Easy to Wed (1946)
In 1936, Spencer Tracy, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, and William Powell starred in a hit film called Libeled Lady. Hollywood has never been shy about exploiting past successes, so ten years later, MGM re-made the picture with Keenan Wynn, Esther Williams, Lucille Ball, and Van Johnson.
The basic plot is the same, though MGM added the obligatory swimming scenes, a few musical numbers, brilliant Technicolor, and a new name.
And voila! Libeled Lady was reborn as Easy to Wed. (I’m not going to compare the two versions except to say that Libeled Lady is a typical 1930s sharp comedy, and Easy to Wed is a typical 1940s musical stuffed with contract players and the added water stuff for Esther Williams. So quite different.)
When this film was made, Esther Williams and Van Johnson were some of the most popular stars in the country. They had just starred together in Thrill of a Romance (1945), and they would go on to make two more films together after this one, Duchess of Idaho (1950) and the similarly titled Easy to Love (1953).
MGM knew a successful formula when they saw one, so they paired their two All-American stars whenever they could. All told, Johnson and Williams were in five films together, though only four as the leads. (Williams had a tiny role in her first film with Johnson, 1943’s A Guy Named Joe.)
Williams and Johnson were the headlining stars, but Lucille Ball steals the picture. She would later call this film the highlight of her movie career, mostly because she was finally given a good part. This was pre-Television Lucy, and she’d been languishing in small movie roles that didn’t take advantage of her enormous talent.
Ball had been “Queen of the Bs” at RKO (B-movies were made at lower budgets to fill out the second half of a double feature), but at MGM she had been shunted into mostly small, sidekick-type roles since going under contract to that studio in 1943. Easy to Wed offered a much bigger, juicier part, plus, it was directed by Edward Buzzell, with whom Ball had worked before.
Buzzell had directed her in Best Foot Forward (1943), and he lobbied for her casting in Easy to Wed. The Johnson-Williams, Ball-Buzzell reunions weren’t the only ones on this film; in fact, the whole movie is an incestuous mass of buddies.
For example, Ball and Johnson already knew each other. He had been in “Too Many Girls” on Broadway with Ball’s future husband Desi Arnaz, and both men had been in RKO’s film version in 1940, which happened to star Lucille Ball. It was while filming Too Many Girls that Arnaz first met Ball, and they eloped that same year. Johnson remained a close friend of the couple.
Ball knew Keenan Wynn, too, from their work on Without Love (1945), and she’d also worked with dance director Jack Donohue on Best Foot Forward. With so many old friends running around, the production of this movie took on a lighthearted tone. For instance, according to TCM, Ball showed up to the first dance rehearsal in a wheelchair with her teeth blacked out and her arm in a sling. She had a sign that read “I am not working for Donohue.” But fortunately she was kidding. Donohue would later direct episodes of The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy in the 1960s-70s.
Now for the last tangled web. Johnson and Wynn were very good friends, and their friendship somewhat amazingly continued through a very tricky situation: Wynn’s wife divorced him to marry Johnson just a few months after this movie premiered. Johnson and Eve Wynn were married on January 25, 1947, just one day after her divorce from Keenan became official.
After Johnson died in 2008, Eve began talking about their marriage and claimed it was all arranged by MGM to quell rumors that Johnson was gay. Apparently, Johnson’s sexuality was an open secret in Hollywood, but MGM was afraid it would get out to the general public. So they asked him to get married, and he said he would only marry Eve Wynn. And it went from there. This movie seems awfully prescient, because Johnson’s character marries Wynn’s fiancée, with his blessing!
To the film! We open outside of The Morning Star newspaper offices where men frantically try to collect every copy of the morning edition. A story was printed that may not have been entirely accurate, and the editor is terrified of a libel suit. Before we go on, let’s get a definition: libel is “a false written or published statement that defames a person or damages his reputation.” Slander, on the other hand, is a false, damaging statement that is spoken as opposed to written. This is all about a newspaper story, so we are dealing with libel.
The story that the paper is so desperate to retract concerns one of the richest women in the world, Connie Allenbury (Esther Williams). The Morning Star claimed that she had been involved in a fight over another woman’s husband at a party. The paper realized quickly after printing the story that it wasn’t actually true, and they’re hoping to retrieve every copy before Miss Allenbury finds out. She is a very litigious young woman, and has sued for libel before.
All but forty copies of the libelous newspaper are collected, and Mr. Farwood (Paul Harvey) the head of the paper, thinks they might just get away with it. But then he gets a phone call from J.B. Allenbury (Cecil Kellaway), Connie’s father. Oh, dear.
Somehow, the Allenburys heard about the story and are calmly, classily furious. They’re currently vacationing in Mexico City, but they don’t let that stop them from filing a two million dollar libel suit against The Morning Star. Two million roughly translates to 26 million in 2015 dollars, so the Allenburys definitely aren’t messing around. We later learn that Connie has a personal fortune of fifty million, so two is a mere pittance.
Here is Williams getting a quick wardrobe fix between takes of this scene:
Mr. Farwood knows that if The Morning Star loses the suit, the paper will fold. And the story is clearly libel; Connie wasn’t even at the party mentioned in the article! Since The Morning Star can’t beat the lawsuit in court, he needs to save the paper another way. Mr. Farwood calls in his best editor, Warren Haggerty (Keenan Wynn), for a emergency meeting.
And Warren comes running, despite the fact that it is his wedding day, and he has already left his bride, Gladys, at the altar a few times before this! He seems excited to have an excuse not to go through with the wedding, actually. But his bride is not. Gladys (Lucille Ball) is absolutely incensed and storms into his office like a cyclone in a wedding dress.
Warren has no time for his jilted bride, and has Gladys forcibly removed from the premises. He’s not the most considerate guy ever, though he sure is a devoted employee of the paper. You can watch the scene here.
Fun fact: MGM pumped out the usual publicity photos for this film, including one of Johnson with Williams and Ball in wedding dresses. Ball is in the gown from this scene, but Williams (who doesn’t wear a wedding dress in this film) is clad in the gown she wore in Thrill of a Romance (1945):
Here is that gown and Ball’s dress from this film. Note the gorgeous silver detail on Ball’s bodice:
Anyway, now that his yelling fiancée is out of the picture, Warren turns his attention to saving the paper. He gets the brilliant idea of entrapping Connie Allenbury in the same type of situation recounted in the libelous story. He wants to “throw a man at her,” get her involved, and then reveal that the man is married. If he can catch her stealing someone’s husband, then he’s sure she’ll drop the libel suit to avoid the publicity. And the wife would have grounds to sue Connie for “alienation of affection!” This kind of makes sense.
Warren remembers a reporter named Bill Chandler who specialized in this kind of scheme (what an odd thing to make your life’s work.) Warren goes searching for Bill, who has bounced around the country since leaving The Morning Star, but, as luck would have it, just returned to New York! Warren heads to the swanky hotel where Bill is currently living. Warren makes the not unreasonable assumption that Bill must be doing pretty well for himself if he can afford to live there.
But we learn the truth in one of those handy close-ups of an explanatory letter.
Warren and Bill chat, and Bill agrees to help trick Connie into stealing a husband (him), but for a very hefty fee of $50,000. Warren agrees before realizing that Bill is broke and he could have gotten him for much, much less. But too late–the contract is signed! (Bill took the liberty of writing up the contract before Warren ever arrived. He’s a sharp guy, and he knew the paper was in trouble when he saw the Connie Allenbury story only in The Morning Star and only in its morning edition.)
Now that there is a “husband,” Warren has to find a “wife.” He volunteers his long suffering fiancée, and he and Bill go see her at her show, which gives MGM an excuse to include a musical number:
You can watch it here. You may recognize the pink dresses on the back-up dancers from Easter Parade (1948) or from Judy Garland‘s dressing room (on the rack) in Summer Stock (1950), but they were used in this film first.
Anyway, at first Gladys refuses to marry Bill, as one might expect. But when Warren promises that the marriage won’t be real (he’ll keep the justice of the peace from signing the marriage certificate), and that Gladys won’t have to do anything “wifely” with Bill, she agrees. She loves Warren very much, apparently.
So Gladys puts on her smartest white and dusky blue suit, accessorized with her snappiest powder puff with pearl hatpin, and they head off to see a justice of the peace.
The ceremony is quick and unemotional, if you don’t count fiery Gladys’ disdain for the whole thing. She wants to marry Warren, but here she is getting hitched to this guy she just met!
Once pronounced “man and wife,” Gladys gives Bill a quick peck, but reserves her long smooch for Warren. This confuses the dear old magistrate, but Bill laughs it off.
Remember how Warren promised that the wedding wouldn’t be official? Well, he lied. Rather than keep the justice of the peace from signing the certificate, he makes sure the old man signs it. Warren couldn’t afford to have the scam fall apart on a technicality! So Gladys and Bill are legally married. And Gladys has yet another reason to be furious.
We leave Gladys and Warren and follow Bill down south to Mexico City where he can ensnare Miss Allenbury. I love this brief scene in the airplane. Glamorous midcentury air travel! And open overhead bins?
That’s Ben Blue beside Van Johnson. Blue plays Spike Dolan, Warren’ assistant, who is assigned to photograph Connie and Bill in compromising positions as proof of the affair. Blue was a character actor who appeared in small, comedic roles in many films and TV programs from the late 1920s-1970s.
The pair arrive in Mexico City and head for the pool. Fun fact: According to IMDB, Fidel Castro, yes, that Fidel Castro, appears in this pool scene on the left side of the screen. I think it’s the guy in the brown and dark red outfit, but I can’t be sure. Apparently Castro was an extra at MGM very briefly? I can’t find great verification on this, but it’s too weird not to mention.
Also, it looks like MGM reused the painted backdrop from the hotel scenes in Thrill of a Romance. They changed the umbrellas, though.
Anyway, Bill makes his way to the pool where he gets his first, spectacular glimpse of Connie Allenbury in a tangerine bathing suit poised at the top of an immense slide.
The other time we saw Connie she was in a bathing suit, too, which got me thinking. Esther Williams almost always appears in a bathing suit in her first moments onscreen. This is true of Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942), Bathing Beauty (1944), Thrill of a Romance (1945), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), On an Island With You (1948), Neptune’s Daughter (1949), Duchess of Idaho (1950), Texas Carnival (1951), Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), Dangerous When Wet (1953), and Easy to Love (1953). It’s not true of A Guy Named Joe (1943) or Skirts Ahoy! (1952), though. Dissertation topic! Not really.
Back to Easy to Wed. Connie zooms down the slide and into the pool.
She swims a few strokes, very prettily, and then climbs out and puts on her smartly monogrammed robe. That’s when Spike goes into action. He sneaks up and takes a picture of her, and she protests at this invasion of privacy. But he refuses to give her the film, and otherwise behaves very rudely. But guess who comes to Connie’s rescue? Big, strong, handsome Bill Chandler, of course! (Though Connie could have taken skinny Spike very easily, I imagine.)
Bill throws the exposed plate into the pool, which earns him this look and an invitation to cocktails that evening. You can watch the scene here. I need a robe like that!
I am a little obsessed with the 1940s fashion for enormous monograms:
Anyway, Bill thinks he’s in with Miss Allenbury. He gets all fancy in his white dinner jacket and meets Connie and her father in the hotel bar for drinks. He turns on his charm, but Connie seems incredibly uninterested in her “hero.” In fact, she’s downright cold. She thanks him for his help that afternoon, but otherwise basically ignores him, and makes some snide comments about the kind of people one meets in hotels. I love it when Esther Williams is arch and snappy.
Bill makes no progress with his “mark” before J.B. and Connie say goodbye and head to dinner. But they are waylaid on their way out of the bar by the Norvells, a mother (Josephine Whittell) and daughter (June Lockhart) who ask the Allenburys to dine with them.
Bill knows that Connie can’t stand the Norvells, so he swoops in with a fabricated dinner date of his own, skillfully forcing the Allenburys to dine with him while simultaneously rescuing them from the boring Norvells.
Fun fact: You may recognize Miss Norvell from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), when she played another boring character (Judy Garland’s brother’s girlfriend.) June Lockhart went on to have a long career in TV on series like Lassie and Lost in Space.
J.B. Allenbury enjoys dinner with Bill, mostly because Bill pretends to be an avid duck hunter. Bill did some research and learned that J.B.’s passion in life is duck hunting. But Connie is suspicious of this young man. She’s dealt with her share of fortune hunters and otherwise sleazy men, and she’s wary of this smooth talker.
Bill tries his best, but even a romantic dance with a personal serenade by Carlos Ramirez doesn’t thaw Connie. Fun fact: Carlos Ramirez (in the chartreuse jacket) was a Colombian baritone. He plays himself in this film, just as he did in Bathing Beauty.
Let’s talk for a moment about this film’s setting in Mexico City and the presence of Mr. Ramirez. 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 could mean including Xavier Cugat, sending Jane Powell, Betty Grable or Esther Williams south in movies like Nancy Goes to Rio (1950), Down Argentine Way (1940), or Romance on the High Seas (1948) and Easy to Wed, respectively. Often films include a musical number in Spanish or Portuguese, or star a “Latin Lover” like Ricardo Montalban or Cesar Romero.
Besides Easy to Wed and 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.
Costume appreciation break. Connie is clad in a pale pink, uber-1940s frock with gorgeous draping and curves, a fan shaped brooch, and a gold and silver fringed fan-shaped purse. Irene designed the women’s costumes, and Valles took charge of the men’s. Irene designed the costumes in several other Esther Williams films, including Bathing Beauty, Thrill of a Romance, and Neptune’s Daughter.
Fun fact: The dog in the behind-the-scenes pic was Esther Williams’ cocker spaniel Angie. According to her autobiography, Angie came to work with Williams every day while making this movie, and she never ruined a shot!
Another fun fact: Williams modeled several of her costumes, including the pink evening gown, for a feature in Screenland magazine.
The evening ends, and Bill has struck out. Connie is definitely not entranced, and she actually seems to dislike him intensely. His task will not be as easy as he thought.
The next day, Bill puts on his best sombrero and bejeweled breeches and “accidentally” runs into Connie on her daily ride. She’s cold, as usual.
Bill tells her that the Norvells trapped him into dining with them that evening, and that he’s also hosting cocktails before dinner in his suite.
He wants to get out of it, so he asks Connie if she would come by his room and interrupt the cocktail hour with a made-up excuse to get him out of dinner. (What is so terrible about the Norvells?)
She agrees, and Bill gets to work. He hasn’t really invited the Norvells, of course. His plan is as follows: when Connie arrives at the appointed time, Bill will welcome her into his empty suite, and then Spike will jump out and take the incriminating photographs that Warren needs to fight the libel suit. He’s a class act, this Bill Chandler.
But Connie is no dummy. She turns the tables on Bill by inviting the Norvells to his suite. He gets a nasty shock when he opens the door! Connie 1, Bill 0.
After dinner, Bill finds Connie alone on the terrace. Instead of his smarmy Don Juan act, this time he is blunt and a little mean. He tells her that he has heard about the $2 million libel suit, and asks who the hell she thinks she is? What has she ever done to earn such a valuable reputation? It’s been implied that The Morning Star published the libelous story partly because it seemed like something that Connie would do. They were wrong that time, but we get the sense that Connie isn’t always so prim and proper.
Connie is highly insulted, but she’s also suddenly more interested. She distrusts fawning adoration, but she’s intrigued by Bill’s honest cruelty.
Costume appreciation break. This short sleeve, straight gown is deceptively simple, but notice the color blocking, peplum skirt, and beaded detail.
Bill returns to New York and meets with Warren and Gladys. Warren is furious that Bill didn’t close the deal, and he orders Bill to stay in Gladys’ apartment to keep up the marriage charade. This makes Gladys furious, and she starts to doubt Warren’s love for her. How can he so casually order another man to spend the night in her apartment!
Ball wears the most spectacular costumes in this film. This acid green number with shiny trousers is amazing, and Gladys knows it. She struts and poses around the apartment with her cigarette in a classy holder.
Anyway, Bill takes the sofa in the living room and Gladys locks herself into her bedroom. She’s oddly afraid that Bill will bust into her room at some point, but of course he doesn’t. He sleeps on the couch like a good platonic guest.
His restraint stuns Gladys, especially when she learns that Bill could have unlocked the door at any point, since the key to the front door also unlocks the bedroom door! She discovers this interesting fact the next morning when a duck call expert arrives to give Bill lessons. She and Bill need to keep up appearances of being married, and obvious signs of couch sleeping aren’t great. Gladys has lost her key, but Bill grabs the one from the front door, unlocks the bedroom, and hides his blankets and pillows inside.
Then a weird thing happens. The realization that Bill could have gotten into her bedroom but didn’t makes Gladys soften towards him. It’s strange, right? She basically starts to fall for Bill just because he didn’t rape her! Perhaps she hasn’t dealt with many nice men…
Gladys trades her diaphanous nightgown with its frankly silly “robe” (the blue lace frontless jacket) for a stunning suit of deep blue velvet and gold…
…and joins her husband for his duck call lesson. It’s a throwaway scene plotwise, but turns into a showcase of Ball’s comedic talents. She steals every scene she is in, and really gets going in this one.
You can watch the scene here:
Then Bill goes to the Allenbury’s Canadian lodge to join J.B. in some duck hunting. Connie is there, too, which surprises her father. She seems to dislike Bill, and yet she opted to spend the weekend at the lodge. Interesting…
Bill arrives with his brand new “togs” and shiny ignorance, and tries to feign competency. But even the dogs are doubtful.
Connie and her father leave Bill with the spaniel and a tiny boat. And so begins a seven-minute-sequence of Bill’s disastrous, slapstick attempts at duck hunting. In Libeled Lady William Powell had a similarly unsuccessful sequence of fly fishing, which you can watch here.
Variety‘s review of this movie noted that the dog’s performance in this scene was especially delightful: “Overshadowing even [Ball and Wynn], however, for laughs, is a Springer Spaniel, whose antics are a revelation in animal expression…” It’s a funny scene, but it goes on a little long for me. Variety agreed, adding that some of the scenes dragged, and the “Boat scenes with Johnson and dog, despite mirthful actions of pup, particularly should be sheared…”
The sequence ends with Bill somewhat miraculously shooting a duck as he flails about in his sinking boat. When Connie sees the dead duck, her remaining doubts about him are washed away. (So Gladys became smitten with Bill when he didn’t force himself into her bedroom, and Connie falls for him because he shoots a duck? What is happening with these women?)
Bill and Connie spend the evening together, and things get amorous. But first they shoot marbles.
Connie wants to show Bill that she’s not the cold, spoiled heiress he knew in Mexico; she’s really just a regular gal! Her casual outfit and sudden interest in a child’s game makes this point clear.
They chat a while, and then Connie serenades Bill to the song that Carlos Ramirez sang back in Mexico City the first time they danced together. It’s “Acércate Más” or “Come Closer to Me.”
Williams remembered in her autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, that she was quite apprehensive about singing this song, and about singing in general. After all, Williams was a champion swimmer, not a trained performer, so she was doubtful she would ever be able to perform to MGM’s standard.
But, like all MGM starlets, she’d been taking singing, dancing, diction, and other lessons ever since going under contract to the studio. MGM was the ultimate makeover and movie school, and they put their actors through rigorous training to eke out every drop of talent.
Debbie Reynolds went through the same process at MGM, and described how “You never stopped studying. Ballet, tap, modern dance. Placing the voice properly; how to sing; how to walk and move; how to model, how to hold your hands, how to hold your head, knowing the angle right for the camera; how to do makeup, how to do hair… Anytime you walked on the lot, there was activity, and often music… If you didn’t like it, you had to be bananas. If you didn’t learn from it, you had to be a moron” (quoted in Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman).
Williams’ singing teacher at MGM, Harriet Lee, told her that “No one expects you to be another Judy Garland. Just feel comfortable with your song, whatever the lyrics may convey. Think of it as an acting scene with dialogue.” So Williams worked on her singing, but she was overwhelmed when she was assigned “Acércate Más.”
She recalled later, “When I was asked to sing ‘Acércate Más’ in Spanish to Van Johnson in Easy to Wed, I went to Harriet with misgivings not only about singing, but about ‘an acting scene with dialogue’ and not even in a language that I understood. ‘How am I supposed to sing this song? It’s in Spanish!’ Harriet’s answer was simple and sensible, MGM sensible: ‘If they want you to sing in Spanish, you sing in Spanish.'”
So she did! And she does a great job for a novice singer. She tackles a Portuguese song later in the movie, and MGM assigned her more songs in her future films. Her rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in Neptune’s Daughter (1949) won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. You can watch it here.
Anyway, Bill is having such a pleasant time with Connie that he almost forgets why he is there. But he remembers at the strike of twelve, like Cinderella, that there is a plan rolling along in the background. Gladys, Warren, and Spike are on their way to the lodge to catch Connie in the act of “husband-stealing.”
But Bill is falling for Connie and doesn’t want to spring the trap just yet. So he ends his evening with Connie rather abruptly and sneaks outside to catch Warren’s car before it reaches the estate. He lies to Warren, telling him that Connie isn’t there. Warren turns the car around, but he’s not happy about it. In fact, Warren is in a perpetual state of aggravation throughout the entire film.
Fun fact: at some point during filming, Johnson and Williams headed to the soundstage where Judy Garland was filming The Harvey Girls (1946). I love this picture, staged as it probably was:
The weekend ends and Bill returns to his marital home where he and Warren have yet another argument. Warren is getting suspicious of Bill; he finds it hard to believe that the expert womanizer isn’t having any success.
Warren eventually storms out, and Bill sees an opening. He’s going to turn Gladys against Warren to buy himself some time.
He recognizes Glady’s growing tenderness towards him, so he exploits it. (We like Bill, but he does some nasty things in this movie! He’s a professional cad, basically, and he lies to everyone all the time.)
Bill tells Gladys that he can’t believe that Warren is willing to drag her name through the mud just to save his paper. After all, if Connie is caught, Gladys will have to appear in court and her reputation will take a beating. Gladys agreed to the scheme partly for the publicity it would bring to her show, but she hadn’t thought of the damage it might do. Bill presses his advantage by asking her loftily if Bernhardt would do such a thing? Of course not, but Gladys doesn’t see herself in that league.
So Bill goes to work convincing Gladys that she is a grand, serious actress of immense talent, and really shouldn’t be messing around with such skeevy plots.
Bill praises and adores Gladys, while undermining Warren at every turn. The scene gives Ball some wonderful moments:
While they guzzle a magnum of champagne, Bill tells Gladys that she ought to be doing Shakespeare; she’d make a wonderful Ophelia! But tipsy Gladys tells him that she wants to play Hamlet because she is “terrific in tights.”
Gladys is now drunkenly head over heels for Bill, and she’s not shy about it. After all, they are married! But he escapes her embrace at the last moment.
You can watch this terrific scene here. You can see why America fell in love with Lucille Ball.
Costume appreciation break. I love the brooch at her hip. And the fact that wearing an elaborate, flowing negligee with matching hair ornaments was totally normal.
Gladys is firmly under Bill’s spell, so he turns his attention to Connie. He visits her estate and joins her in the pool.
Fun fact: this scene was filmed at what was later renamed the “Esther Williams Pool” at MGM, but it was originally built in 1935. You may recognize it from Katharine Hepburn‘s swan dive in The Philadelphia Story (1940), or any number of other films. You can learn more about the backlot in this great book, MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot.
Oddly enough, Connie’s pool is surrounded by the same yellow fringed umbrellas as the hotel in Mexico City…
Anyway, Connie and Bill have a heart to heart in the pool, which eventually leads to Bill asking Connie to drop the suit.
He tells her that he doesn’t want her to have to go through the nasty publicity of the trial. She protests that it is her fight, so he tells her that he wants to begin their life together without such an unpleasant obstacle.
And he persuades her. This new Connie is more compassionate and less uptight than the one he met in Mexico City, and she wants to let go of all the old annoyances, too.
How gorgeous is Esther Williams? The black suit against the green water is excellent, and of course MGM’s mermaid never looks less than marvelous. You can read about the various makeup and hair techniques MGM devised for Williams’ swimming scenes here.
The Technicolor design of this film is stunning and bright, which is fairly typical for the period. Black, dusky blue, yellow, hot pink, and chartreuse are everywhere in musicals of this era.
Anyway, Bill is sitting in the raft fully dressed, so obviously he’s going to get dunked. Connie sneakily removes the raft’s plug and Bill is plunged into the pool.
But he’s not mad, because he gets to kiss Connie underwater.
You can watch the scene here.
Bill doesn’t tell Warren that Connie is dropping the suit (which you’d think would be his first move), so Warren comes by the Allenbury estate to talk with Connie himself. He has lost faith in his very expensive, but so far ineffective, womanizer.
Connie listens to his pleas and seems to enjoy playing with him. She doesn’t tell him that she has already decided to drop the suit, but instead says that she will increase the amount of the suit and then use the money to set up a fund for the 200 employees who will be out of work when the paper closes! Warren is sweating.
But then Bill arrives for dinner. All this time, Bill has been telling Warren that Connie won’t see him, but now Warren knows the truth. Bill has been romancing Connie behind Warren’s back and on the newspaper’s dime!
As usual, Warren is furious. But he doesn’t blow Bill’s cover. Not yet, at least.
Costume appreciation break. Connie’s dress in this scene is one of my favorites. The diagonal sequin stripes are gorgeous, and Williams wears the straight-skirted 1940s styles so well.
Warren hurries off and sets his own plan into action. He tells Gladys that Bill has been “two-timing” her all along (never mind that the marriage was “fake.”) She is furious and upset, and Warren knows she will head right over to the Allenbury household and cause a scene.
Gladys changes out of her white house dress and into a black-and-white fur number, perfect for a scorned wife. But Bill calls just as she is leaving. He was smart enough to get out of the Allenbury house immediately, knowing that Warren would send Gladys and Spike to catch him. Now he needs to get Gladys back on his side, so he works his magic.
I know I’ve done a bunch of costume appreciation breaks already, but I can’t help myself. Gladys’ costumes in this film are really fun because she is such a flamboyant clotheshorse.
Bill convinces Gladys that he is only pretending with Connie. She believes him, and they go tell Warren that his little game won’t work. Surprise! Warren is furious.
So Warren concocts a new plan without Bill. He prints up a fake copy of The Morning Star with a headline about Connie Allenbury stealing Bill Chandler.
Then he gets a woman at Gladys’ spa (or torture chamber) to show it to her as though it’s the real thing.
Gladys reacts just as Warren hoped she would. She heads for the Allenbury mansion, where Connie is throwing a huge, Mexican-themed party. She’s even hired pop organist sensation Ethel Smith, who delights the crowd with her Latin tunes.
Smith also appeared in Bathing Beauty (1944), and her recording of “Tico, Tico” from the film reached no. 14 on the pop charts in 1944! Pop organ was very popular, I guess.
To our minor embarrassment, Connie and Bill star in a huge production number of the Portugeuse song “Boneca de Pixe” for their “guests.” Because whenever I throw a party, I perform an elaborate routine for my friends. Don’t you?
They sing and dance: Connie struts and does a wrist-forearm flourish, and Bill mostly moves his extremely broad shoulders up and down.
Johnson got his start in Broadway musicals, so he acquits himself well in this light number. Williams does a nice job, too, and the throng of dancers gives it their all in this typically over-the-top musical number.
They strike a pose for their big finish, and the crowd goes wild!
You can watch it here:
The whole thing is kind of weird, but I guess it makes sense that Connie would throw a Latin-themed party since she and Bill met in Mexico? It’s really just to get more Good Neighbor stuff into the movie, though. MGM probably would have done the same thing even if Connie and Bill had met in Canada. Here are our stars between takes:
Gladys shows up after the song and demands to see J.B. She’s going to spill the beans about his daughter romancing her husband, though not the part about it all being a big setup. She really does seem to think of Bill as her husband, and she’s heartbroken that Connie has stolen him away. Warren’s plan worked better than he ever anticipated!
J.B. listens to her tale and then goes to talk with his daughter. He tells her that Bill is already married. She is shocked, and summons Bill to talk to him about it. Everyone has to talk to everyone else individually, apparently.
Rather than ask the big question: “Are you married?” Connie skirts around it and instead proposes to Bill! She thinks that he wouldn’t dare marry her if he already had a wife, but it’s certainly an unusual way of finding out a person’s marital status. The two pretty people profess their love and decide to get married that very night.
Has Bill forgotten about his marriage to Gladys? It may have started as a con, but the paperwork still makes it legal.
Also, if you’ve seen any Johnson/Williams movies before, so many moments seem like deja vu. They dance, dine, embrace, argue, and kiss over and over in movie after movie. I love it.
Anyway, Bill and Connie go wake up the nearest justice of the peace. (This wasn’t an uncommon way to get married. For more on weddings in this era, visit History Through Hollywood: Love.) His sleepy wife serves as the witness, but she wants to make sure it’s not another drunk couple. Connie answers with a great line:
And then it’s off to the honeymoon! They head to a hotel in New York City, but Gladys finds them.
She tells Connie that she is the real Mrs. Chandler! But instead of acting shocked, Connie just welcomes her into the room. She knows all about Gladys, though we didn’t see Bill tell her. Then Warren shows up. He is thrilled because Connie has not just stolen a husband, she’s also committed bigamy! He’s got her now!
Then Bill explains everything. He says that he’s not a bigamist because the marriage to Gladys was never legal. Gladys had been married a few years ago, but she got divorced “by mail” in Yucatan. All Yucatan divorces were ruled illegal in the United States three years ago, so technically Gladys was still married to her first husband when she married Bill, which means that their marriage was void.
Bill and Connie are very pleased with themselves. But not for long. Now, it’s Gladys’ turn.
In a voice full of scorn and hurt, she explains that she knew that her Yucatan divorce had been repealed, so she went to Reno and got another divorce there. That means that her marriage to Bill was legal after all, and Bill now has two wives. And Gladys is not going to give him up! She has been manipulated and pushed around this whole time, and she refuses to let Connie and Bill win.
How ironic that it is so easy to get married (hence the title), but so difficult to get divorced! (For more on the Yucatan/Reno divorce situation, read my post here.)
The whole situation has gotten out of hand. Gladys flees into the bedroom, Connie follows her, and the boys start to argue. Connie and Gladys chat, and they realize that Gladys doesn’t really want Bill. She wants Warren. They bond.
The women resolve their issues quickly, but the stupid men start fighting. But maybe the men aren’t so stupid, because they realize that when the ladies hear the commotion, Gladys starts yelling for Warren, not Bill. So they escalate their fight to get the two ladies to “rescue” their “heroes.” Connie drops the key, so it takes a minute, but it’s a cute reference to the previous key scene between Bill and Gladys.
Fun fact: In her autobiography, Williams remembered that she and Dorothy Kingsley, the screenwriter, worked together on this scene between Connie and Gladys after the first drafts felt false and awkward. Williams said that the dialogue didn’t sound like two women talking to each other, so she and Kingsley revamped it. Kingsley had worked on Bathing Beauty, and she would write several more of Williams’ movies, including On An Island With You (1948), Neptune’s Daughter, and Texas Carnival.
Another fun fact: Although the ladies are friends onscreen, they weren’t great pals in real life. Williams remembers Ball as jealous and a little paranoid about her husband Desi Arnaz. He had a reputation for going after the ladies, and for some reason Ball assumed that Williams was another of his conquests. The tension boiled over one day in the hair salon at MGM, but Williams eventually convinced Ball that she had no interest in Arnaz. This, according to Williams, upset Ball quite a bit, because she was insulted that Williams didn’t find her husband irresistible.
Anyway, Bill punches Warren in the nose just as Gladys and Connie emerge from the bedroom. So Gladys socks Bill! It’s perfect.
Then Connie’s father arrives, accompanied by a mariachi band that Bill had assigned to follow him around, hoping it would distract him from Gladys (it didn’t.) And they all begin talking at once, though we are sure that everything will work out just fine.
This movie was in production February through June of 1945, and premiered a year later in July 1946 to good reviews and great box office. Variety wrote that the “Names of Van Johnson and Esther Williams will be the magic draw for this tinter, but Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn are the real stars. They deliver for sock effect in what is an amusing but lightweight comedy…”
“Both Johnson and Miss Williams do well enough with their respective roles, but parts are somewhat innocuous and meat of the film is tossed to Miss Ball and Wynn, both of whom let down all barriers and do bang-up jobs.”
Bosley Crowther at The New York Times noted that “it is not surprising that “Libeled Lady” should pop up again, considering the Hollywood dictum that nothing succeeds like a past success. Only this time it has a new title, “Easy to Wed,” and a new lot of stars, and it is done up in Technicolor—which is the only thing about it that isn’t good.”
Like Variety, he singles out Ball and Wynn for their excellent performances: “Mr. Wynn is a capital farceur, and as his simple but obliging fiancée, Miss Ball is his comical match. Together they handle the burdens of the cleverly-complicated plot and throw both their voices and their torsos into an almost continuous flow of gags.”
Crowther continues: “Van Johnson is likewise amusing—and surprisingly good at farce, too—and Esther Williams is athletically attractive as the libeled lady in the case. Needless to say, the play of romance is provided by these two, and they do quite as well with it in their way as the other two do with the farce…All of whom—along with other cast members who perform comic roles competently—make ‘Easy to Wed’ a summer picture that is decidedly easy to enjoy.”
Audiences did indeed enjoy the film, which encouraged MGM to keep putting Esther Williams in movies. 1944-1946 was a busy time for her. Thrill of a Romance premiered in May 1945, she finished shooting Easy to Wed that June, filmed her one “dry” MGM film The Hoodlum Saint* in June through September, married Ben Gage in November, filmed her scenes for Ziegfeld Follies somewhere in there, and started Fiesta (1947) in December.
The Ziegfeld Follies came out in March 1946, The Hoodlum Saint in June, and Easy to Wed in July. By which point Williams had already filmed her scenes for Till the Clouds Roll By (1947) and started work on This Time for Keeps (1947). Popular stars had very little downtime in the studio era, as you can see from Williams’ schedule. Van Johnson even remembered finishing a movie with Esther Williams in the morning, and starting a film with June Allyson that same afternoon!
As I’ve mentioned, this was the third of five films pairing Johnson and Williams, and it was the first of four movies Williams would make with Keenan Wynn. He played Williams’ business partner in Neptune’s Daughter, and appeared in Texas Carnival (1951) and Skirts Ahoy! (1952).
Williams would also work with screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley, costume designer Irene, and director Edward Buzzell (Neptune’s Daughter) after Easy to Wed. Hollywood was a small world, and MGM was its own tiny kingdom.
Williams would later say that she sometimes had déjà vu when making her movies because they often seemed to have the same people and the same basic plot. That’s partly true, but I find the sameness really fascinating.
It’s fun to trace different actors and personnel through the movies, and I imagine it was interesting and even comforting for audiences at the time to see so many familiar faces. And when an actor is making 2-3 movies a year, it might have been nice to work with the same unit. Unless you didn’t get along with a particular actor, director, etc., in which case the small world became claustrophobic.
Easy to Wed was near the beginning of Williams’ time at MGM, but the film proved to be one of the last movies Lucille Ball made at the studio. She’d hoped that good roles would flood in after this movie. After all, she got great reviews, and the film was one of the biggest hits of the year. But she was disappointed.
As she said later: “After knocking myself out, giving my best possible performance in this picture, I expected other good roles to follow. Instead, I was put into a real dog with John Hodiak called Two Smart People (1946).” So when Ball’s contract came up for renewal, she decided to leave MGM and freelance, instead. She wouldn’t return to MGM until she made The Long, Long Trailer (1954) and Forever, Darling (1956) with Desi Arnaz in the midst of their television success.
Here’s the trailer of Easy to Wed–enjoy! As always, thanks for reading! For more, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook. You can buy this fun film here, as well as Esther Williams’ autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid.
*Of Esther Williams’ 22 films at MGM, only two, The Hoodlum Saint (1946) and Jupiter’s Darling (1955), failed to make a profit, a record few stars can boast.
Variety quotes from Daily Variety, April 9, 1946. p. 3.