Van Johnson gives Esther Williams the... Thrill of a Romance (1945)

When Esther Williams died in 2013, I was only blithely aware of her so when TCM aired a tribute to the million dollar mermaid a few days after her death, I snatched up the opportunity to see just what Ms. Williams was all about. Thrill of a Romance was my first introduction to the wondrous world of Williams, where Technicolor astounds, musical numbers pop up like little surprises, and Esther mesmerizes with the seemingly simple feat of swimming. I fell in love with it all, and the presence of Van Johnson certainly contributed to my feelings, him being a great partner for Williams. Shall we take a dip?

Cynthia Glenn (Williams) is your average girl-next-door. She lives with her amusingly absentminded aunt and uncle (Spring Byington and Henry Travers), whom she sweetly reminds to pay the bills and look in the icebox for a pair of glasses. Working as a children's swimming instructor, Cynthia is noticed one day by businessman Bob Delbar (Carleton G. Young). Despite his flirting, Cynthia doesn't really give Bob the time of day, leading him to grill one of her pupils about who she is, where she lives
-- you know, the usual stuff you ask a small child in order to cozy up to their teacher. Like Johnnie Johnston's character in This Time for Keeps, Bob is the worst, a real slimeball who kind of tricks Cynthia into marrying him. Sure, he sends her flowers right after meeting her, but he also sends her a magazine with an article about him as a way of introduction. I mean, who does that? Because he's such an "important" businessman, he can't be bothered with patiently getting to know Cynthia, so he
has a lackey gather information on her. He doesn't possibly have the time to come up with date ideas, so his secretary is forced to supply the suggestions, which include reminding him to invite Cynthia's aunt and uncle on a few dates so they'll like him. It's all very calculated, but Cynthia doesn't notice the warning signs, particularly Bob's obsession with work. At a nightclub one evening, he excuses himself from their table so he can go rub elbows with his boss (the enthusiasm
with which he says "Why, it's J.P. Bancroft!" is never matched when he talks to Cynthia). It's some supreme foreshadowing for the rest of the film, and the fact that Bob would abandon Esther freaking Williams just shows you how idiotic this guy is. Anyway -- they're quickly married in Bob's grandiose house, Cynthia covered in what seems like acres of material. When one of her swimming students shows her a dive he's finally perfected as a wedding present, she's thrilled and hugs the little boy while he's still dripping in water. Aghast, Bob chides Cynthia for getting her dress soaked, which she dismisses with "I won't need it again." Not so sure about that. I don't totally buy Cynthia marrying Bob when they're so mismatched, but hey, it gets the plot going.

For their honeymoon, the newlyweds drive to the high-class mountain resort Hotel Monte Blava. In the dining room later that evening, we're introduced to two other important characters: Metropolitan Opera star Nils Knudsen (Lauritz Melchior) and Major Tommy Milvaine (Johnson). Knudsen has a B-plot where he's constantly trying to sneak food because his doctor has put him on a strict diet and the hotel's manager, Ms. Fenway, keeps a close eye on him. Major Milvaine, on the other
hand, is a much-whispered-about guest because he became stranded on an island after shooting down enemy planes. When he sees Cynthia from across the room, he's instantly smitten. Meanwhile, the new marriage is already put to a screeching halt when Bob gets a call about an opportunity to help Mr. Bancroft close a big deal. He can't leave Cynthia's side fast enough, assuring her that it will only be for a few days and there's no point in her coming with him. Justifiably upset, Cynthia sits on her
balcony and cries (looking gorgeous while she's at it). On his own balcony that's conveniently next door, Tommy overhears the sobs and tries to console her. He assumes she's been married for awhile, but when she admits it's only been since noon that day, he's shocked: "What?! And he went away and left you?!" This guy gets it. Tommy makes her promise to stop crying and they sweetly say goodnight. Gee, I wonder if Tommy might be a better husband than Bob...

The next morning, Cynthia certainly seems to have taken Tommy's advice to heart. Clad in a bathing suit, strappy sandals, a beautiful robe, and her hair in a braided updo, Williams is breathtaking -- of course, she always is, but Thrill of a Romance consistently shows the star to her advantage, with plenty of ravishing close-ups and Technicolor-perfect clothes and makeup. Cynthia lounges on a chaise poolside and chats with another guest, Maude Bancroft (Frances Gifford), who
happens to be J.P. Bancroft's daughter. She confides to Cynthia that she's got her eye on Maj. Milvaine after hearing about his heroic experience... only she doesn't know what he looks like and she's not totally clear on the actual story: "He shot down 16 -- or was it 26? -- Jap planes. Got shot down at sea. Paddled 200 -- or was it 2,000? I don't know -- miles in a life raft. Spent a month on a jungle island. Oh, sad, very sad." Cynthia still hasn't connected the dots that the man who comforted her
last night is the major, so when Maude thinks that the guy who keeps showing off at the diving board is him (he's actually an arrogant boxer), Cynthia doesn't correct her. Instead she does her own impressive dive into the pool, where she bumps into a struggling Tommy. He's dreadful at swimming, so Cynthia offers him lessons. They're so adorable to watch. Van Johnson may have been Esther Williams's best leading man. Either him or Ricardo Montalban. And of course there was future husband Fernando Lamas. I would say those three top the list.

Later that day, Tommy joins Knudsen for lunch. When Cynthia shows up, the kindly old gent knows to bow out and give the twosome some alone time. They talk about Tommy's war experience, which is very understated and modest given what happened. It's clear that this film was made during WWII, although the luxury hotel they're staying at couldn't be further from reality at the time. Van Johnson was considered the embodiment of the boy-next-door, and seeing him portray a humble soldier only solidifies this image. I'm sure a lot of mothers and girlfriends saw their own soldier when they watched something like Thrill of a Romance (which was surely MGM's intent).

Anyway, their conversation is interrupted by a phone call from Aunt Nona and Uncle Hobart. Cynthia doesn't tell them that Bob threw her over for business, and they wind up mistaking her nervous attitude for extreme happiness. I love these two. Reminded that her husband is gone, Cynthia engages in all sorts of activities to keep herself busy, all of which include Tommy... and Knudsen. It's obvious to everyone, including Tommy and Cynthia, that they're falling for each
other, so Knudsen becomes a kind of chaperone for them. It helps that they enjoy his company. They go boating, hiking, horseback riding, and dancing. They continue their swimming lessons, where Cynthia gets to look fabulous and Tommy gets to be adorable as he tries to emulate her moves. The funny thing is that in real life, Williams had to discreetly hold Johnson up as they swam -- he really was a terrible swimmer. I always try to see if I can spot Williams doing this, but the
water masks it very well. This is alluded to in Esther and Van's next collaboration Easy to Wed; Esther's character enjoys a swim while Van's enjoys staying out of the water and on a pneumatic mattress instead. He got better by the time of their third film, Duchess of Idaho, but stayed away from tipping his toe in the pool altogether for their final movie, Easy to Love. But back to Thrill of a Romance. In addition to all of the outdoor activities, Cynthia and Tommy spend their evenings dancing and
having a pretty romantic time, which does not go unnoticed by Maude. She does a lot of observing that just makes you feel like she's up to something -- but more on that later. As if it weren't already obvious enough that they belong together, Tommy recites poetry and Cynthia names the poet until she's stumped by one. When Tommy reveals he wrote it, Cynthia has to remind herself once again that she's a married woman. Trust me, it gets just as frustrating for the audience as it does for them.

Aware that their week together is coming to an end, Tommy sadly watches Cynthia swim in a fun purple, polka-dotted suit. Seeing Johnson's face fall is the equivalent of seeing an abandoned puppy for me -- I may be too attached to this movie... Anyway, Cynthia is willing to finish their week by not mentioning He Who Must Not Be Named, but Tommy can't help bringing it up. Tonight will be their last night together and the idea of separation is already kind of devastating them. (And me.) To
make matters worse, Tommy's "graduation" from his swimming lessons involves a little duet between him and Cynthia, and like Fred and Ginger, the couple that dances/swims together, stays together. Come to think of it, we never see Cynthia and Bob even come close to dancing, despite going to two ideal places for it. Just another nail in Bob's coffin. For their final night, Cynthia and Tommy go dancing again, with Maude once again watching them from afar. She's still stuck with the dopey boxer, but I'm not sure why since
they both seem mighty annoyed with one another. She's tired of hearing the same boxing stories over and over and he wishes she'd stop drooling over Tommy. Back at their table, Tommy tells Cynthia that he's leaving in the morning. She then gets a telegram from Bob saying that he'll be gone another week. She's disappointed, but instead of sharing the news with Tommy, she asks him what kind of telegram he'd send his bride. "Not any kind. Not on our honeymoon." It's that kind of response that keeps her from telling him about the telegram. Knowing that he would stay and they could get into some serious trouble, Cynthia decides it's better not to say anything.

At this point, Maude has had enough of her dull friend and pushes him into the pool. She then takes the opportunity to have a drink with Tommy when Cynthia goes back to her room. She irritates him with her remarks about his hanging out with Cynthia, and then she mentions that Bob is waiting another week because that's when her father is coming to join her at the hotel. Really, man? Tommy confronts Cynthia about it, even admitting he loves her, but she's adamant that they can't cross any lines,
or rather the hedge that separates their balconies. Tommy understands, but he's totally staying another week. Cynthia calls Bob to ask him to come sooner, but naturally the guy is awful and says he can't do it, lying that the business deal is still going on and he can't leave yet. (Side note: how stunning does Esther look on the phone there? Shots like these always make me sad that our phones don't look like this anymore. Hell, our movies don't even look remotely like this anymore. What
happened to the soft lighting and the glamorous ladies? Sorry, that's a rant for another time.) Feeling down in the dumps, Cynthia goes downstairs to be cheered up by Knudsen, who sings her an upbeat song, which seems like the 40th number he's done. Up on his balcony, Tommy decides to check out in the morning after all. Say it ain't so, Major! In the morning, Cynthia tries to call his room only to find out he did indeed check out. She goes for a walk right when Tommy comes back to the hotel. These crazy kids just can't stay away from each other.

Luckily she doesn't get very far before he catches up with her. He wants to stay this extra week and he agrees to do it on her terms. They continue walking, getting farther and farther into the woods. They find a tree with your typical initials carved in it inside a big heart, and suddenly things get all romantic again, despite Tommy's promise to not talk about it. They finally embrace and Cynthia admits she's fallen for him, but darn it all, she wants to give her marriage to Bob a chance. That's
fair, except for the fact that Bob doesn't deserve it. Cynthia then asks Tommy to leave once they return to the hotel. Fate steps in, though, and they become lost. When it gets too dark to see, they decide to rest for the night and try to figure it out in the morning. I love it when Cynthia skeptically asks "And you found your way out of a jungle?" "Well, it took me a month." Not a hopeful sign. Using Tommy's jacket as a blanket, Cynthia easily nods off while he keeps watch over her. Remind me again why you want to go back to Bob, Cynthia?

The next morning, Bob and J.P. Bancroft arrive at the hotel six days early. When Bob sees that Cynthia hasn't slept in her bed, he goes back to the Bancrofts' suite furious. How dare the wife that he abandoned not be there to welcome him with open arms! Maude is all too smug as she coyly says that she saw Cynthia leave yesterday for a walk, knowing full well that Tommy joined her. She then spots the twosome crossing the lawn and points it out to her father and Bob, who just gets even more angry. I'm not entirely
sure what Maude's endgame is here -- does she think that once Bob finds out about Tommy, Tommy will be all hers? Or is she hoping that she'll wind up with Bob instead? She's clearly not motivated by love, so is it money she's after if she wants Bob for herself? It was said earlier in the movie that he's on his way to being as wealthy as her father. In any case, Maude isn't a nice person. She even watches from her room as Bob confronts Tommy and Cynthia in the hallway. Naturally, Bob doesn't
believe their story at all, even though it's true. He gets even more insufferable when he interrogates Cynthia in their room. He accuses her of basically cheating on him, which she technically didn't do. Plus, remember that she was all ready to focus on her marriage instead of sticking with Tommy. I always wince at this exchange: "Do you think I'm a fool?" "No, I don't. But I am beginning to think that you're a stuffed shirt." "I could call you names!" "You better not!" Pissed off Esther Williams is one of the real pleasures in life. I love seeing her tell someone off because it's the culmination of her sassy and take-charge attitude, which is probably why I adore Easy to Love as much as I do. It's a bit of a letdown that she doesn't tear into Bob (and Maude) like a majority of Williams's characters would, but I think that's because this was only Esther's fourth film and her persona wasn't totally established yet. Cynthia is relatively naive and is much more cotton candy-sweet than what would come later. I mean, she says "thank you" when Bob tells her he's getting an annulment and she's being wholly sincere about it. Julie from Easy to Love would have told him to take a flying leap, but I digress.

Bob huffs and puffs his way back to the Bancrofts' suite, loudly telephoning his lawyer to get that annulment ASAP. His lawyer informs him that there's a slight problem: his first marriage wasn't totally null and void, therefore his marriage to Cynthia didn't really count. Man, the screenwriters really wanted to hammer it in that Cynthia and Tommy's relationship wasn't scandalous. You can't blame them -- I'm sure the Hays Office was on their backs the second they heard that the story was about
a married woman and a soldier falling in love, and it was a musical comedy, so no dramatic deaths at the end to absolve the couple of their sins. In other news, Maude and Bob seem to be paired off at the end, so there's that. Cynthia decides it's time to go home and says goodbye to Knudsen. He gently pries to see if she and Tommy are going to be together, but she thinks it's all ruined now. Knudsen gets an idea, though. Before you can say "Lauritz Melchior's 124th solo," he and Tommy arrive at
Cynthia's house. The whole Tommy Dorsey orchestra gets out of a cab and Knudsen sings while Tommy mouths the words as a way of serenading Cynthia. Van Johnson could sing, so why they chose this method, I don't know, but I still enjoy it. Aunt Nona and Uncle Hobie are confounded at the sight of this stranger singing in their front yard until Cynthia announces "It's Tommy!" "You didn't tell us he could sing, too!" They watch from their window as Tommy and Cynthia are reunited, giving the audience not one, but two kisses. Plus some serious dreamy-eyed looks. God, I love this movie.


As I said before, the musical numbers in Thrill of a Romance are quite abundant, but sadly they never include Ms. Williams or Mr. Johnson, at least not this time around. Lauritz Melchior has 7 or 8 songs, all of which randomly pop up more often than not. Melchior was an honest-to-goodness opera star and Louis B. Mayer brought him to the movies to lend some "legitimacy" and "high-class" to his musicals. After the first two or three numbers, though, you're begging Melchior to
develop laryngitis. He's adorable otherwise! In addition to Melchior, Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra are there to accompany every number. Their drummer, Buddy Rich, gets his own solo at one point, too. There's also a young pianist who is introduced as Dorsey's niece, although she wasn't in real life. The crazy thing is that two numbers with Dorsey were cut -- how many songs can a 105-minute movie take?!

The one musical sideline I don't mind is little Jerry Scott. He plays a bellboy who wants to be a singer. He idolizes Nils Knudsen, but finds himself too terrified to sing in front of the maestro. One night on the terrace where everyone is dancing, we suddenly hear a beautiful voice singing "Please Don't Say No." We find out it's Scott, hiding so he can have the courage to perform. Knudsen finds him and is delighted at what he hears, encouraging him to sing on stage with Tommy Dorsey. He does "Because," a great song that coincidentally was performed by Jane Powell at Esther Williams's wedding to second husband Ben Gage that same year. Luckily, you can check out Scott's B-plot in this YouTube video, which someone thoughtfully put together. Thanks, whoever you are!

Thrill of a Romance was a huge hit, and established Esther Williams as a serious star. Williams attributed the film's success to the chemistry between her and her leading man, saying that it looked like they belonged together and audiences enjoyed their wholesome look. They're also endearing as hell, both separately and together. I have no doubt that without TCM, I would still be unaware of Williams, which is seriously unthinkable for me. It was because of little snippets of her movies used in TCM commercials that I started recognizing her -- hell, it was the only place I saw her. No books, blogs (at the time), and other materials I looked at ever mentioned Esther, something I hope to rectify. One of my goals in life has become to write a book on her films, so other film fans can finally meet this gorgeous human being and appreciate what she brought to the movies. But for now, I'll settle with writing as many blog posts as I can.






Why can't restaurants look like this anymore?




This basically sums up their whole relationship -- she's sunny and happy while he's grouchy and awful.
My favorite dress in this movie. Just look at that!











An alternate title for this film could be "Maude Sees All."







Check out the black butterfly details on Maude's dress -- they're even in her hair!








With love,
Michaela

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This post is in conjunction with the amazing TCM Discoveries Blogathon, hosted by the Nitrate Diva. Click here to see the other great, great posts!

Comments

  1. Wow, what a complete post full of great pics! I enjoyed this film very much, and was lucky enough to see a copy that ended with a plead for the moviegoers to buy war bonds. Also, I never saw Williams' hair so beautiful - I'd totally copy her hairstyles.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses!
    Le

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This film may show Williams at her most beautiful. I mean, I think she was always stunning, but the close-ups here are just so frequent and so radiant. I actually have a hairstyle I call my Esther Williams hair -- they're actually milkmaid braids, but they remind me so much of Esther's braids when she swims.

      Thanks for reading! I'll check out your post asap!

      Delete

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