stars for public events) when she met her future husband, Ben Gage! (114)
The trouble is, Caroline actually does start to soften towards Steve! She remembers why she married him in the first place, and (although it’s not really resolved) seems to forget about his other “wife,” Maria.
They cuddle together on the drive back to the college, and they talk about starting their honeymoon immediately. He sneaks back on campus to pack his things, and then they’ll be off!
But–you knew some comic conflicts must arise!–when Steve gets back to his room, he finds some college girls there intent on pranking him as initiation in some order.
Then Carlos Ramirez arrives to tell Steve that he saw his “wife” Maria back at the club, and then George Adams and Maria arrive, with George attempting to stop her from telling Steve about his part in the whole scheme!
It’s a mess, especially when Caroline shows up to help him pack/start the honeymoon romance. She’s completely and somewhat inexplicably changed her tune, but in a movie like this we can’t get too hung up on logic or narrative coherence.
Meanwhile, the girls and Carlos are hiding in one closet and George and Maria are in the other one. Yet another girl shows up to warn them that her parents are on their way to Steve’s room with the dean. They heard that a man was enrolled and wanted to see for themselves.
Quick side note: look at the chalkboard illustration on the wall to the right of the window! It’s Caroline in the blue and red outfit with hearts and initials!
Despite all the chaos, it seems that they might get away with it. The girl hides in the bed canopy and Steve goes under the bed. But Caroline rushes into the closet where Maria and George are hiding. Oh, dear. This farce explodes in confusion and a four-person bicycle.
It seems that Steve has lost Caroline yet again, and this time she loses her job, too. Next thing we know, Steve is in George’s office with this ultimatum: “If you’ll star Caroline in your water pageant, I’ll see that you get the songs for your opening.” George must be desperate for the music, because he agrees even though he’s never seen Caroline swim!
He does ask an important question, which Steve repeats incredulously before looking straight at the camera with his answer:
Even though this was the first big Esther Williams movie, MGM is assuming that the audience has already accepted Miss Williams as the perfect movie mermaid, and Skelton is letting them in on the joke.
Anyway, soon we are backstage at the water pageant. As everyone runs around in their costumes, Maria explains the whole situation to Caroline, who quickly reconciles with Steve and tells him that George was the evil mastermind.
And then it’s water ballet/carnival/pageant time! Both Harry James and Xavier Cugat are there with their orchestras, separated by pink-clad dancers.
The women dance on the giant white steps built on Soundstage 30, the new home of a $250,000 (in 1943 money!) tank that was ninety by ninety feet, and 25 feet deep, equipped with fountains, fireworks, and a pedestal on a hydraulic lift. Fun fact: this was the first number and movie to use the new pool which was built specially for Esther Williams’ swimming musicals.
Ladies line up at the pool and open their pink jackets in unison to show the green lining:
Then it’s time for the “tiller” dive, so named because it looks like the tilling disc on a plow. The pink and green suits make for a nice effect. The costumes were designed by Irene, but the “water ballet costumes” were designed by Irene Sharaff.
Then it’s synchronized swimming time for the swimmers, though the dancers continue rocking out along the edge of the pool. Fun fact: this water ballet was designed and produced by John Murray Anderson, who was the choreographer for the Billy Rose Aquacade in San Francisco where Williams starred with Johnny Weissmuller!
Fun fact: in order to fill these huge musical numbers, MGM taught a bunch of dancers to swim, after realizing that it was easier to teach dancers to swim than to teach swimmers to dance!
Another fun fact: You see those pillars all around the edge of the water? According to The Million Dollar Mermaid, the pillars were added to the set to help the swimmers stay in sync and camouflage any mistakes when they swam in that big line across the pool (top left image): “When it proved too difficult to get all those arms to hit the water at precisely the same time, George [Sidney] ordered pillars installed at regular intervals along the side of the pool. This gave the swimmer a series of marks to hit, and as the camera panned, it didn’t matter if one of the girls was a little off, because the pillar interrupted the visual sequence and it could be corrected in the editing room.” (112). Clever!
But where is Caroline? She rises on a seahorse lift wearing a toga. Scarily tall women in scarily Victorian outfits approach to help her disrobe. Somehow, Williams was always removing something just before she goes swimming, whether it’s a matador capelet, a toga, a belt, or even an entire outfit!
Other color-coordinated pairs emerge from nowhere until Caroline is ready to dive in:
Fun fact: when they filmed this water ballet, Williams had pneumonia and a 102 degree fever. But in she went! Another fun fact: see what I mean about the color design? This whole world is painted with yellow, white, pink, black, and dusky blue!
Although it’s lovely, the choreography seems much simpler and less sophisticated than in later films. But that makes sense, since this was the first one! They were making it up as they went; nobody had ever done this before!
Fun fact: Williams recalls that the crew, makeup people, hair people, and costume designers were often excited to work on her movies because it was a unique challenge and they got to play with and invent new equipment and techniques.
Fun fact: According to Life magazine, which did a spread on Bathing Beauty, a special, extra-mobile crane that could move the camera vertically and horizontally at the same time was used during this sequence, and the camera actually went underwater encased in an “aquachamber” that resembled a phone booth.
There is some pretty stuff with water lilies:
Including a Busby Berkeley-esque overhead shot:
Here they are capturing this moment:
And then some more fancy swimming:
And then some more:
Williams later wrote that they spent ten weeks rehearsing the swimming finale. I wonder how many swimmers got kicked in the face, especially during those underwater pinwheels! Here they are behind-the-scenes:
After all that swimming craziness, it’s time to play with the special equipment installed in the pool! So Caroline swims around, and fountains magically shoot into the air as she flicks her wrist!
When she swims by a second time, they burst into flames! Williams wrote that “The engineering department adored me because they got to play with all this innovative equipment. Never had plumbing been put to a more glamorous use.” (113)
For a big ending, Caroline rises on the lift surrounded by swimmers and flaming fountains as the camera pulls back and back to see the “audience.”
It’s absolutely absurd. You can watch the water spectacular here.
But it’s not over yet. Steve chases George to the edge of the pool, and both men jump into the water. Then Steve remembers that he can’t swim! But Caroline is there to save him, kiss him, and then get pulled under, too! It’s happily ever after.
When the movie premiered at the Astor Theater in New York City, a six-story tall billboard was erected to publicize the film:
You can see how the movie suddenly became less about Mr. Co-ed and a lot more about a certain bathing beauty!
Skelton and Williams worked together in Neptune’s Daughter and Texas Carnival (1951), though not as a romantic couple. Williams falls for Ricardo Montalban and Howard Keel, while Skelton is interested in Betty Garrett and then Ann Miller, respectively.
Although it’s easy in our terribly sophisticated present to dismiss this kind of film as a fluffy, old-fashioned movie, audiences flocked to see it. It did wonderfully at the box office and became MGM’s third-highest grossing film, at the time, behind Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) and Gone with the Wind (1939).
MGM saw the numbers and promptly gave Williams a star dressing room as production rolled into gear on Thrill of a Romance. Here’s the trailer–enjoy! For more, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, pinterest, and Facebook, and Instagram.