On An Island With You (1948)
This movie is one big reunion! It marks the fourth Esther Williams movie (and third in a row) directed by Richard Thorpe. He’d helmed Thrill of a Romance (1945), Fiesta (1947), and This Time For Keeps (1947), though this was his final film with MGM’s mermaid.
On an Island With You was also a reunion for Williams, Ricardo Montalban, and Cyd Charisse, who were part of what Williams called the “repertory company of actors who kept popping up in my films.” The whole gang appeared in Fiesta, a rather farfetched (even for an MGM musical) story about bullfighting twins in Mexico. Williams and Montalban played the siblings, and Charisse was Montalban’s love interest.
Fiesta was Montalban’s first Hollywood movie, and also the first of three films he would make with Williams. (The third was Neptune’s Daughter (1949) in which he finally plays her real love interest.)
Montalban appeared three times with Cyd Charisse, too. Besides Fiesta and Island, they also danced together in The Kissing Bandit (1949) (filmed in 1947 though released in January of ’49).
On an Island With You also starred Jimmy Durante, who had just made This Time For Keeps (1947) with Williams. And yet another familiar face was supposed to appear, with early reports suggesting that Williams’ frequent onscreen partner, Van Johnson, would play the lead. But the part eventually went to Peter Lawford, who had just made a splash in Good News (1947). According to TCM, the British-born actor didn’t like the part and found Williams’ cheerfulness tiresome, so he wasn’t especially committed to the movie. He was also fresh off of an affair with Lana Turner, and reportedly still draped himself in all the gold jewelry she’d given him!
Despite the large and repetitive cast, the film belonged to Esther Williams. The 26-year-old had been in Hollywood for only six years, but she’d appeared in ten films and starred in six of those (the others were smaller roles or performances in revue-style movies such as Ziegfeld Follies (1946) and Till the Clouds Roll By (1946).) On an Island With You marks the third film that featured Williams’ name above the title, and it was well-deserved star billing. She was the 11th most popular star at the box office in 1948, and would rise to 8th the next year.
At first (or third, or eighth) glance, this movie might seem like a typical light musical with a straightforward and shallow plot. But it actually has some interesting edges because of the “repertory company” factor that creates so many connections to other films, the movie-within-a-movie plot, and elements taken from Williams’ real life as a movie star.
In fact, the screenplay by Dorothy Kingsley, Dorothy Cooper, Charles Martin, and Hans Wilhelm was nominated for a Writers Guild Award, but the prize went to Easter Parade.
Kingsley’s contribution to the script made this a reunion behind the scenes, too. She worked on the majority of Williams’ films, including Bathing Beauty, Easy to Wed, Neptune’s Daughter, Texas Carnival (1951), Dangerous When Wet (1953), and Jupiter’s Darling (1955). Kingsley and Williams became friends and would sometimes make revisions together, as I wrote about in Easy to Wed. Williams appreciated Kingsley’s willingness to collaborate, and I’m inclined to think that the elements from Williams’ real life in Island are due to Kingsley’s influence.
Warning: this post is a long one. Those edges really grabbed me, and this movie became more fascinating than I anticipated. Plus, the costumes and other visuals are stunning and deserve some attention.
To the film! We open with a high dive from a tree branch and a synchronized stroll-swim through the cypresses. The movie is set in Hawaii, but filming took place on the MGM backlot in Hollywood and Florida, namely Sarasota and Key Biscayne.
Fun fact: five years later, Williams would return to a cypress grove for several scenes in Easy to Love (1953), including the big water skiing finale. That movie is basically a commercial for Cypress Gardens in central Florida
Anyway, the lovely woman in the lead eventually peels off from the group and watches a Navy lieutenant strum his guitar.
They sure slathered her with dark makeup to make her look like a “native,” didn’t they? It’s not great. She would play another islander in Pagan Love Song (1950), too.
Williams rises from the sea like a sultry Aphrodite and approaches the man for a kiss. But then another “native” in a two-piece sarong appears and kisses him, too!
Naturally, this enrages the first woman, and the two argue over the man with bad “island” accents. Things quickly escalate to shrieking and hair pulling. We sigh. It’s going to be one of those horribly dated, problematic, romance novel movies.
But then Williams pauses and looks towards us to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t remember my next line!” We cut to this shot showing us a film crew capturing the whole thing.
Hurray! On an Island with You is not a horrible island romance between a sailor and a native woman–it’s a movie about making one of those movies! (Which is also titled On an Island with You.) What a relief.
In the film within the film, Williams plays a native woman who falls in love with a Navy pilot, played by Ricardo Montalban. But when we pull back, we discover that Williams is “really” Rosalind “Ros” Reynolds, a famous actress, and Montalban is her co-star and fiancé, Ricardo Montez. Cyd Charisse plays Yvonne Toro (is “Toro” (bull in Spanish) a reference to Fiesta?), an actress playing the other native woman. But Yvonne has gone a little too Method with her performance. Just like her character, she has fallen for Ricardo.
Fun fact: Montalban was born in Mexico, found success in New York on the stage in the 1930s, then moved back home and became a movie star in Mexico. He returned to the US to give Hollywood a try in 1943, and he became a famous “Latin lover” before enjoying a long career in television. He’s perhaps most well known for playing Khan in Star Trek and Mr. Roarke in Fantasy Island in the 1960s-1980s.
Since the movie takes place on a movie set, we catch fun moments like the on-set hairdresser making sure Ros looks picture-perfect, and Ros squeezing a wet sponge over herself to get that “fresh from the water” look in each take. These peeks behind the curtain enliven this film, especially when they’re played for humor.
In between takes, we watch the on-set adviser from the Navy check Ricardo’s uniform–this movie strives for accuracy! But really it’s an excuse to introduce Lieutenant Larry Kingslee (Peter Lawford). He’s not a very good consultant, as we see in a moment when he ruins a take with a loud “Oh, no!” After his strong reaction, the director, George (Dick Simmons), asks Larry to play the scene so they can see what a real lieutenant would do. Because movies always change major plot elements based on the reactions of low-level advisors.
Larry is totally enamored with Ros, so getting to play the love scene almost undoes him. His crush on the actress is so obvious that it worries the assistant director, Buckley (Jimmy Durante). He tries to keep an eye on the young lieutenant that evening when the gang returns to the hotel, but he’s no match for Larry’s focused gaze.
Even famous Xavier Cugat and his band can’t distract Larry. Cugat was born in Spain but grew up in Cuba and became a very popular bandleader in the 1930s and ’40s. He led the Waldorf-Astoria band in New York for sixteen years, and he also pops up in many MGM musicals in the 1940s. Besides his featured role in Island, he also appears in three other Esther Williams’ films: Bathing Beauty (1944), This Time for Keeps (1947), and Neptune’s Daughter (1949).
This movie takes advantage of “Cugie’s” presence by including several scenes at the Royal Aloha restaurant where his band entertains. Even Cugie’s little chihuahua plays a role. She has a whole song dedicated to her, too, the aptly named “Dog Song” performed by Betty Reilly.
You can watch it here:
After the song, Ros and Ricardo take a dull turn about the dance floor, then he dances with Yvonne. This dance is something else altogether. Even Ros is impressed. She beams as she says, “Don’t they dance beautifully together?”
Hold on, dummy! Don’t you know that two people who dance beautifully together are a perfect match off the floor, too? It’s an Old Hollywood rule, and the premise of most of the Astaire/Rogers pictures (even if you dislike each other, if you’re in sync on the dance floor you will be engaged in no time). You’ll find this trope all over the place, and you can read more about it in my History Through Hollywood: Love.
Larry knows this dancing rule: he wants to prove that he and Ros are meant to be, so he asks her to dance. She refuses. He doesn’t take it well and she is forced to be quite cold to get him to leave. She feels a little bad, but she can tell he has a crush and doesn’t want to encourage him.
Costume appreciation break. The “island” setting meant that costume designer Irene went wild with resort inspired, midriff bearing gowns. She certainly brought the sarong-look into evening wear! But notice that these dresses and sarongs still hide the belly button. Showing that part of the body was a no-no. For more on that, visit History Through Hollywood: Fashion. Also, this two-piece dress really isn’t: the top and bottom are connected by illusion fabric across Williams’ back and tummy.
Back to the film. The dance floor clears so that Yvonne and Ricardo can really let loose.
I love costumes with colored petticoats, especially on dancing frocks. They’re great for spins. Charisse must have liked them, too, because she wears them a lot.
Here she is in a spectacular pink petticoat in Fiesta (1947) with Montalban:
Yvonne and Ricardo end their dance in a romantic dip. Everyone watching, except for Ros, can tell they’re a perfect pair. Trouble!
Charisse is an extraordinary dancer, and Montalban always surprises me with his skill. You can watch the beautiful routine here:
But the evening is not over yet! Buckley tells Cugat that he used to be a big deal in vaudeville as part of a very famous trio, so Cugat asks him to sing something from his old act. Buckley performs “I Can’t Get Along Without Broadway,” a song that Durante wrote with Nacio Herb Brown and Edward Heyman, and then segues into “Takin’ Miss Mary to the Ball.”
Fun fact: Buckley’s backstory mirror Durante’s: he dropped out of seventh grade (!) to work as a ragtime pianist in the 1910’s, and by the ’20s he was a star. He was even part of a successful vaudeville trio, “Clayton, Jackson, and Durante” in the 1920s. Durante was a showbiz whiz who appeared in vaudeville, Broadway, the radio, movies and television in the ’20s through the early 1970s. As I mentioned, this was his second film with Esther Williams after the previous year’s This Time for Keeps (1947).
This movie gives Durante three musical numbers and plenty of scenes in which he makes his wonderfully corny, often self-deprecating jokes, and goofy wordplay. For example, he tells Cugat, “Vaudeville isn’t dead, it’s just resting!” And in the middle of this song, he says, “I was with a beautiful woman on Broadway–it’s possible—my nose was much younger then!” and winks at the audience.
After dinner and dancing, Ros goes for a swim in the hotel pool with Ricardo. They swim together better than they dance.
They have a lovely time, but their watery duet makes Larry and Yvonne feel very sad…Cheer up, guys! Just look at her hot pink suit and the matching braided updo!
Spoiler alert: those braids aren’t real. Williams’ swimming hairdo was achieved by attached fake plaits to her scalp with huge pins and shellacking it all with a mixture of Vaseline and baby oil developed by MGM’s hair department. It kept her hair shiny and perfectly arranged even through all those scenes in the water. You can read more about how MGM’s craftspeople and technology wizards adapted to swimming scenes in Esther Williams’ movies here.
Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that they tweaked the straps on the pink suit from Bathing Beauty and re-used it for this scene. The V-shaped design at the top looks identical. Costume designer Irene supervised both films, so she would have been well-acquainted with the Esther Williams’ “bathing suit” collection in MGM’s massive costume warehouse.
I’m also pretty sure this hotel pool is the same set from Thrill of a Romance (1945) with a mauve/lime theme instead of navy/lemon, and different matte background paintings. Even the fringed umbrellas are the same, just slightly different colors.
Anyway, the next day they film a production number called “The Pagan Mask.” It’s the islander’s farewell to Ricardo, because every native village puts on an enormous show when their favorite pilot leaves…
Larry watches Ros and Ricardo as they “watch” the number on-camera. He seethes with jealousy and anger–how could Ros refuse to dance with him last night? Doesn’t she understand that he is her true love, not Ricardo?
The number takes place on a huge terraced set with plenty of “island-y” imagery and lots of dancers in chartreuse and cherry. A very athletic woman performs the incredibly demanding routine. But it was supposed to be Cyd Charisse leaping up the levels and swinging around from man to man. But she was late to the set the day they began filming, and she rushed into the performance without warming up. Apparently, the producer, Joe Pasternak, invited some guests to the set that day, so there was added pressure for the cameras to roll on time.
Charisse began the dance but almost immediately tore a ligament in her knee. She couldn’t dance, so they brought in a replacement and Charisse lost out on the biggest dance number in the movie. Plus, she was forced to wear a cast for two months, and her injury kept her out of Easter Parade (1948). She was replaced by Ann Miller, and she would have to wait until The Band Wagon (1953) to dance with Fred Astaire. It was obviously a huge bummer for Charisse, and selfishly for us. I would have loved to see her perform this routine!
Fortunately, “The Pagan Mask” came towards the end of her filming schedule, which is why we have her two other dance numbers in this movie.
Anyway, once they capture the dance number, it’s on to the airport to film Ricardo’s departure. Unbeknownst to him, Williams’ character sneaks onto the airplane because she can’t bear to be left behind.
This is Larry’s moment to shine. He plays Ricardo’s double and strides to the airplane. Ros runs out of the bushes and climbs into the gunner’s turret and then Larry takes off. Here they are filming this airport scene at Anna Maria Island, a barrier island near Sarasota:
But then things deviate from the plan. Instead of circling back and landing, Larry keeps flying and soon disappears with a very confused Ros on board. On the ground, Buckley tries unsuccessfully to contact Larry. The crew eventually goes to the Navy for help finding the plane.
Larry flies a furious Ros to an island and leads her to an abandoned shelter. There he asks her to dance, and she acquiesces once he promises to take her back as soon as they finish. But he reneges and instead takes her to a swimming hole.
The place is vaguely familiar to her, and soon the whole story comes out. Ros went on USO tours during the war and stopped at the Navy base on this island about three years ago. She did her usual routine: strutting in a pretty bathing suit, some swimming, and a skit with a volunteer from the audience. It was a cute comedy routine that ended with a dance and a kiss for the lucky guy.
The boy she picked from the crowd that day was Larry, and the experience turned a crush on Ros into love/obsession. His faulty reading of Ros and the situation festered for three years until he became convinced that if she danced with him again, she would fall for him, too, and they would live happily ever after.
Ros is shocked and tries to explain to Larry that she didn’t recognize him because there were so many islands, so many boys! And the skit and the kiss didn’t mean anything. It was just acting and morale boosting for the troops. But he refuses to believe it.
His delusional “love” for her is terrifying, but as is typical in romcoms, it’s played as cute. At least this movie treats Larry as slightly crazy for flying her all the way to the island and believing in a silly skit. But then, as usual, his unrequited passion becomes endearing, not creepy. Any girl would be lucky to inspire such passion in a fella! Especially if she doesn’t mean to!
If you want to go deeper, you could read this movie as a veiled commentary on the dangers of obsessive fandom. Larry had a crush on the movie star Rosalind Reynolds, and when he finally met her in person he couldn’t tell the difference between her star image and reality. The public “Rosalind Reynolds” and the personal Ros are different, but he can’t understand that.
This was a very tricky line in real life, too, especially under the studio system when star images were so carefully crafted and defended. The famous Rita Hayworth line about how “Men go to bed with Gilda, but wake up with me,” is a great, bitter example. And Island gives us a similar situation wrapped in the sugary Technicolor of a tropical romance.
As I mentioned earlier, Van Johnson was first mentioned for the part of Larry, and I would have preferred him to mopey, suave Lawford. Johnson could have made Larry’s behavior less creepy, and his innate optimism would make it easier to believe that Williams’ character would ever fall for him.
Fun fact: During WWII, Esther Williams went on tours similar to the the ones that Ros describes!
She mostly went to hospitals to visit wounded soldiers who had been sent home for treatment. Her appearances included a bathing suit, some swimming either by herself or sometimes in a “swim meet” with any of the men who wanted to jump in with her. She also performed a cute skit featuring a volunteer from the audience in which Williams would beg him to kiss her despite instructing him to resist her before the skit began! She recalls that the young men always gave in and smooched her. I love this detail in the movie because it is taken straight from Williams’ real life as an MGM starlet.
Eventually, they head back to the plane. But the wheels and other vital equipment are gone! Larry is sure the villagers on the other side of the island are the culprits, so he and Ros set off to recover their stuff. But Ros falls into a hidden pit and hurts her ankle. She also rips her sarong, so she borrows Larry’s jacket for the rest of the day.
As I mentioned earlier, this was Williams’ fourth film with director Richard Thorpe, but she didn’t want it to be. Thorpe had a reputation for disliking actors, and Williams was no exception. According to her, he went out of his way to belittle and humiliate her, often pushing her to tears, as he did on Thrill of a Romance. Williams kept trying to get new directors, but Thorpe was an efficient director who stayed under budget and on schedule, so Williams’ complaints were pushed aside by the studio.
But on this film, things went even further between the star and the director. Williams recalled in her autobiography that for this scene, the crew dug a pit four feet deep and she fell into it, just as she was supposed to. But there was no padding at the bottom of the pit to break her fall, so she sprained her ankle for real!
They got the shot on the first take, fortunately, but Williams had to finish the rest of the movie on crutches. Williams blamed Thorpe for the accident, as it was his job as director to ensure proper safety guidelines were followed. After this movie, Williams absolutely refused to work with Thorpe, and she was finally a big enough star that MGM had to listen.
Larry helps a limping Ros back to the shelter where they spend the evening. Despite everything, Ros begins to soften towards this delusional young man…but you kind of wish she wouldn’t.
Meanwhile, the Navy pauses the search for Larry and Ros for the night. The crew is told to act normal, so the stars return to the Royal Aloha restaurant with George and Buckley. But they are awfully subdued. Except for Buckley, who is an old pro and agrees to Cugat’s request for another song. He performs “I’ll Do the Strut-Away (In My Cutaway),” another song Durante co-wrote, this time with Harry Donnelly and Irving Caesar.
Fun fact: remember how Charisse was stuck in a cast after her injury on the “Pagan Mask” dance? This scene was probably filmed after that one, which is why she sits at the table the whole time. In fact, she is often seated in this film to hide her cast. So we don’t get to see all of her pretty dress!
It reminds me of Williams’ striped sequin number from Bathing Beauty:
That night on the island, Larry dreams of Ros’s USO visit to the island. But now Buckley is an Admiral and Ricardo is there to swim with Ros.
At one point, Buckley suggests that Larry marry Yvonne, instead. His subconscious is not super subtle.
Fun fact: this dream wedding was filmed in front of MGM’s “Southern Mansion” set on the backlot. You can see the brick facade with white columns in several other films, including Two Weeks With Love (1950) when it plays part of the town square, High Society (1956) when it becomes the Lord home, and Good News (1947) as a college building. You can read more about the backlot in this fantastic book, MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot.
The rest of the dream concerns Ros swimming with Ricardo, an underwater fight between Larry and Ricardo, which Larry wins, naturally, and then a water duet with Ros. Williams often wrote about the struggles of trying to swim with co-stars who weren’t comfortable in the water–Lawford is one of them. You can tell that he is not a good swimmer.
Williams’ sparkly seaweed-inspired suit in this scene is stunning. The tinsel hair ornament is a great touch.
Fun fact: the suit sold for $3,125 in 2013 as part of the What Dreams Are Made Of: A Century of Movie Magic as curated by TCM auction. Another fun fact: MGM re-used the shimmery costume on an extra in a backstage scene in Hit The Deck (1955).
Anyway, the next morning, Larry sets off for the village to retrieve the airplane parts. But before he goes, he asks Ros:
Ouch. But isn’t it amazing how Ros’s lipstick stayed fresh after all that time? And her wig still looks terrific.
While Larry sets out for the village, the Navy resumes its search and quickly spots the plane. They land on the island, send some men with Buckley to find Larry, and take Ros home. Naturally, Buckley gets separated from the sailors and wanders through the jungle. It’s perfect for more self-deprecating nose humor.
He eventually finds Larry and they head back home. Meanwhile, now that Ros has returned safe and sound, the movie studio alerts the press. The story is great publicity for the movie!
But the happy, humorous version that Ros gives to the press humiliates Larry and makes Ricardo very uncomfortable. He can’t shake the suspicion that something more than a dance happened on the island, and he definitely doesn’t understand why Ros tries to protect Larry. She is worried he will get thrown out of the Navy so she tries to minimize the seriousness of his actions.
Ricardo explains that American women “have more freedom than the women in his family,” so he is not used to an independent, strong-willed lady like Ros. But he decides to look past her “indiscretion” so long as she promises never to see Larry again. How big of him! After all, she was kidnapped! She didn’t choose to spend all those hours alone with Larry.
Despite Ricardo’s request, Ros can’t let the Navy court martial Larry. She feels sorry for the poor kid, but maybe something else, too? Regardless, she goes to see his commanding officer (Leon Ames) and tells him some lies designed to clear Larry. She claims that the trip to the island was actually her idea: she remembered the island from her USO tour and wanted to go back. Larry simply made the bad decision to indulge her nostalgia.
But Larry is too honorable to let her lie for him, so he refutes her story. Then he tells her to stop being an actress and start being a woman, which is highly offensive. In his mind, she is in love with him, but her professional side is keeping her from her real, feminine truth. Ugh. It’s also annoying because he doesn’t know Ros “the woman.” He fell in love with Ros the movie star and really has no idea who she is off the screen.
Unsurprisingly, she storms out. On her way back to the hotel, a photographer asks for a picture and she indulges him with a fake smile despite her inner turmoil. It’s a throwaway moment that’s actually full of meaning: this is what life is like for a movie star. You mask your reality if it doesn’t match the studio sanctioned storyline!
(For a great example of that, check out the Modern Screen article at the end of this post. It’s all about how wonderful it was for Williams to return home to her husband after filming this movie, but according to her autobiography, things were actually pretty bad between them.)
Ricardo is waiting for her. He knows she tried to save Larry, so he ends their engagement. What a great steely blue outfit, though! Fun polka-dot draping. And you can read the “steely” color as representing Ros’s strength despite Ricardo’s warning! Or not. It’s also just a pretty color.
The show must go on, so Yvonne and Ricardo film a sultry dance number. Ricardo’s character has been thrown out of the Navy and become a “bum,” and Yvonne left the island and became a dancer at a seedy bar.
I wonder if this skirt was used in Easter Parade right after this movie? (center image). The costume department raided the racks for Easter Parade, especially using costumes from The Harvey Girls, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they took Charisse’s slim purple skirt and added the new top.
Anyway, Yvonne sets her sights on a despondent Ricardo, and soon he joins her in a sexy number.
They end with a Gene Kelly-esque routine on top of the bar. Or maybe it’s just Montalban’s tight sailor pants that remind me of Kelly…
After the director yells “Cut!” he says to Buckley, “They’ve never danced like that before!” And Buckley realizes that something else is going on. Ricardo works fast: he remembers that Yvonne’s grandmother is Spanish, so she probably isn’t as “independent” and “American” as uppity Ros. So he transfers his attentions. Things are looking up for Yvonne!
After the dance, Buckley goes to get Ros for her big swimming number. He runs into a young British girl named Penelope (Kathryn Beaumont). She plays a flower girl in a wedding scene in the film, and she bugs Buckley about her part throughout this movie. He calls her “Pene-loap” or “Pineapple,” and they have a series of funny exchanges. Durante gets so much screen time!
Anyway, he makes his way to Ros’s hotel room where the recently dumped star is moping in a chartreuse and sunshine robe that reminds me of the bright green gown she wore in Thrill of a Romance. It’s also really similar to Lucille Ball‘s robe from Easy to Wed. I hope MGM bought that green fabric in bulk.
Anyway, Buckley cheers her up with a song Durante wrote called “You Gotta Start Off Each Day with a Song.” Ros needs all her pep for the next number which we alternately see “being filmed” and perfectly cut together. She wears a gold lamé halter suit that you may recognize from the cover of her autobiography or famous publicity photos. The number begins with Ros dropping from from the diving board onto a surfboard-type float that speeds through the pool on a tow rope.
A synchronized dive brings a chorus of swimmers into the pool and Williams joins them for some splish-splashing.
We get a few shots of the “crew” filming the whole thing. I love that there was a bigger group of real behind-the-scenes personnel with even more equipment filming the onscreen “crew!”
Then it’s on to synchronized paddling and posing:
Eventually, Ros is pulled from the water yet again and set down on the diving board. MGM loved raising her high in the air like this:
You can see similar setups in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) and Easy to Love (1953), among others.
At the end of the number, she jumps out of the pool into the waiting arms of Ricardo. Remember, this is all part of the movie within the movie! So maybe Ros’s character became a famous synchronized swimmer after she stowed away in Ricardo’s airplane? You can watch this scene here, but be warned that it has a different soundtrack than in the movie.
Williams looks extraordinarily beautiful in this scene. Her hair ornament is a great choice instead of her usual ribbons or flowers.
As I mentioned, you can see the gold suit on the hardcover edition of her autobiography, and I wonder if that is the pink suit from her nighttime swim with Ricardo on the paperback edition.
I want to pause for a moment to point out how everything in this onscreen world matches or coordinates. It’s glorious! Art directors Edward C. Carfagno and Cedric Gibbons really went for it on this movie with the saturated tones that were so popular in the 1940s. The pool furniture matches the floats and the dressing room furniture, the exterior walls match the insides, and the sarongs coordinate with Yvonne’s coral dress and the “Pagan Mask” color scheme, which also features pops of chartreuse that match Yvonne’s petticoat, Ros’s robe, and the pool umbrellas. The director’s shirt, Ricardo’s outfit, and the sky match Ros’s grey-blue suit, and the lemony yellow of the singer’s dress is echoed in Ros’s costume and the pool furniture…and around and around!
What a world! I think that’s part of the reason I love this movie and others like it. I adore the cohesive, designed-to-the-last-detail “look.” It’s so appealing, partly because it’s ridiculous. And partly because you can feel all the work that went into this movie, and dozens like it that were being filmed on the backlot at the same time. And we know it was deliberate work, not just because of the final product but because we know about mistakes.
For example, during production on Thrill of a Romance, the crew painted the cement on the inside of the swimming pool with a new kind of paint to get the water a specific turquoise shade to match the poolside tables and towels (come on!), and coordinate with the rest of the design.
But it wasn’t the right kind of paint, so the chlorine in the water dissolved the paint as soon as they filled the pool! The paint, cement, and water formed a nasty gloopy mess, and they had to drain the pool, re-paint it, and re-fill it before they could shoot the swimming scenes!
Think of all the people involved in the decisions, designs, sourcing, and creating it took to make sure the right color of yellow roses showed up in the background of Ros’s hotel room, and how they consciously kept any burgundy, for example, or royal blue out of the shots!
That hidden work is what makes Old Hollywood so endlessly fascinating. And it’s also why I get so frustrated when people dismiss these movies as silly, throwaway escapism. They are highly constructed, deeply thought out works of visual splendor using all the tools and technology available. End of lecture.
But one more thing: one of the art directors on this movie, Edward C. Carfagno, began working at MGM in 1933 and remained in the business until 1989. He won acclaim for his work on films such as The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Ben-Hur (1959). He was also a member of the 1940 Olympic fencing team, so if those Games hadn’t been cancelled because of WWII, he and Esther Williams would have been US teammates!
That evening, they visit Cugat yet again. This time, Ricardo and Yvonne sit at a private table with her grandmother in a shimmering mantilla. Ros watches them a little sadly, but she knows it’s for the best.
Then the commander brings a bunch of Navy officers to the club. He is in cahoots with Buckley who wants to get Larry and Ros together. The plan works: first the pair argue, then Ros pushes him into the pool. So he pretends to drown. As one does. She dives in to save him, thus revealing her love. And it all ends happily!
I’m sad Ros’s midriff-baring gown got all wet, though. But her “accidental” swim explains why her hair is in an updo and not loose curls that evening.
This movie was in production from June through early September 1947 and premiered on June 24, 1948. It made over $5 million at the box office which brought MGM a tidy profit. But that was typical for an Esther Williams’ movie: besides The Hoodlum Saint (1946) and Jupiter’s Darling (1955), all of her films made money.
Critics were less enamored with the movie than audiences, but that was typical, too. The May 1, 1948 issue of Showmen’s Trade Review, a publication for exhibitors and distributors, recognized the box office draw of the film, writing that “There is everything needed here to cause plenty of activity at the box office.” They singled out the visual style as a particular draw, noting that it’s a “lavish, entertaining production” and the “Color by Technicolor is especially good; it does everything to give the beauty of colors to a picture whose sets and dances strike a lush note.” (See, it’s not just me!)
The magazine also praised the performances by Durante and Cugat, described Charisse as being “at her best in this picture,” and called her duets with Montalban “brilliantly executed.” The review also noted the spectacular water ballets, concluding that, “All these eye- and ear-pleasing assets are loosely strung together by a story of no great consequence, which was clearly intended not to interfere with the film’s entertainment values.” But they knew that audiences didn’t flock to these films for the clever plots; despite the flaws, the review concludes that “Esther Williams fans will be even more pleased with this showcase for her charms than ever before.”
The New York Times film reviewer T.F.B struck a more negative tone, writing:
“It is a pity that anyone as handsome and expressive as Esther Williams in the water should be permitted to spend the time she does mouthing banalities on dry land in ‘On An Island With You’…”
“Unfortunately, Joseph Pasternak, who produced the film, must have decided that a screen play was necessary to garnish the aquatic sequences and as a consequence the [movie] not only makes Miss Williams look like a dish out of water for a good many reels, but also presents a plot and dialogue which leave the other actors in the piece…gasping for air.”
He pulls back slightly to ensure us that “The shortcomings of ‘On An Island’ merit no serious invective, but to make the record complete, it should be observed that Richard Thorpe, the director, never helped the film to rise above its basic material. The picture is neatly photographed in Technicolor, with just about the quantity of tropical scenery and soft music that one might expect.”
I think the review is a little harsh, but then I’m awfully biased.
As I mentioned, the “repertory company” in this movie would show up again with Williams, but not with such frequency. Her next movie was Take Me Out to The Ball Game (1949), which lacked Charisse, Durante, and Montalban, but after that came Neptune’s Daughter (1949) that starred Williams as a swimsuit designer and Montalban as a “South American polo player.” That was his final film with the mermaid, and Charisse only appeared once more in a cameo role in Easy to Love (1953). That’s her in the blue suit with her real life husband, Tony Martin. By the 1950s, Charisse had risen to stardom and no longer played the “best friend” or “love rival” roles in Williams’ musicals. Instead, Williams was repeatedly paired with Red Skelton, Van Johnson, Howard Keel, and Betty Garrett.
Here’s the trailer–enjoy! For more, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook. You can buy this movie here, and pick up Esther Williams’ autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, here. And as always, thanks for reading!
What a famous cast list —beautiful costumes, sets and dance numbers plus the swimming. I had Cyd Charisse and Esther Williams paper dolls growing up —plus a Dad who served in the Navy, LCDR, early
Would love to see those paper dolls today–how cool! I wonder what Claude would have thought of this movie and the Navy guys…! Thanks for this comment!
I adore this movie! I’ve seen it way too many times! haha
Good! It’s nice to hear from another fan! This movie gets overlooked too often.
This film has so much going for it — the costumes, the sets, the incredible dances between Charisse and Montalban, Jimmy Durante’s silliness, and of course, Esther. That being said, I have a really hard time with Lawford’s character. I think you’re right about Van Johnson; he would’ve made the guy much more palatable. It’s a shame that the script gives us such a creepy love interest because I think On an Island with You could have been one of Esther’s best.
P.S. Anna Maria Island is one of my family’s favorite vacation spots. We’ve also been to Sarasota multiple times for shopping trips and such. I’ve decided next time we go, I want to try and find some of the spots where Esther and Co. filmed. It may be a bit of a long shot, but what’s the harm in trying, right?
Thanks for this comment! Good luck at Anna Maria Island and Sarasota–would love to hear if you find anything!
Hi Cameron, Again another fantastic blog!! Brilliant!! Agree the costumes are brilliant Regards Ros
Thank you! So glad you enjoyed it and I’m glad someone else loves the costumes, too!
Mark of the Renegade
This looks like a great movie–I don’t know that I’ve seen it, but now I really need to! But I am familiar with the Cyd Charisse & Ricardo M dance (purple skirt). Just to give you some more information about it–rather than “Gene Kelly-esque” is it an Apache dance. The same as Gene’s “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” number in “Words & Music” with Vera Ellen. This type of dance was created by Maurice Mouvet in France around 1910. It usually involves a prostitute and a pimp character fighting. Each choreography is individual–there are many different versions, sometimes fused with tango, and sometimes involved a third dancer, or multiple dancers. There have even been comedy versions, and one done by Popeye, Olive Oyl & Bluto! You can see examples of it in movies since the beginning of movie-making, and all the way up to “Cancan” with Shirley MacLaine, and beyond. It is pronounced “apash” and was inspired by the knife-wielding thugs in Monmartre who were terrorizing Paris at the time–named after the vicious Apache of North America.
Very cool–thank you for this information!