Esther Williams dazzles in... This Time for Keeps (1947)

After my outing with Nick and Nora (and Asta!) yesterday, I'm really enjoying this 1947 Blogathon. For the other marvelous discussions, click here and don't look back. If you missed my previous entry for the blogathon, you can find it here. But at this moment, let's jump in the pool with my favorite mermaid...

On stage at a ritzy theater, opera star Richard Herald performs as his proud son, Dick Johnson, looks on in the audience. Sitting by Dick is his snooty fiancee, Frances Allenbury, and her mother, both of whom seem to only want the marriage because it will link them to the prestigious Richard Herald. Richard is thrilled to have his son back home after service in the army, and immediately starts pushing an opera
career on the boy. Dick loves singing and he loves his father, but opera just isn't right for him, something that doesn't register with his father or his fiancee. Noticing a newspaper advertisement for Leonora Cambaretti's (Williams) Aqua Capers in his father's dressing room, Dick flashes back to when he was wounded and at a veterans hospital. Leonora Cambaretti and her friend Ferdi Farro (Jimmy Durante) put on a performance for the patients, one that Dick couldn't see due to bandages over his eyes. Intrigued by the description of Nora, Dick decides to sing "Easy to Love" to her, a gesture that she finds sweet enough to warrant a friendly kiss on the lips. She's irate, though, when she learns that nothing's wrong with Dick's eyes at all--the doctor just hadn't made the rounds yet that day, or else the bandages would be off. Nora jumps back in the pool, leaving Dick with an indelible image of the woman.


Curious to see her again, Dick skips dinner with Richard and Frances and tries to get past the stage manager at the Aqua Capers. Noticing him on the way to her dressing room, Nora lets him come backstage, although she wisely meets with him in Ferdi's room instead of her own. "I have met with you before, sort of, but you wouldn't remember," Dick tells Nora. "My memory's pretty good.
Try me," she responds, leading him to plant a quick kiss on her. Oh, she remembers him alright! Mimicking him when they kissed previously, she closes her eyes and runs her fingers over his face...and then twists his nose! Payback's a bitch, Dick. Ferdi remembers him too, and he is not a fan. Nora decides to let bygones be bygones and assumes that Dick is looking for a singing job. Seeing a chance to be close to Nora, Dick doesn't correct her.

I like to think of Ferdi as standing in for the audience, mainly because he thinks Dick is slime and tries to make the other characters see it too. For instance, Nora asks her boss Gordon to find a job for Dick. Being in love with Nora and practically engaged, Gordon is inclined to do whatever she wants. Ferdi points out to him that it's pretty stupid to let Dick hang around when he clearly has a thing for the swimming star, but Gordon is too naive to think anything of it. Ferdi takes matters into his own hands and asks 1940's mainstay Xavier Cugat if he can give Dick a job. Durante is hilarious as he tries to sell Cugat on hiring the very Caucasian Dick for the very Latin orchestra ("You may have to change your name from Dick to Jose!"). One song is all it takes for Cugie to hire the young man.

Unfortunately, the job doesn't stop Dick from still sniffing around Nora, much to Ferdi's annoyance. Dick also keeps the gig a secret from his father, knowing that he hates that kind of music. This is only further proven when Richard arranges an audition for his son and Dick changes the music to something more jazzy, irritating his father to no end. It isn't long before Nora starts skipping rehearsals to run around with Dick (thanks to ol' doormat Gordon). Her performance is hardly effected, though, when you see her and Ferdi's number "Ten Percent." Dressed in white formal wear, the twosome tango ("Hope Gene Kelly saved his money!" Ferdi quips), and then Nora strips down to her bedazzled swimsuit. Diving into the pool, Williams and her talented crew of fellow swimmers entertain the audience beautifully. The ending is fun too: Durante's platform sinks into the pool until he's totally submerged, piano and all. Williams pops up wearing his top hat, pulling him up as well to acknowledge their audience.

During dinner one night, Nora tells Dick about her circus family and how Ferdi used to perform with her father. She diverged from the circus, which upset her family until she became a star in her right. Their getting-to-know-you is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Ferdi, who sings the catchy "Inka Dinka Doo" as he glares at Dick. The couple slips away from Ferdi's all-seeing eye, which Nora apologizes for later
that night. It's a very tender moment, as Ferdi cautions her that she doesn't really know Dick. She deflects this because she's more concerned that Ferdi is angry with her. He assures her that everything between them is fine...the same can't be said for him and Dick. At Nora's rehearsal the next time, Dick sits poolside as he watches Nora be amazing. Ferdi speaks for America when he mutters to himself "That job
with Cugie didn't help the situation--he might as well be working here!" Never change, Ferdi. I especially love it when Nora and Dick are trying to talk and you can hear Ferdi just banging on the keys to break up their conversation. Unfortunately, the piano can't override Nora's confession to Dick that she's falling in love with him. There's only one problem (so she says): he has to meet her family in Mackinac Island. The Cambarettis are a tight group, and without their approval, it's likely that their relationship won't last. Well, without Grandma's approval, that is. Nora asks Gordon for the next few days off, and when she returns to tell Dick he said yes, we can hear Ferdi's playing has become slower and more melancholy. Poor guy.

Nora and Dick arrive in Mackinac Island, allowing us some beautiful shots of the island in wintertime. (Mackinac Island is a gorgeous place in Michigan. It can only be accessed by ferry, and to this day, no cars can be found there. The most popular transportation is the bicycle, although in This Time for Keeps, horse-drawn sleds are shown too. My family visited the island back in 2003 and I've been dying to go back
ever since, if only to eat the magnificent fudge sold in dozens of shops there.) The only ones currently at the Cambaretti estate are Grandma (Dame May Whitty) and Nora's niece Deborah (Sharon McManus). Anxious, Nora asks Grandma how she likes Dick, to which Grandma responds "Before I make a decision about a man's character, I like to see him without his overcoat." I must stitch this into a pillow
sometime. Grandma asks Nora about Dick's family, and we realize that Dick hasn't told her who his father is or anything. Dubious that Dick will be able to support Nora, Grandma asks him to sing so she knows he has a good enough voice to earn an income. Deborah whispers to him that Grandma's favorite song is "Apple Blossom Time," and Dick's performance magically convinces Nora's grandmother that Dick is alright.

Back at the Aqua Capers rehearsal, Ferdi is trying to work with Nora's understudy when Gordon calls off the day's practice. He then shows Ferdi a newspaper headline that declares the impending marriage of one Richard Johnson, son to famed Richard Herald, and Frances Allenbury. You see, assuming that Dick's weird attitude lately was just a case of nerves, Dick's father and Frances's mother decided to go ahead and announce the engagement. Ferdi knows he'll have to break the news to Nora, who is currently having the time of her life riding a sled with Deborah and Dick. They all sing a cute song called "S'No Wonder They Fell in Love," and for a minute you forget what a jerk Dick is. Just kidding, you don't. But it's still nice.

Upon arrival back home, Dick finds out what his father did, as does Nora. Instead of blaming Dick, though, she takes all the credit for her heartbreak--she rushed him into meeting the family, she didn't ask enough questions, etc. I hate that the script makes Nora do this, especially since at any time, Dick could have and should have told her the truth. The moment she told him she loved him, he should have come clean. (Ferdi agrees with me, so I know I'm right.) Nora decides to go on a vacation, just missing Dick at the stage door. Ferdi confronts the guy, who confirms that he's engaged. His excuse for not ending it? "Did you ever try to break an engagement with a perfectly nice girl? It's a rotten thing to have to do." Um, I'm sorry, what? Of course it sucks, but you should still do it. Dick tries to be valiant and says that he couldn't ask Nora to "wait around while [he] crawls out from" the engagement. Ferdi has had enough of this kid's bullshit and refuses to tell him where Nora is.

Months go by. Richard realizes how wrong he was to push the wrong career and the wrong girl on his son, and he goes to Ferdi to ask where he can find Nora. He tells Ferdi that it was his fault the announcement went into the paper, but Ferdi still withholds Nora's location. Later that night, he stops by the Cugat Club to encourage Dick to visit his father, whom he hasn't seen in weeks. Dick would rather insist to Ferdi that he's been honest (yeah right) and he deserves to know where Nora is (don't think so). He then tells Ferdi that Cugat's band has a gig at the Grand Hotel in Mackinac, so he'll be spending the summer there, snidely adding "Even the stars are fighting against you," to which Ferdi beautifully replies:

Some time later, Dick is rehearsing at the Grand Hotel when Deborah shows up to tell him that Nora has arrived with Ferdi and Gordon in tow. Dick rushes to the house, just in time to hear Grandma asking Gordon questions in order to grant her approval. Because he's rude, Dick cuts Grandma off and tells her she has no right to ask Gordon anything because she already approved of Dick. Seriously, man? He and Nora argue, causing him to leave in a huff, which then causes Deborah to start bawling. (For some reason, she likes Dick.) She asks Ferdi if he can do anything, and the softhearted guy gives in. He puts in a call to Dick's father, who shortly arrives in Mackinac. You haven't lived until you've seen Jimmy Durante and Lauritz Melchior riding a tandem bike. Richard talks to Grandma in order to get her help in reconciling the kids; this comes easily once Richard recognizes her from her famous circus act and praises her talent.

At the community pool, Nora is giving swimming lessons to Deborah. Dick shows up and tries to make Nora jealous by singing "Easy to Love" with Cugat's female singer. It does the job, but she still doesn't give in. Seeing this whole interaction, it finally hits Gordon that he doesn't have a future with Nora and he leaves Mackinac. Later that night, Ferdi, Grandma, and Richard get dolled up for an evening at the Grand Hotel; Nora claims she has a headache in order to stay at home. Ferdi catches her packing in an effort to go after Gordon. Telling her that it's silly to let her pride get in the way of reuniting with Dick, Ferdi loses me a bit. As does the ending, if only because I believe Nora is better off by herself. Instead, she goes to the Grand Hotel and as Richard's opera piece turns into "Easy to Love," she and Dick exchange loving glances and they end up together.

Esther Williams made a name for herself three years before This Time for Keeps when she starred next to Red Skelton in Bathing Beauty (1944). By 1947, she was receiving top billing, an accomplishment that she would sustain for practically the rest of her film career. I have to admit, though, that This Time for Keeps isn't exactly a favorite of mine. It wasn't one of Esther's, either. Director Richard Thorpe wasn't the kindest to his leading lady and to her annoyance, MGM kept putting them together for pictures. On their first film, Thrill of a Romance (1945), Esther screwed up a line and asked to do another take, causing Thorpe to explode and chastise her in front of everyone. On This Time for Keeps, the two still weren't getting along, but they forged a truce in order to make work a little more pleasant. But for me, the director isn't the problem, it's leading man Johnnie Johnston.

Johnston may be Esther's worst co-star, ever. Sure, he can sing beautifully, but the guy was a jerk, on and off the screen. In her autobiography The Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams wrote that Johnston brought his tiny fan club of teenage girls with him on location in Mackinac Island, and he would read aloud the sometimes graphic love letters from Kathryn Grayson, who would become his wife that year (and his ex in 1950). Esther astutely noted that many of her male co-stars "had been given roles in my movies so they could get a bit of experience and become better known. I would have preferred stronger leading men, but it's quite possible that a more prominent actor wouldn't want to hold my towel; and sometimes that was literally in the plot" (153). She then compared her films to the Andy Hardy series, which MGM used to give their starlets a beginning role, including Williams herself. All of that may have clouded my judgment when it came time to watch the movie, but then I watched it a second time and paid more attention to Johnston's character and you know what? He was still horrible.

Not only doesn't he break off the engagement to Frances, but he finds a way to take it out on everyone else for his mistake. For some inexplicable reason, Dick stops seeing his father although it was a honest mistake and could be absolved in a matter of minutes. His father wouldn't have even made that mistake if Dick had done a little something called communication. He's also just an overall rude
person. The first time we see him actually working and rehearsing with Cugat's band, he literally stops singing mid-sentence when he sees Deborah and then he just leaves, infuriating Cugat. Later at the community pool, when he's trying to make Nora jealous, he cuts off Cugat's singer (Dorothy Porter) and makes the band switch to "Easy to Love." I think what irks me the most about Dick is how he treats Ferdi. Ferdi is such a sweetheart, it fires me up every time Dick says something snide about him. Dick certainly earns his name, and Johnston just doesn't cut it as an actor. He's smug and his self-confidence isn't the least endearing. He seems to have only two emotions, neither of which he does very convincingly. Like I said earlier, the guy could sing, but acting most certainly was not his forte.

I don't want to discourage anyone from seeing the film, though. Despite Johnston, This Time for Keeps is a good way to spend 105 minutes. Plus, I would never tell someone to skip an Esther Williams flick. Like in Dangerous When Wet and others, her character is independent, sweet, and sassy. And how about that Jimmy Durante? I love Durante--not only is he funny, but he also displays vulnerability that would soften the hardest of hearts. It's touching to watch him be so protective of Nora. When Dick accuses Ferdi of being in love with Nora, it just makes you hate him more. Maybe I'm misreading things, but I find Ferdi and Nora's relationship to be that of a surrogate father and daughter more than anything romantic.

Another sweetheart in the cast was opera star Lauritz Melchior. His first film had been Thrill of a Romance, his casting the result of Louis B. Mayer's effort to get more classical music in MGM films. Esther loved working with Melchior, especially since she was an opera fan. Their first meeting is adorable to read about: "When we met, he put his ample arms around me, and said with that charming Danish accent, 'I luff you.' 'I luff you, too,' I said, mimicking his voice and and his twinkle in a way that made him smile. 'It's mutual'" (121). Besides Thrill of a Romance, Melchior was in four other Hollywood films for both MGM and Paramount between the years 1944 and 1952, along with various radio and TV stints. 1947 was actually the year he put his hand and footprints in cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, as well as the year he became an American citizen. Melchior left Hollywood for the stage again, touring and performing opera until he died in 1973.

Esther Williams films are ripe for interesting production stories. (Swimming poses a lot more problems than you would think. For more on that, read my post on Esther here.) Costume designer Irene wanted to evoke a cozy, country feel in the clothes that were worn in Mackinac Island, which led to plenty of plaid and flannel, including one of Esther's swimsuits. This swimsuit spelled disaster once Williams wore it in the pool on a day of shooting--it was so heavy, she could hardly keep her head above water! She quickly took it off before it drowned her, only to be left floating naked in a pool that was surrounded by tourists and the production crew. Luckily her wardrobe woman was nearby and they were able to fashion a towel into a makeshift poncho, and Esther's exit was greeted by applause. Williams learned her lesson: "From then on I would sit in on the swimsuit design meetings and participate in the decision making about fabric choice. Once a suit was made, I would go into the pool and swim in it. After that it went back to wardrobe for whatever had to be changed" (155). This experience would come in handy when Williams started her own swimsuit line years later.

I have to admit, one thing I don't understand about the movie is the title. A chorus sings "This Time for Keeps" over the credits, but it's never heard again. "Easy to Love," however, is played at least 54 times in the film, so why they didn't title it that is beyond me. It wasn't until 1953 that Esther starred in a film called Easy to Love. Minor quibbles, I know. You've probably had enough of my griping, so let me just finish by saying: This Time for Keeps is fun, beautiful, breezy, and very easy to love watch. It may not have been Esther's best flick, but hey. They can't all be Dangerous When Wet.




I want this poster so bad. I would pay money for this in a heartbeat.








The Grand Hotel.

Does this not make life worth living?


With love,
Michaela

Comments

  1. Oh dear. A flannel swimsuit. That thing would weigh a TON once it hit the water. Fortunately, there was some quick thinking...!

    Esther's movies are fascinating, aren't they? She's a charismatic presence on screen, and how she makes all that swimming look effortless is beyond me. The technical camerawork in some of these films is really astounding. It must have been quite challenging at times, like you said, but how satisfying to see the end result.

    So glad you included an Esther Williams film in this blogathon. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I jumped at the chance to talk about Esther, something I love doing because I hope to bring more recognition to her work for all the reasons you named -- she was a fascinating star with her own unique genre, one
      that required plenty of movie magic. There's a moment in This Time for Keeps that I think exemplifies Esther's appeal: for her lesson with Deborah, Nora executes a beautiful dive and then glides in the water, all while looking perfect. It's Deborah's turn to dive, and instead of looking like Nora, she flails around and ungracefully hits the water. While we all think we could swim pretty like Esther, we really just look like Deborah. Esther makes it seem so easy.
      Thanks for stopping by!

      Delete
  2. Wow - thanks for reminding me about this gem! And I'm glad you flagged the story about the swimsuit. I think Williams' films must've been hard to costume as there's not really much variety in a bathing suit (and the censors needed to be kept happy!) yet she still needed to retain that wholesome glamour.
    (Vicki, GirlsDoFilm - I can't comment with my wordpress account!)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Happy to remind you! Part of the fun in watching these aquamusicals is looking at all the great swimsuits. Neptune's Daughter is especially great because Esther played a swimsuit designer, so it goes a little behind the scenes in showing how they mass produce the products. There's even a fabulous fashion show in it. And you're right, they had to be aware of censors--in her first film, Andy Hardy's Double Life, she wore a bikini but censors mandated that it had to cover her belly button. Mickey Rooney had to cover his as well! Never before did I think of belly buttons as corrupting moviegoers...

      Thanks for commenting!

      Delete
  3. Glad you highlighted this one for 47, so many good noirs it's easy to forget the other great crowd-pleasing movies. Love all the backstory you included, always worth reminding people not only of Esther's talent but all the work that went into making these films. Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. I've been amazed at all the great films from 1947, and it's made for such an interesting blogathon. It's true what you say--a lot of work happened in order to achieve a look of effortlessness, making it much too easy to take Esther's films (and many others) for granted.
      Thank you for hosting this!

      Delete

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