This Time for Keeps (1947)
After Esther Williams played a bullfighter in Fiesta (1947), MGM cast her as a water ballet star in This Time for Keeps (1947). Can you guess which role was closer to the real Esther?
This was the second film to feature Williams’ name above the title, and she was the undisputed star. Along with Williams, MGM cast vaudeville legend Jimmy Durante and Danish opera singer Lauritz Melchior, who had appeared with Williams in Thrill of a Romance (1945). Another familiar face popping up in this movie is Xavier Cugat and his band, who had also appeared in Bathing Beauty (1944).
There were rumors that Van Johnson would reunite with Williams for their third movie together in as many years, but instead, MGM assigned Johnny Johnston as the romantic lead.
Johnston (sometimes billed as “Johnnie”) was a singer with a big band baritone and several hit recordings in the mid-1940s. He had three top ten hits in 1945 alone, including a recording of “Laura,” the theme from the classic 1944 film noir.
This was Johnston’s third movie: he sang a song in the variety show in Paramount’s musical Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), and starred opposite Ann Miller in Priorities on Parade (1942). But Keeps was by far his biggest movie yet.
Fun fact: when he made this movie, Johnston was dating MGM darling Kathryn Grayson, and the pair would marry in August 1947.
Johnston was not a well-known star nor a particularly great actor, which left Williams to carry the movie, just as she had with Fiesta. In some ways, casting relatively unknown co-stars opposite Williams was a compliment: MGM was confident that audiences would come see her no matter her co-stars. Her films had become so bankable that they were now testing grounds for new actors, similar to the Andy Hardy movies where Williams herself had made her debut.
Another reason relative newcomers like Johnston were cast in Williams’ movies is that her scripts didn’t include the meaty roles that established or “serious” actors wanted.
So though Williams “would have preferred stronger leading men…it’s quite possible that a more prominent actor wouldn’t want to hold my towel; and sometimes that was literally what happened in the plot.” She would have liked stronger scripts, too, especially as the escapist romance plots grew more and more interchangeable, but audiences didn’t seem to mind.
And MGM saw the box office receipts and declined to mess with a very successful formula. Why pair Williams with Spencer Tracy or Clark Gable in a more “prestige” film when you could cast Johnny Johnston and reap the same box office?
Directing Keeps was Williams’ old nemesis, Richard Thorpe, which made this their third of four films together. When Williams heard he had been assigned to the picture, she went to the Thalberg Building to ask for another director. Although there hadn’t been any blow-ups on Fiesta like the one on Thrill of a Romance, Williams didn’t enjoy working with Thorpe and was desperate for someone else. But MGM valued Thorpe’s efficiency more than Williams’ opinion, so the director stayed. As Benny Thau, vice president and head of casting told her, “[Thorpe] gets the job done, and he’ll be directing This Time for Keeps. Make the best of it. Think of it this way: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’” So Williams was stuck with Thorpe once again.
To the film! We open at the opera where famed Wagnerian tenor Richard Herald (Lauritz Melchior) performs to great acclaim. In the audience that evening is Herald’s son, Dick Johnson (Johnny Johnston), his fiancée, Frances Allenbury (Mary Stuart), and Frances’ mother, Harriet (Nella Walker).
Dick has just returned from his WWII military service, and he’s slightly uncomfortable at the attention he receives when his father calls him out after the performance. (His desire to lead his own life apart from his father’s celebrity is why he uses a different last name). But Frances and her mother are delighted to bask in Richard’s reflected fame. (Is Allenbury an in-joke about the spoiled heiress Esther Williams played in Easy to Wed (1946) named Connie Allenbury?)
Backstage, we learn that Richard wants Dick to follow him into the opera, and has already arranged an audition for him. But Dick has other plans. He wants to live his own life, sing popular tunes, and reconnect with a certain swimmer he saw perform during the war…
A flashback shows us Dick in eye bandages at a military hospital. Leonora “Nora” Cambaretti (Esther Williams, who clarifies that she is French, not Italian despite the sound of her last name), and her pianist/sidekick Ferdi (Jimmy Durante) entertain the troops with songs and swimming.
The men are enthralled and tell Dick how gorgeous Nora is.
Eventually, Dick joins in with a song of his own, “Easy to Love.” Fun fact: a few years later, Esther Williams starred in a movie called Easy to Love (1953) which featured Tony Martin singing the title song.
After her water ballet, Nora lets Dick touch her face, assuming he is blind. But then his friends announce that his bandages were due to come off that morning and his eyesight has fully recovered! Nora is mad that he tricked her, but she’s a pro and keeps performing.
Costume appreciation break. This is one of many pretty swimsuits Williams wears in this film. Love the matching scarlet flowers in her hair, too.
Fun fact: Esther Williams went on military hospital tours like this during WWII in which she swam (if there was a pool), performed skits, and talked with soldiers and sailors.
Back to the film! Dick has never forgotten his encounter with Nora, so when he sees her ad in the paper he rushes off to the “Aqua Capers.”
Fun fact: as I’ve written about before, Esther Williams began as a competitive swimmer but her first foray into show business was in Billy Rose’s Aquacade at the 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. The Aquacade was a huge live spectacle with synchronized swimming (usually called “water ballet” back then), diving exhibitions, a live band, comics, skits, and loads of pageantry.
Shows like this were not uncommon, so audiences in 1947 would have known what the “Aqua Capers” was. But This Time for Keeps is the first movie that gave Williams the onscreen job of water ballet star, though it wasn’t the last. She had just made Fiesta, in which she spends far more time in the bullfighting ring than in the pool, so it makes sense that MGM wanted to get her back in the water just in case audiences revolted.
Dick worms his way backstage and introduces himself to Nora. He reminds her of their earlier encounter, and she eventually remembers the bold young soldier with the eye bandages and the smooth voice.
She asks what he is doing now, and when he hems and haws about his prospects, she assumes he is another out of work veteran. So she uses some of her showbiz contacts to get him an audition with Xavier Cugat’s band. Dick never finds the time, courage, or honesty to admit that his father is the wealthy, famous Richard Herald, and that he has a job at the opera waiting for him.
That evening, Dick, Ferdi, Nora, and her producer/suitor Gordon (Dick Simmons) go to Cugat’s club and watch the show. There are a few Cugat performances in this movie, though nothing quite as spectacular as his Bathing Beauty numbers.
Nora gets Dick a job with Cugat, but the next day, Dick’s dad gets him an audition with the opera company. Dick turns his aria into a jazzy number that horrifies his traditional father. Ahh, the wild youth!
Unbeknownst to his dad, Dick begins to work with Cugat. And unbeknownst to his fiancée, Dick begins romancing Nora. She doesn’t know he has a fiancée, so she receives his attentions quite happily. Ferdi is less enamored with Dick, but he’s always quite protective of Nora and doesn’t like any of her suitors.
We learn that he was a friend and fellow “trouper” of Nora’s father (Nora is a 5th generation entertainer, though the first not to be in the circus) and Ferdi has become a sort of guardian. He somehow manages to show up whenever Nora and Dick go on dates, which fulfills his fatherly role and also allows Jimmy Durante to get some songs in, including his trademark, “Inka Dinka Doo.”
Well, Nora and Dick fall in love despite Ferdi and Gordon’s efforts. Along the way, we get to see one of Nora and Ferdi’s numbers, “Ten Percent Off,” a comedy routine about taxes that morphs into a tame striptease as Nora sheds her fur wrap, gown, and shoes to reveal a sparkly bathing suit.
Then she does her thing in the water. Those swimmers who just stand there as Nora swims by make me nervous! Can’t you just imagine them shooting to the surface for air as soon as the director yelled “Cut!”
Fun fact: footage from this number (and others in Williams’ filmography) turns up in a montage sequence in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952).
Another fun fact: Stanley Donen staged the water ballets in this movie. At this point in his career, he was still a young director/choreographer working mostly with Gene Kelly, but with Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) and On the Town (1949), Donen eventually became a big time director.
Anyway, back to this film! Dick visits one of Nora’s rehearsals and she infuriates Ferdi by spending more time by the side of the pool with Dick than running through her choreography. She tells Dick that she is falling in love with him, and explains that before things go any further, she wants to take him home to Mackinac Island to meet her grandmother.
Dick happily agrees, despite the fact that he is still engaged to Frances and that he still hasn’t told Nora who he really is. He’s not especially likable. Some of it is Johnny Johnston’s stiffness and lack of charisma, and some of it is the character. He’s hard to root for because he tells lies practically the whole movie. And it’s one of those classic situations where we aren’t sure why Nora and Dick like each other. There is no real chemistry, shared interests, repartee, or other reasons to explain their attraction.
Fun fact: MGM hired champion diver Ruth Jump, a former teammate of Williams from their days on the Los Angeles Athletic Club team, to perform some dives in this movie. Often Williams does her own dives, but she wasn’t a trained diver, so whenever MGM wanted something a little more spectacular, they brought in stunt divers. You can tell the difference just from body type: Jump is taller and thinner.
Although this is just a “rehearsal” scene, Nora wears a really fun suit with a royal sash and “brooch.”
Anyway, Nora and Dick head off to Mackinac Island in Michigan. It’s wintertime, so the famous, car-less island is covered in snow and empty of most tourists.
Nora introduces Dick to her grandmother (Dame May Whitty), who used to be an equestrian in the circus. Also at home is Nora’s niece, Deborah (Sharon McManus). Here is my question: what tragedy has befallen this family that entire generations are missing? We get the impression that Grandmother and Deborah are all the family Nora has left, which means her parents and her brother and his wife (Deborah’s parents) are gone. Poor, sickly-looking Deborah is left to be raised by her great-grandmother.
Anyway, Grandmother approves of Dick, which makes us question her famous discernment. She’s supposed to be an amazing judge of character, which is why Nora brought Dick there in the first place, but she doesn’t catch on to any of Dick’s lies. He does sing her favorite song, “I’ll Be with You in Apple Blossom Time,” so maybe that turns her head.
The next day, Nora, Dick, and Deborah go for a sleigh ride so they can sing the punny “S’No Wonder They Fell in Love” song. It’s Williams’ only tune in this movie, though she’d previously sung and danced in Easy to Wed.
Dick and Nora return home where their idyllic love bubble bursts. Richard and Mrs. Allenbury have grown concerned about Dick’s disinterest in Frances, the engagement, and the opera. So to push Dick in the right direction, the parents send an engagement announcement to the papers.
Nora sees it the night she returns from Mackinac. She is heartbroken.
Meanwhile, Dick confronts his father when he probably should have been explaining the situation to Nora. By the time he gets to the Aqua Capers theater, Nora is gone. She and Gordon have fled to nurse her broken heart, and Dick can’t find out where she is.
Six weeks go by and Nora remains hidden. Ferdi still runs the Aqua Capers show, which gives him the chance to sing another famous Durante tune, “The Lost Chord” during a rehearsal. Meanwhile, Dick stops by and tells Ferdi that he has broken off the engagement with Frances and desperately wants to find Nora. But Ferdi stands firm. (There is a whole subplot in which Ferdi tries to figure out if his feelings towards Nora are purely paternal or if they verge into romantic love, but it’s kind of icky.)
Eventually, it’s summertime. Cugat’s band, including Dick, go to Mackinac Island for a summer stint at the renowned Grand Hotel. Nora arrives on the island, too, this time with Gordon in tow. She wants to get Grandmother’s approval of this suitor. Because last time went so well…
The island looks gorgeous and the movie becomes a travelogue for a while to show off the location. The production did shoot on Mackinac Island for several weeks, so they wanted to show they’d actually left the backlot!
Dick still wants Nora back, but she pretends to be totally invested in Gordon. Even though she is still in love with Dick, deep down.
Gordon passes Grandmother’s tests, but it’s pointless. Even though Nora says she’s still furious with Dick, everyone can see she is in love with him. Dick exploits this later on at the hotel pool by singing “their” song, “Easy to Love,” with Cugat’s other singer, Lina Romay, as a furious Nora watches with Deborah.
Fun fact: notice the plaid bathing suit Nora wears in this scene? It caused a pretty big problem on set. Costume designer Irene conjured up a flannel bathing suit as a nod to the Michigan location, but once Williams dove into the pool, the wool fabric quickly became waterlogged. Williams recalled in her autobiography that “it was like trying to swim while wrapped in an old army blanket.” The situation went from difficult to dangerous when the suit dragged Esther down until she was forced to unzip it.
She shot back to the surface, nude, and called her wardrobe woman, Florence “Flossie” Hackett, over to the edge of the pool. Flossie first asked Williams to dive to the bottom of the pool and retrieve the sodden suit, as these custom made costumes were quite expensive.
But Williams suggested a crew member fish it out, instead, and turned her attention to getting out of the pool without exposing herself to the crew, extras, and spectators. Flossie brought Williams a large towel with a hole cut in it, and slipped the makeshift poncho over the swimmer’s head as she emerged from the water.
The production moved on to other scenes until Irene could make another flannel suit, this time out of a lighter fabric, and ship it to Michigan. After this fairly ridiculous episode, Williams made sure to sit in on swimsuit design sessions and to test each suit in the water before filming began. So although the flannel suit began as a costly mistake, it encouraged Williams to think about swimsuit design in a different way, which eventually led to a side career for the star. For more on that, visit this post.
Back to the film! Gordon realizes that Nora still loves Dick so he leaves Mackinac. A confused Nora wants to follow him, but Ferdi convinces her to stay and try to reconcile with Dick. What a great bathrobe.
Meanwhile, Richard arrives on Mackinac to reconcile with his son. He and Grandmother hatch a plot to get the two lovers back together.
But Nora is still too hurt/proud to go to Dick.
But eventually, with the help of Cugat and his band, Richard serenades Dick and Nora until they fall back into each other’s arms.
Happy ending! I guess? They are still one of the least likable couples in Williams’ filmography. And the plot is pretty light even for a mid-1940s musical. Oh, well.
This movie was in production from mid-July to mid-October 1946. Nearly a year after production wrapped, This Time For Keeps premiered on October 7, 1947.
Reviews were mostly aligned and praised the lush production, songs, and water ballets, while finding fault with the plot. Edwin Schallert of The Los Angeles Times was perhaps the most complimentary of the movie, calling it “first-rate entertainment” that “proffers beauty, pleasant music, delightful water ballets, comedy and a story that holds together very nicely.” He praised the actors, noting that “Particularly good use is made of Jimmy Durante,” and “Esther Williams in Technicolor is the acme of loveliness.”
But most other outlets found fault. The Independent Film Bulletin opined that This Time for Keeps was only “moderately entertaining” despite a lavish production, good stars, and plenty of tunes. “The elements are all there for a really sock musical and it will prove disappointing to many, as it did to this reviewer, that they are not better coordinated and supported by a fresher plot.”
Motion Picture Daily agreed, noting in its review that “In the tradition of many musicals, stage or screen, the plot structure is painfully flimsy. In fact, it is but a potpourri of striking settings, songs…, some romancing, and plenty of lively music.” Film Daily complained that “There is so much incidental material involved in the narrative that frequently the story is sidetracked for the inclusion of scenery, theatrical comedy, song, dance, and the like.” But overall, “The names will draw an audience. They should be satisfied with the spectacle that unreels for them.”
Variety was surprisingly positive about the movie, calling it a “money picture” with a combination of “splendiferous Technicolor production” and the “splash of bathing beauts,” which make it “ideal entertainment anywhere.” The “marine ballet and other dance number are effective splashes as Stanley Donen staged them,” and overall the “production is ultra” with “strictly orb-filling” swimming scenes” that are nonetheless “done with restraint and consummate good taste.”
Motion Picture Daily was complimentary of Esther’s appearance, writing that “In bathing togs and evening gowns, the curvaceous Miss Williams, of course, holds the spotlight at its brightest.” And Motion Picture Herald agreed, though its review also praised her performance: “Esther Williams in Technicolor and brief bathing suit, cavorting like a seal in the water, and at other times doing some fine straight dramatic acting, makes up for story lack.” Variety was positive about Esther, too, writing that “Miss Williams, besides the aquatic and pulchritudinous display, comes off above par on her personal histrionics. She handles her lines (dialog) almost as well as her other lines (Jantzen).”
The film brought attention to Mackinac Island and the Grand Hotel specifically, which jumped on the promotional opportunity. As the movie crisscrossed the country in 1947 and 1948, newspaper ads urged vacationers to visit the famous Grand Hotel as seen in This Time for Keeps. And the hotel manager told the Detroit Free Press in September 1948 that the hotel received two to three letters every week from interested moviegoers asking if the hotel really exists!
Johnston was never paired with Williams again, and would only make two more movies, Unchained (1955) and Rock Around the Clock (1956). But Williams’ career kept rocketing forward. Her next film was On an Island With You (1948) with Jimmy Durante and Ricardo Montalban, and she worked regularly until she made her last movie at MGM in 1955.
Here’s the trailer–enjoy! For more, follow me on Twitter, tumblr, pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook. You can buy this movie here, and as always, thanks for reading!
A great post! I was surprised to run across the TCM DVDs of Esther Williams movies at the library, and thoroughly enjoyed them all. Such a talented woman! I’m so glad you are spreading the word about these quality films!
Thank you! I love her movies and it’s always nice to hear from another fan!
I appreciate how your articles are thorough and I love the little “fun facts”. I have not really watched any film by Esther Williams but I am definitely intrigued about her since you said she liked stronger scripts.
She’s a fascinating person! Hope you get a chance to watch some of her movies.