The Highs and (Very Low) Lows of 1948's On an Island with You
Out of all of Esther Williams's films, On an Island with You is the one that frustrates me the most. There are so many aspects to love -- Cyd Charisse and Ricardo Montalbán's sensational dancing, Esther being Esther, and the arresting color photography, to name a few -- but it all comes to a screeching halt with its very problematic love story and very irritating romantic lead.
The plot concerns the behind-the-scenes drama of a big Hollywood musical, which stars Rosalind "Ros" Reynolds (Esther), her fiancé Rick (Ricardo), and another actress named Yvonne (Cyd). Working as a consultant on the production is Larry Kingslee (Peter Lawford), a Navy lieutenant who fell in love with Ros during WWII when she visited his base with her USO show. The only problem? She doesn't remember him at all because they only had one passing interaction. When one of the film's scenes requires Larry to fly a plane with Ros in it, he decides to make her realize that he is the right man for her by forcibly taking her to the remote island where his old base was stationed. When there is trouble with their plane, the two must stay there as Rick, assistant director Buckley (Jimmy Durante), and Larry's superiors frantically search for them.
By the time they are found, Ros has softened towards the lieutenant, which ruins her engagement and somehow makes Larry angry (it is bonkers). But don't worry, it all culminates with Ros getting a restraining order and living the rest of her life far away from terrible Larry. Just kidding, he throws one final temper tantrum, she chases after him, and they end up together despite many, many red flags.
Let's talk about where On an Island with You goes right first.
For starters, it is just a stunning film to look at. The aesthetic quality of Esther's aquamusicals is always stellar, with their candy-colored set design, dreamy soft-focus close-ups, and subtly brilliant cinematography, and yet it is an element that is consistently overlooked when people discuss Esther's films. The visuals of On an Island with You in particular are quite something. A spotlight on a darkened bar set accentuates a riveting pas de deux. Divine costumes sparkle as shades of red, pink, coral, and green positively pop. Golden light shimmers on the teal water of a romantic nighttime swim, while Esther looks like a goddess in every frame.
Another great swim routine comes when Ros films one for her movie. Wearing a striking gold lamé swimsuit with a gold headpiece in her braided hair, Esther looks absolutely iconic as she cuts through the water with a smile on her face, surrounded by her trusty chlorines and their colorful boards.
The film's third swimming number, a dream sequence, is less successful. Imagining Ros in a glittering bathing suit and tinsel-like hairpiece, Larry dreams that she brings him to the watering hole where they first met only to kiss Rick. Jealous, Larry fights his rival underwater and wins Ros before she turns him away again. Between the murky water, the goofy fight, and Lawford's less-than-great swimming, the number isn't one of the best I've seen, but it has its charms.
It feels almost blasphemous to say, but it could be argued that Cyd and Ricardo's dancing steals the film. Their second number in particular makes my jaw drop from the electricity of their performance and the eroticism of their choreography. It is easily one of my favorite musical moments, ever.
In addition to the four leads, On an Island with You has a terrific supporting cast that includes Dick Simmons (who seems to be in almost all of Esther's films), Kathryn Beaumont (the voice of Alice from Disney's Alice in Wonderland and Wendy from Peter Pan), Leon Ames, Xavier Cugat, and the great Jimmy Durante. When asked who her favorite leading man was, Esther would sometimes answer Durante, who also appeared with her in This Time for Keeps (1947). Although I get why his schtick won't be for everyone, I find Durante to be pretty darn adorable. I love his cheesy jokes and I am often surprised by how touched I am whenever his characters become serious and sincere, such as the scene in On an Island with You where he tries to cheer up Esther with a silly song. I just love him.
Of course, the main reason I always return to this film is -- you guessed it -- Esther Jane Williams. Gorgeous and feisty, Ros is a typical Esther character in that she is a successful careerwoman who stands up for herself and her autonomy. However, the strength of Esther's character is sadly undermined by her romance with Larry. When the films begins, she rightly rebuffs him. She can tell he has intense feelings for her -- he never takes his eyes off of her; he is too persistent when she declines his offer to dance -- and she tries her best to discourage his advances. He doesn't respect her engagement to Rick and, more importantly, he doesn't respect her space or her right to say "no," which is wild when you consider that the script was co-written by two women, Dorothy Cooper and frequent Esther collaborator Dorothy Kingsley.
After their time on the island, though, Ros starts to see Larry in a different light when she really shouldn't. Does he attack her? No. Are there glimmers of a good guy that sometimes come through? Sure. But is all of that enough to negate his creepy attitude and the fact that he kidnapped her? No!
As a classic Hollywood fan, I know that the male romantic lead won't always be perfect. Ricardo's character, for example, seems lovely until he starts spouting misogynistic nonsense once he realizes Ros has fallen for Larry. Ricardo's magnetism and cheerful charisma, however, never allow me to hate Rick; the same can't be said for Lawford. I swear I love the guy -- I mean, I'm the girl who defended his singing in Easter Parade -- but his casting here doesn't work for me. Coming across as morose and snobbish, Lawford looks uncomfortable and, according to Esther, he never warmed up to her offscreen. On paper, they should be a good match, and when you see them together, they really are one of the most blindingly beautiful couples old Hollywood offered, but it falls flat, which only hurts the story more. The script makes it hard enough to find Larry's actions redeemable; how are we supposed to care for this character when he seems like such an entitled brat?
If the original choice of Van Johnson had worked out, I would absolutely feel differently. Van's innate sweetness and warmth would've smoothed out some of the character's rough edges and might've encouraged me to root for Ros and Larry's happily ever after. The love story would still be iffy, yes, but at least then I could understand why Ros's feelings would change.
At the end of the day, would I recommend On an Island with You? Yes and no. If you're not familiar with classic Hollywood, I wouldn't. There are just too many aspects that I think people who aren't immersed in classic film would find really baffling and offensive. (I didn't even go into how Esther's skin was darkened when Ros is playing a "native island girl," or the joke that the island's people are cannibals.)
I also wouldn't recommend this if you're not familiar with Esther's aquamusicals because I don't want this to scare someone off from seeing more of her work. Check out Dangerous When Wet, Million Dollar Mermaid, and Easy to Love first, then ease into her other films with Van, and then maybe see On an Island with You.
It isn't a terrible film, which is what is so annoying about it. There is so much good there that it could've really shone if only the filmmakers had considered a few essential tweaks, namely the central romance and Peter Lawford's casting. I will always mourn the "what could have been" of this film, but at least I can console myself with the fantastic fragments we do have.
This is my entry to the Second Annual Peter Lawford Blogathon, hosted by Hoofers and Honeys. Read the other contributions here!