Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams

Skirts Ahoy! (1952)

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams

via: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0045155/mediaviewer/rm1492788224   Unless otherwise noted, all images are my own.

Skirts Ahoy! is one of Esther Williams‘ lesser-known films. Unlike many of her movies, this one doesn’t feature other big stars, lacks an elaborate water ballet, and takes place on a military base, not a swanky, resort or city. It’s also a little different because Williams sings and dances more than usual, and her swimming scenes are on the simple, though highly enjoyable, side. And of course it’s the only movie starring Williams as one of “America’s mermaids, the WAVES!”

The plot follows Williams and her two co-stars, Vivian Blaine and Joan Evans, as they enlist in the Navy. As one might expect, it’s a patriotic movie trumpeting the benefits of serving in the military. So sandwiched between cutesy musical numbers, underwater choreography, and romance, there are stirring speeches, heartfelt realizations, and personal growth.

If this movie feels like propaganda, it’s because it is. The Korean War began in June 1950, and the U.S. military needed women to replace the men transferred from administration duties to combat. So the military “encouraged” MGM to make this movie trumpeting the benefits of women enlisting.

This was not the first time that the Navy and other branches had tried to recruit women. In 1942, FDR signed a law authorizing women to serve in the Navy Reserves for the duration of the war plus six months. They were known as WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), and, as in the early 1950s, the overall purpose of the program was to replace men in non-combat roles with women. (Military nurses were in a different category altogether, and the Coast Guard, Army, Air Force and Marine Corps each had their own branches for women, too.)

There were eventually over 100,000 WAVES serving in all sorts of positions within the US (they were not allowed overseas and only expanded to postings in Alaska and Hawaii in 1944).

The vast majority of WAVES were discharged after WWII ended, and it wasn’t until 1948 that women were legally allowed to serve as regular members of the Armed Forces. (But not if you had children under the age of 18.)

But when the Korean War began, the Navy was understaffed and turned to women to bolster its ranks. In 1950, there were about 3,000 WAVES, but a recruitment campaign combined with new enlistment requirements (and an involuntary recall of previous members) bolstered the numbers to almost 9,500 by 1952. During this period, WAVES were placed in mostly clerical and administrative positions, or “pink collar” jobs as they came to be known, with some exceptions. (You can read more about WAVES and find great photos here.)

So, in 1951, the Navy turned to Hollywood to help recruit women. The timing worked out: Hollywood was happy to make a cheerful, patriotic movie because it was in the midst of the Blacklist drama. According to Congress, powerful journalists, some industry insiders, and even the FBI, Hollywood was crawling with Communists and other subversives who snuck their anti-American content into movies. The suspicions and those investigating them were powerful even though actual proof was lacking.

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings on Communism in Hollywood began in 1947 but resumed in 1951-52. The hearings, combined with the attendant hysteria and industry blacklisting, ruined dozens of careers and tarnished hundreds of reputations. It wasn’t until 1960 that the power of the blacklist was broken. (You can read more about this fascinating, terrible, and complicated time here and here.)

So although a movie like Skirts Ahoy! isn’t out of character for MGM (they made lots of bouncy musicals about sailors), the atmosphere in 1951-52 encouraged the studio to push the patriotism and All-American elements. Making Skirts Ahoy! with Esther Williams was a good choice: after all, it didn’t get much more All-American than Esther, and she’d never been accused of any subversion, so she was “safe.” Though a hint of scandal touched the screenwriter, Isobel Lennart. She had joined and then left the Communist party in the 1940s, and in 1952 she named names at HUAC hearings in order to avoid the blacklist.

Even with the propaganda angle, Skirts Ahoy! is still an enjoyable film. It features a score by Harry Warren (“Lullaby of Broadway,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Sante Fe,” among many other hits) and Ralph Blane (Good News (1947), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)), though no huge hits emerged from this movie.

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams, Joan Evans, Vivian Blaine, and Barry Sullivan

Besides Williams, the movie stars Vivian Blaine, fresh off a huge success as Adelaide in Guys and Dolls on Broadway in 1950. She would reprise her role on the West End and in the 1955 movie version, too. Although she’s best known for playing Adelaide (and her character in this movie is basically a version of that iconic lady), Blaine appeared in small parts in movies starting in 1942 (State Fair (1945) and Three Little Girls in Blue (1946), for example), but she left Hollywood in the late 1940s and returned to the stage. Skirts Ahoy! was her first movie since her big break in Guys and Dolls.

Joan Evans rounds out the trio. She grew up in Hollywood as the child of two writers, and she was named in honor of Joan Crawford, her godmother! She first appeared in movies as a teenager and worked in Hollywood until 1960 while also appearing on television.

The main man is Barry Sullivan. He started making movies in 1943 and appeared in over 100 stretching into the 1970s before making his final film The Last Straw (1987). Fun fact: the year that Skirts Ahoy! premiered also saw Sullivan in one of his most famous roles in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).

To the film! It begins with three women on the brink of marriage. One is jilted, the second does the jilting, and the third is perpetually engaged with no end in sight. In Ohio, Mary Kate Yarbrough (Joan Evans) has just been stood up at the altar by her fiancé, Dick Hallson (Keefe Braselle).

Fun fact: Mary Kate’s house, or more accurately, the empty facade, was located on the small town “New England Street” on the MGM backlot. The collection of fake houses was also known as the “Andy Hardy” set because it’s where the Hardy family lived in the popular series starring Mickey Rooney.

Another fun fact: Mary Kate’s wedding ensemble might look familiar because June Allyson wore it in The Bride Goes Wild (1948)! MGM costume designer Helen Rose oversaw both movies.

Skirts Ahoy: Joan Evans and June Allyson in The Bride Goes Wild

Skirts Ahoy! on the left, The Bride Goes Wild on the right

We leave Mary Kate and jump to a mansion on Long Island where another bride is moments away from tying the knot. Whitney Young (Esther Williams) starts the walk down the aisle, but takes a detour through the kitchen as her fluffy pink bridesmaids continue to process!

I like that she pauses to admire the elaborate wedding cake on her way out, though. (To learn more about why so many movie brides get married at home, visit my History Through Hollywood: Love.)

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams

Fun fact: you may recognize Whitney’s house as MGM’s “Southern mansion” set. It appears all the time in films.

And of course we must pause to admire Whitney’s pink wedding gown and her orchid-adorned muff. She’s a very wealthy socialite so her ensemble is glamorous and chic:

Cut to a third bride. But it’s a trick! This time the bride doesn’t matter–our focus is on the wedding dress saleslady Una Yancy (Vivian Blaine).

Skirts Ahoy: Vivian Blaine

Unfortunately for Una, the closest she gets to a wedding dress is in the salon where she works. She’s been engaged for three years to a guy named Archie, but in all that time they’ve only spent three hours together. It’s a true fairytale romance!

Una is desperate to finally marry Archie, so when she finds out that he is in the Navy, she enlists, too!

As do Mary Kate and Whitney. They all end up at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center outside of Chicago for a nine-week boot camp. Fun fact: the first WAVES were actually trained at Great Lakes.

Whitney arrives late because she had to stop by her pal Doris Day’s house to borrow a suitcase. Not really, but Doris did carry the same set of luggage in Romance on the High Seas (1948)!

Yarbrough, Young, and Yancy share a room thanks to the alphabetical system, and they quickly become friends. Whitney exudes confidence and competence, and she is anxious to prove she is more than a flighty socialite. She’s also charmingly maternal and looks after her younger friends, especially Mary Kate. Una is a wisecracking New Yorker who can handle anything except her longing for Archie against all odds and common sense. But poor Mary Kate is terribly homesick and regrets her decision to enlist almost immediately.

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams, Joan Evans, and Vivian Blaine

During their first night as roommates, Mary Kate cries and Whitney asks Una, “Haven’t you ever been homesick?” The fast-talking blonde rolls her eyes and replies, “You should see my home.” Ha! That’s basically the dynamic between the three.

The next morning, the training begins. Una sings a quick song as a montage rolls of the women getting haircuts and collecting uniforms. Note the sign above the uniform collection desk: “Be honest with yourself! If you are size 16, don’t ask for size 10!” You can watch the scene here.

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams, Joan Evans, and Vivian Blaine

This film is sometimes compared to other sailor movies such as On the Town (1949) or Anchors Aweigh (1945) with the “sailors on leave” plotline, but actually Skirts Ahoy! is a different thing. The fact that it is three women searching for love while in the Navy changes the dynamic considerably, as I will discuss later. And the focus on boot camp means the movie spends a lot of time showing the WAVES training, not just escaping on leave. Since the film was practically an official recruitment tool, it makes the nine weeks look like a summer camp for grown ups!

Anyway, the montage song is Blaine’s only solo. She wasn’t a big movie star, but it seems strange not to take more advantage of a musical theater whiz. Besides her lack of songs, this movie wasn’t a great experience for her. The film’s director, Sidney Lanfield, disliked Blaine and tried to cut her down to size after her Broadway success. He was reportedly terrible to Blaine during filming until Esther Williams stepped in. Williams was sensitive to bullies on set because when she was a new actress at MGM she encountered several jerks (mostly directors) who enjoyed making her life miserable.

She hated to see it happen to Blaine, so she confronted Lanfield about his behavior: “Can’t you see that Vivian is disintegrating before your eyes?…if you keep this up, she won’t ever be able to give you what you need.” Then she played a powerful card, warning him that she would get him kicked off the movie if he didn’t stop. She could do it, too–she was one of the studio’s top stars and had a lot of power. Her threat worked and the rest of the filming went more smoothly.

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams, Joan Evans, and Vivian Blaine

The newly shorn, properly uniformed friends go sign up for swimming lessons. Una and Mary Kate pick the “if you can’t swim at all,” class as Whitney looks longingly at the “if you swim like a fish” option. But she signs up for the beginning level to stay with her friends.

I love this moment because it’s purely an in-joke with the audience. Nothing in the movie thus far has suggested anything about Whitney’s swimming ability, but of course we know that Whitney is Esther Williams. So we get the joke. It’s similar to the scene in Swing Time (1936) when Fred Astaire signs up for a beginning dance class, but even in that movie we know he used to lead a vaudeville dance troupe. But the comedy around the swim class derives completely from outside information and Williams’ star image. Go ahead and wink back at the screen!

The joke continues in the pool as Whitney looks bemused while everyone flaps wildly in the water.

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams

But then Mary Kate loses her grip on the water wings so Whitney springs into action. It’s always fun to see Esther Williams do a racing dive and cut through the water. She was a national champion sprinter, but usually her movie swimming is of the synchronized, water ballet variety.

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams, Joan Evans, and Vivian Blaine

Instead of being grateful that Whitney saved Mary Kate, the teacher kicks her out of class for lying about her ability. Well, it was a fun bit while it lasted!

Fun fact: although it’s obvious in hindsight, originally the script didn’t call for much swimming. In fact, this scene was supposed to be a calisthenics class on a field! But Williams suggested that the scene be moved to a pool (duh!), and MGM switched it up.

Another fun fact: the pool where they filmed the swim class scene was on the MGM backlot and appeared in many of Williams’ films, including Bathing Beauty (1944), Thrill of a Romance (1945), This Time for Keeps (1947), and Dangerous When Wet (1953) as part of Fernando Lamas’ French estate. The pool would be re-named the “Esther Williams Pool” in recognition of her many scenes there.

And yet another fun fact: notice the sleek swim suits the recruits wear? They’re in the movie thanks to Esther Williams. The original plan was for Williams and the other swimmers to wear the regulation WAVES suits. But Williams was horrified when she tried one on because they were essentially shapeless grey cotton sacks: “They were the saddest bathing suits I’d ever seen,” she remembered. “They had no internal support,” and “When they got wet, they clung like an old sweater. Regulation outfits or not, I didn’t want to be seen on-screen in that suit.”

Esther Williams

A Cole of California & Esther Williams ad via: http://www.esther-williams.com/albums/album_image/8640131/7806265.htm

Fortunately, Williams had been working with the swim suit company Cole of California for years, and they often designed “Esther Williams” suits for her movies. Then she would appear in advertisements and Cole would sell the suits across the country.

After she tried on the regulation suit, she asked Cole to make an “Esther Williams” suit in navy blue and took it to a meeting with the Secretary of the Navy (doors open when you’re a movie star!).

She modeled the Navy suit and then the Cole of California suit, and explained, “If we’re making this film to boost the recruitment of women and they see me in this, it’s gonna backfire.” The Secretary realized that she was right: the Navy version was terrible, and she certainly shouldn’t wear it in the movie. He then ordered 50,000 of the Cole suits as the new official swimsuit for the Navy! (The Million Dollar Mermaid 206-207.)

After swim class, the recruits assemble for a talent show! (Told you the whole training process feels like summer camp!) Newly elected Company Recruit Commander Young performs the comic song “What Makes a WAVE” to general acclaim.

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams

As I mentioned, Williams sings more than usual in this film. Generally, the other actors carry the musical load and she does the swimming. One might assume that musical theater star Vivian Blaine would have performed this song while Williams cheered from the audience, but it’s reversed. You can watch the number here.

Sidenote: I love that this number was used as an advertisement for Jergens lotion!

Six weeks pass, but Mary Kate is still terribly homesick. So Whitney asks around and finds out that besides the obvious way out of the WAVES (pregnancy), there is also a homesickness loophole. If a recruit truly can’t function because of homesickness, she is allowed to leave. So Whitney and Una arrange for a hearing and testify on Mary Kate’s behalf. But while Mary Kate waits for her chance to talk, her ex-fiance Dick shows up unexpectedly.

Skirts Ahoy: Joan Evans and Keefe Braselle

He’s come to beg for another chance. He says he’s pretty sure that now he is in love with her, so they should get married as planned and she can give up this ridiculous Navy thing. He explains that WAVES need to be “independent and tough,” and she certainly isn’t, so he will talk to the brass and get her out. The idiot keeps digging that hole: when she says that maybe she should talk to her commanding officer herself, he laughs and says that she would just start to cry if she tried! Jerk.

The old Mary Kate might have folded, but the WAVES training has toughened her up. She tells Dick to go home and bursts into the hearing to announce to the Doctor (Hayden Rorke) and Lt. Commander Staunton (Margalo Gillmore) that she wants to stay. Good for you, Mary Kate!

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams, Joan Evans, and Vivian Blaine

Now that Mary Kate has conquered her homesickness, the three ladies head into Chicago for a few hours of “liberty.” The movie plays on the “sailor on leave” stereotype and movies such as On the Town, but since it’s three women, their wild afternoon in the city is awfully tame.

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams, Joan Evans, and Vivian Blaine

They split up, anxious to find men on their own, but they eventually all end up at the same pink tea shop.

Ready for the strange song, “What Good Is a Gal [Without a Guy]”? It’s representative of the movie’s uneasy position between progressive/highly traditional. ‘Women can do anything!’ the movie suggests. ‘Join the Navy, see the world!’ But also, ‘Women are nothing without a man! And stay focused on that romance plot!’ What? It’s a strange tension: the movie has to show successful, strong women in the Navy and encourage others to enlist, but at the same time, it’s a Hollywood movie made in 1951, and it’s hard to push aside the traditional. The ending strikes a balance between the two, as we’ll get to later.

But until then, the film sometimes leans towards the progressive side of the spectrum, or at least flirts with it by showing women excelling in the Navy. It even juxtaposes the male sailors on leave who so easily pick up women, and are cheered for doing so, compared to the WAVES who get punished for boldness. It highlights the double standard, but in the next moment throws in a song like this. It’s disheartening. A gal is perfectly great without a guy!

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams, Joan Evans, and Vivian Blaine

Fun fact: Evans’ voice was dubbed for her songs, though Williams and of course Blaine use their own. Also, Blaine is always fun to watch, but she’s playing to the balcony in this film. Her reactions and mannerisms are overdone compared to the other actors, so she seems a bit manic.

Another fun fact: Debbie Reynolds and the DeMarco Sisters (more on them in a minute) both released recordings of “What Good Is a Gal [Without a Guy]” in 1952.

After the song, the trio set off to find men. Una and Whitney visit a cocktail bar and hit on the same handsome gent:

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams, Vivian Blaine, and Barry Sullivan

Whitney convinces Una to let her try for him, and asks the man out to dinner. She doesn’t know that he is actually Lt. Commander Paul Elcott (Barry Sullivan), the new doctor assigned to the WAVES at the Great Lakes Training Center, but we do, thanks to an earlier scene! She introduces herself as Mary Smith, but tells him she is a WAVE recruit at Great Lakes. He also lies about his name, claiming he is John Smith, but he doesn’t mention his connection to the Navy. He keeps up the charade much longer than is kind or honorable.

Whitney acts brash, flirty, and super-confident during their date because she’s just trying to have a good time for a few hours. But he plays along despite knowing that she is a sailor on his base! He encourages her bravado and enjoys it, but we know that she will suffer for it later. It’s very sneaky, unfair and quite inappropriate, given his position.

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams, Barry Sullivan and Billy Eckstine

Anyway, they enjoy a performance by Billy Eckstine, a famous jazz singer and bandleader in his only appearance in a Hollywood movie.

Then a group of Army WACs (Women’s Army Corps) interrupts their lovely evening with their immature cat calls. Men are scarce in these parts, apparently. On their way out, Whitney stops at the WACs table and a fight breaks out…

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams and Barry Sullivan

Next thing we know, Whitney is at a disciplinary hearing. She is about to take all the blame for the incident when Paul arrives. She’s shocked to see him, as she thought he was a civilian! He explains that it was the WACs who instigated the scuffle, and Whitney escapes unscathed.

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams and Barry Sullivan

She visits his office to thank him and ask him out again, but he shames her for the way she behaved on their date, claiming that it was silly and reckless, and unladylike besides. Then he dashes her hopes of another date, saying “You’re the type of girl who would never give a man a chance to ask her anything, Saturday night, or anything,” he says. Cruel, right? He liked her independence on their date, but apparently hates it now.

But what’s really bothering him is her file. He read up on her and assumes that she is a selfish, entitled socialite. She has been engaged twelve times…but he never gives her a chance to explain. And he’s a traditional MAN who must be the hunter. His fragile masculinity was wounded by her confidence. Yuck.

But I think Whitney’s character is refreshing. As a very wealthy, connected socialite, she is used to a certain amount of freedom and power, and she acts accordingly. But she’s also willing to work, and she consistently refuses special treatment. Also, unlike Una or Mary Kate, she joined the WAVES because she wanted to do something good, not because she was chasing a man or escaping heartbreak. In fact, she’s not terribly interested in catching a man, so it’s annoying when she finds one. It would have been fun to see her rise through the ranks of the WAVES, not get sidetracked by a boy!

Still, her maturity and independence (which blossom now that she has something to focus on besides getting engaged) are fun to watch, especially when one looks back at earlier Williams’ characters. She never played dependent, fragile women, but Whitney might be the most self-possessed character in her filmography (with the swimmer in Dangerous When Wet a close second). Whitney in Skirts Ahoy! would never have married that pompous businessman in Thrill of a Romance (1945), or dealt with Peter Lawford‘s “romantic” nonsense in On an Island With You (1948). She would have fired Gene Kelly the first time he misbehaved in Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), and she probably never would have joined Red Skelton‘s failing carnival act in Texas Carnival (1951). So Whitney is fun to watch from a character development point of view across Williams’ filmography.

Back to the film! Whitney is upset by Paul’s comments but stops by the pool on her way to the barracks. A quick swim with two kids (Russell “Bubba” Tongay and Kathy Tongay) is just the thing to cheer her up!

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams

The Tongay siblings were known as the “Aquatots” and were trained by their father when they were just months old to be stunt swimmers. When Bubba was four, he swam 22 miles in the Mississippi River, while his two-year-old sister swam four miles. Crazy! Their father wanted the kids to swim the English Channel in 1951, but the authorities forbade it because they viewed the stunt as child abuse, not entertainment.* The Tongays returned to the US and made this cameo appearance with Williams as well as newsreels.

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams

It’s a very cute number featuring three amazing swimmers who appear utterly at home in the water.

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams

Williams gets some solo water ballet time, too:

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams

Fun fact: the suit she wears was designed for the film by Cole of California. The cross-promotion for the movie/suit was intense:

Another fun fact: Hollywood columnist Erskine Johnson wrote in January 1952 that the original design for these Cole suits included red and blue stars. MGM vetoed it, writing, “No red stars, please. We might be called subversive.” The final design features a blue eagle and red stripes, no red stars!

Back to the film! A big USO dance at the base gives us the opportunity to watch the synchronized stylings of an African-American drill team:

Skirts Ahoy!

You can watch it here. The drill team is followed by an appearance by Keenan Wynn, who introduces MGM players Debbie Reynolds and Bobby Van before their number. Because all Navy training centers have agreements with Hollywood studios. How great is Reynolds’ dress?

Skirts Ahoy: Debbie Reynolds, Keenan Wynn, and Bobby Van

The number is a highly energetic, silly affair. You can watch it here.

Skirts Ahoy: Debbie Reynolds and Bobby Van

Fun fact: apparently, Vera-Ellen and Ricardo Montalban also filmed a dance number, but it was cut.

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams

Next we have a song by the DeMarco sisters (who appear as WAVE recruits “the Williams sisters”), and a serenade by Dick himself, who has enlisted in the Navy, too.

Fun fact: the DeMarco sisters were five siblings who sang close harmony and big band music. They began their career in 1935 and sang on the radio and later television. This was their film debut. Another fun fact: Keefe Brasselle, who plays Dick, would later marry one of the sisters, Arlene, in 1956!

Meanwhile, Una searches for a French-speaking sailor, as Archie is stationed in Paris. Mary Kate decides to give Dick another chance. And Paul continues shunning Whitney, so she leaves the dance and finds a partner in the sweet plumber, Pops (Emmett Lynn).

After the party, the WAVES get back to business, learning the basics of synchronized swimming. What? Yes, that’s right. Whitney teaches a class in the pool. (This movie gives absolutely zero information about what WAVES actually do…)

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams

Boot camp is almost over, but Paul still won’t talk to Whitney. So she follows him into a movie theater (showing MGM films The Great Caruso (1951) and Rich, Young and Pretty (1951), of course!)

She finagles a seat next to him, but he’s not thrilled about it. He still dislikes the way she takes control: “I just like to do my own hunting, that’s all,” he says. She responds, “But wouldn’t the hunter be pleased if the rabbit walked right up to him and said, ‘Here I am?'” “Shows you don’t know anything about hunting.” Grow up, Paul. And stop looming.

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams and Barry Sullivan

Whitney leaves the movie but finds solace in the water, as usual. She strips out of her uniform into her pink skivvies (rather risqué, actually, though we really only see the straps on her bra) and swims with a toy she names Mr. Smith. The number ends when she squeezes him too hard and he bursts, deflated. Nice symbolism.

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams

You can watch it here:

Also, what’s the deal with adult women singing to toys? Jane Powell does it in Hit the Deck (1955), too.

Then it’s graduation! The parade is followed by a patriotic send-off speech by Lt. Commander Staunton. She solemnly congratulates the new WAVES, tells them that they’ve become independent, unselfish women serving something more than themselves, and promises that they will never be alone again. Soft trumpets blow as she speaks. It’s not subtle, but it works.

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams, Joan Evans, and Vivian Blaine

Our three pals are all heading to Washington D.C. for further training and then an overseas posting. They’re delighted to stay together, but Mary Kate is sad to leave Dick, Una is comically distraught when she finds out that Archie has just been stationed at Great Lakes for a year, and Whitney tries to give Paul one more chance.

Thankfully, she doesn’t completely play the “rabbit.” Instead, she strikes a middle ground: she doesn’t apologize for the way she acted, but says she is sorry that it made him uncomfortable. She ends with, “I still believe in asking for what I want. All I’ve learned is not to count on getting it.”

It works, and soon the train station (MGM’s “Grand Central Station” on the backlot) is full of kissing couples saying goodbye. Paul says he already put in transfer papers to move to DC, so it’s a happy ever after for everyone!

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams, Joan Evans, and Vivian Blaine

But it’s slightly unusual: we get the “clinch” and the promises of forever from our three couples, but the woman leave their men on the platform and rejoin their female trio as they depart for DC with their four years of Navy service ahead of them. So although the romance plots resolve in the traditional way, the movie manages to include the more progressive ending simultaneously. Though it’s a sneaky alternative ending: you mostly remember the kisses on the platform, not the three women traveling together to their next posting. So sure, they might get married and have babies and live that life, or they might become career Navy personnel. Or they might do both! I like to think that Whitney at least rises through the ranks and enjoys an adventurous life of travel! Perhaps with Paul by her side, perhaps not.

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams

Williams onboard the USS Monterey and Blaine cutting a cake in honor of the 10th anniversary of the WAVES in Motion Picture Herald, June 14, 1952 via: http://archive.org/stream/motionpictureher197quig#page/56/mode/2up

This movie was in production from August to November 1951. It premiered in New York on May 28, 1952, but was overshadowed by Williams’ other 1952 film, Million Dollar Mermaid, that hit screens in December.

In fact, Skirts Ahoy! came at the beginning of what I think of as Williams’ golden age at MGM. In the spring of 1951, she shot Texas Carnival (1951), then moved on to Skirts Ahoy! in August. She had part of December off before work began in January 1952 on Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), arguably her most famous movie. Then came Dangerous When Wet (1952) and Easy to Love (1953). Her final movie at the studio was the fairly bizarre Jupiter’s Darling (1955).

Anyway, Skirts Ahoy! was a hit, as were all of Williams’ films (except for Jupiter’s Darling.) Critics were less kind than audiences, but that was typical, too. For instance, a review in Modern Screen noted that the movie “doesn’t manage to maintain an amusing, spoofing quality. More often it alternates between moony, spooning romancing and a variety of specialty numbers, in the water and out…so that it sometimes seems to be a semi-serious musical comedy, sometimes just a hodge podge of revue acts.”

The New York Times critic compared the movie to cotton candy and used plenty of commas to discuss why: “That insidious product is, you know, delightful to the eye, but if you bite into it, as you are intended to, you find, to your chagrin, that there is nothing there. That, despite plenty of Technicolor and a few laughs, ‘Skirts Ahoy!’ is lots of eye appeal—no substance.”

He went on:

But then perhaps an ephemeral bit of spindrift like this is meant to be an exercise in unreality, a balsa hull topped off with a superstructure of song, enchanting female bodies and pretty faces. ‘Skirts Ahoy!’ comes precisely within that trade category, “summer fare” and is just as much a cliché. For if a director like Sidney Lanfield, who knows his ropes, actresses who know their lines, a scenarist who supplies lots of breeze, are all blended together, you will get the kind of super-polished hokum that Hollywood can manufacture with both cameras tied behind its back.

He did praise Vivian Blaine, describing her as “animated and full of sparkling bounce. But she’s much too frail to carry the whole cargo, with the result that that which is designed as a racy little sloop is launched a flat-bottomed barge.” I would disagree, as her “sparkling bounce” is a little too much in most scenes, but to each her own.

Fun fact: in October 1953, Sullivan and Williams recorded a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast of Skirts Ahoy! Sullivan provides narration, too. You can listen to it here.

Here’s the trailer–enjoy! For more, follow me on TwittertumblrpinterestInstagram, and Facebook. You can buy this movie here, and as always, thanks for reading!

*In a horrifying twist, it seems that the authorities were right. Kathy Tongas died at the age of six in 1953. Her father was convicted of manslaughter and spent ten years in prison.

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Categories: Musical

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