Esther Williams and Charles Walters: The Dear Dame and Her Dear Director

I'm thrilled to say that I'm taking part in the Star-Director Blogathon, hosted by the marvelous Theresa. Click here for the giant, amazing list of entries here.

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If you've read my blog before, you've probably noticed that Esther Williams is one of my favorite people ever. I love the gal, and I'm determined to spread the word of her brilliance for as long as I can. Every time I sign up for a blogathon, I instantly think of how I can talk about Esther because, if we're being honest here, blogathons are when I get the most traffic and I don't want people to miss learning about an Esther Williams film. Maybe it's just that others aren't as vocal as me, but it seems like she's fallen to the wayside, a possibility that obviously I can't accept. Writing for this blogathon affords me the chance to shed some light on a collaboration that isn't as celebrated as Jack Lemmon & Billy Wilder or Hitchcock & Cary Grant/Jimmy Stewart or Marlene Dietrich & Josef von Sternberg -- the marvelous pairing of Esther and director Charles Walters.



Like Esther, Charles Walters is not as well-known as he should be. It's highly likely you've seen one of his films -- the man has an incredible filmography, from Lili to Easter Parade to High Society. The man directed one gem after another, but his name doesn't get recognition like his peers, Vincente Minnelli being the most evident one. You wouldn't believe the trouble I had finding photos of Walters for this post. Thrillingly, author Brent Phillips noticed this unforgivable oversight and wrote a great book about Walters, which is where I'll be getting a good deal of my information on the director. If I do my job correctly, hopefully this post will spark an interest in Walters and you'll seek the book out for yourselves.

If you're unaware of exactly what all Chuck Walters did, he'd say he did his job. Phillips calls him the ultimate company man, and that he was. After working steadily on Broadway for over a decade, Walters entered the studio gates at MGM rather uneventfully. Gene Kelly, an acquaintance from Broadway, was making his second film, Du Barry was a Lady, and he wanted Walters to work on his first solo for the movies. Walters did and producer Arthur Freed was so impressed with his work that he let Walters work on four other numbers
("Madame, I Love Your Crepes Suzette," "Friendship," "Du Barry was a Lady," "Ladies of the Bath"). Soon thereafter, Walters's agent and 20-year partner John Darrow negotiated a standard seven-year contract at MGM. The new dance director was more than excited: "I didn't care if I was cleaning toilets, I wanted to work at Metro. It was not the most exciting entry, but damn it, I got there. It shows you what the will can do." While he got big assignments like Girl Crazy, Best Foot Forward, and Presenting Lily Mars, Walters would
also do uncredited work, like teaching Ingrid Bergman how to waltz for a short moment in Gaslight or creating the shadow waltz scene in Since You Went Away for David O. Selznick. Whatever MGM needed, he would do, including the dance direction for Meet Me in St. Louis. Film by film, Chuck would learn more and more, picking up ideas and understanding that with film, you could do anything you wanted with dance, especially at MGM, where no expense was spared for the hitmakers of the Freed unit. When his first directorial effort, 1947's Good News, was successful, Chuck was practically unstoppable. Thankfully, his promotion to director didn't keep him from working on musical numbers, even if his choreographers were personal mentor Robert Alton or Hermes Pan. Joan Crawford adored Walters so much that she asked him go in front of the camera and perform with her in their 1953 flick Torch Song, something Walters hadn't done since partnering with close friend Judy Garland in 1943 for Girl Crazy.

Around the same time that Chuck was chasing Lucille Ball on trampolines for Du Barry, a 20-year-old former Olympic hopeful was making Mickey Rooney's rambunctious Andy Hardy drool in her movie debut Andy Hardy's Double Life. Esther Williams was hardly impressed with Hollywood -- after the cancellation of the Olympics in 1940, Williams's ideas for a career were simple: get a stable job at the department store I. Magnin, work her way up in the ranks, have a family, lead a quiet life. When MGM came courting, she sent them right back to where they came from, more than once. Deciding that she had nothing to lose, Williams finally relented and was whisked into the studio machine right away. Singing, dancing, and acting lessons took up her days, although a screen test with Clark Gable to scare a petulant Lana
Turner was certainly a bright spot. After Andy Hardy and a small part in A Guy Named Joe, Esther struck gold with her third picture, a film that began as a Red Skelton showcase but footage of Esther convinced the studio to make a title change from Mr. Co-Ed to Bathing Beauty and focus all publicity on the stunning swimmer. It didn't take long for a formula to be created -- Esther's films would be in color, they would have simple musical numbers, there would be a handsome
leading man that more often than not wouldn't outshine her, and most important of all, there would be a spectacular swimming routine or two. In a very short time, Williams became a box-office sensation, MGM investing thousands to create her unique brand of films. A special pool had to be built; crew members had to adapt to filming in (and under) water; the people in charge of hair, makeup, and costumes had to figure out the best way to keep their star looking amazing while soaking wet.

By 1951, both Walters and Williams were valuable to MGM and they were teamed up for The Carnival Story, which would be re-titled Texas Carnival. Easily the weakest of their collaborations, Texas Carnival has a plot as thin as a piece of paper. Sideshow team Cornie (Red Skelton) and Debbie (Williams) are mistaken for a Texan millionaire (Keenan Wynn) and his sister. The millionaire's ranch foreman, Slim (Howard Keel), knows Cornie and Debbie are phonies, but he plays along with it to get close to Debbie. Added into the mix is Sunshine Jackson (Ann Miller), the sheriff's daughter who falls for Cornie. At only 76 minutes, the film allows its four leads to shine -- Skelton gets plenty of opportunities for comedy, which is admittedly hit-or-miss here; Miller has two big solos and Keel receives a few songs, however forgettable they are; and Williams gets a very memorable swimming routine.

In fact, this routine was the very reason why I sought out Texas Carnival and it doesn't disappoint. Jokingly referred to as "Howard's wet dream" (Esther's words, not mine), Keel is in his hotel room thinking about Debbie when he imagines her swimming around his room in mid-air. In reality, Williams was swimming underwater and the footage was combined with Keel's, but it's a sight to behold and surprisingly sexy as Williams's dress clings to her body and she flirts with a bewitched Keel. You can, and should, check it out here. I couldn't find a great photo of it in action, so above is a studio shot of Esther filming it.

Speaking of Williams, Walters called her "a dear dame... the only actress I know who became [a star], really, in spite of herself. But she made a big effort to learn, and she made progress from film to film." Esther returned the compliment when she spoke to columnist Erskine Johnson during filming: "He's the first director who has ever helped me with my acting. It's a whole new world. We rehearse, and then I do it in one take. Working with him is like going to drama school. It's wonderful." Indeed, Esther hated that most of her directors didn't respect her as an actress, instead choosing to see her as a talentless girl who knew how to swim. From the second she signed her MGM contract, she worked extremely hard to prove the studio's
faith in her and the fact that Walters saw that must have meant a great deal to her.

Texas Carnival wasn't a success, with many critics laying the blame at Walters's feet. I have to disagree -- the music, the editing, and the plot are more at fault than the direction. Expounding that were some censorship issues, and weird ones at that. In Erie, Pennsylvania, the final shot of Williams and Keel embracing while she's in a wet swimsuit was excised, and in Maryland, the line "If you strike her tail, then you've struck water" was deleted from Skelton's first song. Yet no one was bothered by the "wet dream"? Censorship back then was bizarre, guys.

The small failure of Texas Carnival didn't seem to mean much, though. For the next year or two, Walters and Williams worked steadily although separately. Walters did Three Guys Named Mike, an underrated favorite of mine, and The Belle of New York, while Williams had one of her biggest hits in Million Dollar Mermaid and the slighter Skirts Ahoy! In 1953, Chuck and Esther were able to work together again for Dangerous When Wet, possibly the best of their three films and certainly the most successful. The movie concerns the Higgins family, led by William Demarest and Charlotte Greenwood with Esther as their oldest daughter, Katy. Hoping to improve their dairy farm, the family agrees to be entered into the English Channel race by salesman Jack Carson. During training, Katy meets Frenchman Andre Lanet (Fernando Lamas) but tries to fight her feelings to focus on the race, especially when she learns that her father has already begun renovations and if they don't win, they're on the hook for thousands.

Dangerous When Wet is different from the rest of Esther's filmography because it's more realistic -- well, as realistic as a Williams film could be. There are no big, fabulous water ballets with shooting fire and dozens of chorus girls-turned-swimmers. Instead, Esther is a simple girl who wants to be the best dairy farmer she can be. Humorously, her first swimming solo goes against everything MGM prepped audiences for, with Williams in shorts, a bikini top, and baseball cap and swimming in a pond rather than a crystal-clear pool. The most famous sequence to come out of this movie is Esther's dream sequence with Tom the cat and Jerry the mouse, a great moment you can see here.
"For the expenditure invested, it was the biggest money-maker of any Esther Williams film," Walters said. "That's a nice satisfaction for a company man." Something I didn't know prior to Phillips's book was that Chuck didn't direct one part of the film, and that's the Channel race itself. Uncomfortable with scenes of spectacle and aware of his limitations, Chuck let second-unit director Andrew Marton direct that part. Fernando Lamas sums it up perfectly: "It's funny, if you pay attention, suddenly it's like two different movies. Because the whole beginning of the movie had that slick, wonderful quality that Chuck had -- everything moved... the people moved. Then the swimming of the Channel begins, and it's like a documentary." I always thought that was weird, so there's a mystery solved. It's such a shame that
this is the sole picture Williams and Lamas did -- they worked wonderfully together, with Lamas being an accomplished swimmer like his leading lady. He kept this a secret, actually, so he wouldn't be forced into every one of Esther's films, something that might have frustrated him but would have delighted the hell out of me. Although they were mutually attracted to one another, Esther and Fernando wouldn't get together until 1969; they were married for 13 years, until Lamas's death in 1982.

1953 was a banner year for Chuck Walters. In addition to Dangerous When Wet, he also directed Joan Crawford's "comeback" Torch Song, the beguiling Lili which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director, and his last teaming with Esther, Easy to Love. Easy to Love is just as good as Dangerous When Wet, making it my second favorite Williams flick. Whereas DWW is sweet and just a touch sentimental (never a bad thing), EtL is more cynical and sassy. Esther is an entertainer at Cypress Gardens who is in love with her infuriating and oblivious boss, played by frequent co-star Van Johnson. On a working trip in New York, Esther gets the attention of singer Barry Gordon (Tony Martin), whose flirtations start to make Johnson jealous, as well as another admirer of Esther's, a fellow swimmer at the Gardens (John Bromfield).

Since big productions weren't really Chuck's thing, he gave the film's gigantic water ski finale to Busby Berkeley, a maniac if there ever was one. Walters was a huge contrast to the loud, egotistical Berkeley, who loved to employ a megaphone to get his directions across. Tony Martin recalled working with Walters: "Chuck would come up and say, 'Do you like your lines? Are you pleased? We can change them. If you feel uncomfortable about anything, please let me know.' A very, very nice man, Charles Walters -- he put
everybody at ease, which was wonderful." He would also say that Walters "could have been a musical star himself. He just knew what to do... and he did it well." A delightful moment in EtL comes at the end, when everyone is coupled off and everything ends happily. Martin's character loses Esther, but gains... Cyd Charisse! This impromptu idea was actually kept a secret from Martin, who was shocked to find out that his character wound up with his real-life wife. Earlier in the film, Charisse was used again, however the audience didn't know it was her. Martin takes Esther out to a nightclub where they watch a couple perform a dance, which we only see from the waist down. That couple is Charisse and Walters! It's a fantastic little bit, an illustration of Walters's persistence to add fun things to his films that aren't in the script. (Side note: these two images were borrowed from the fabulous The Blonde at the Film. You can read her piece on EtL here, and you should. She runs an amazing blog, and she loves Esther too!)

While making EtL, Lili was released to huge praise from critics and audiences. The film was a major triumph for Walters, proving that he really was a great director. Reading the reviews one day to Esther while she was swimming in her tank, Chuck recounted that "Esther was so touched, she started crying." She then told her friend "Chuck, I can't keep asking for you. I can't hold you back. What are you doing around here with this wet woman, when you can make films like that and get reviews like these?" The director and his star adored each other, though, and they planned on making another film together once they found good enough material.

After Easy to Love wrapped and her maternity leave was over, Esther returned to the lot excited to start work on Athena, a story she, writer Leo Pogostin, and Chuck created about five sisters who let their lives be ruled by astrology and numerology. Pogostin finished the script while Esther was having her baby and she assumed it would be her first film coming back. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. At this point at MGM, Louis B. Mayer had left and Dore Schary had taken his place. Schary took Athena and gave it
to Richard Thorpe, a director Esther despised, with Jane Powell starring. It was a foreboding sign of what was to come at the studio and Esther wasn't having it. She left MGM after one more movie, Jupiter's Darling in 1955. The last thing she did before stepping off the lot was redecorate her dressing room, giving it to new star Grace Kelly. Chuck would hang in there until 1964 with the prosperous The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Dore Schary had been booted in favor of Joseph Vogel, who was then replaced by Robert O'Brien in '64. Tired of being sent terrible scripts and feeling constrained by the dismissal of artistry in favor of money, Walters had Darrow send a letter to try and scare the studio into sending him better stuff. It didn't work and MGM let him go. Walters directed just one more film, a remake of The More the Merrier called Walk, Don't Run (1966). It would be Cary Grant's last as well.

If I could hang out on only one film set in the past, I honestly think I would pick an Esther Williams-Chuck Walters set. They were both so dedicated to providing audiences with the best they had to offer, and they never tried to shortchange you on entertainment. Chuck was the best director Esther ever had, and because of that, their works together have a certain lightness and joy to them. Their friendship was quiet and loving, and they tried their damnedest to make the other proud. It certainly makes me proud just to watch them.

For more on Chuck Walters, here's an interview with Brent Phillips and here you can find a review of his book from The Wall Street Journal. If you'd like to know more about Esther Williams, you can check out my post on her here, as well as my reviews on Dangerous When Wet, This Time for Keeps, and Thrill of a Romance. Really, though, just do yourself a favor and buy her autobiography. And the fantastic box sets of her films. Enjoy!

With love,
Michaela

Comments

  1. Thank you for the education in Mr. Walters and leading lady Esther. I haven't really watched any of her films since I was a kid. I always enjoyed them and felt she was underestimated as a comedic actress, but now I am intrigued to enjoy this director and star team from a new perspective.

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    1. That's all I wanted to do! I never realized how good Walters was until I read this book and started re-watching his films. Teaching people about him, and especially about Esther, is thrilling. I agree with you about her comedic ability -- she was a funny lady on and off the screen, for sure! Thanks for reading!

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  2. Thanks for joining the blogathon. Ahhhhh, Esther Williams. She certainly was big prey for the boys on the loose. I look forward to reading this.

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    1. I mentioned Ms. Williams to my grandma the other day and she went "Wasn't she a pin-up? All the boys in the army wanted pictures of her." I hope my post doesn't disappoint -- let me know what you think once you have the time!

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  3. I have to admit that I've never seen a Williams film (I know:(), but you give many reasons why I should! I loved your comment on censorship. How interesting to discover all that he did behind the scenes before he hit it big (loved the Bergman detail).

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    1. Chuck Walters did lots of things that I didn't know about -- he was quite the stealthy worker. If you have TCM, they show Esther's films fairly regularly. She was a tough broad and a great personality; I think you'll like her stuff.

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  4. I really didn't know much about Chuck Walters before reading your post, and he sounds like a remarkable director. I like that he treated Esther W. as a person with talent because she was quite talented. I've only seen 2 of her films, but both times I was amazed at how natural she appears on camera.

    Great post! Thanks for all this great info. :)

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    1. You're welcome! I didn't even cover half the things I wanted to about Walters because I was hoping others would read the book and I'm hoping to discuss them in posts on individual films in the future. He really should be better known and given more credit. You're right re: Esther's presence on camera. It fascinates me how calm and cool she appeared, particularly when you read behind-the-scenes stuff and find out how stressful/terrified/etc she would be at the time.
      I can't wait to read your post -- I'm planning on getting to it before the weekend is over, for sure!

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  5. I've seen several of Walters' films, but I think without knowing they were his. It's a shame that, despite the quality of his filmography, he remains under the radar - but perhaps that makes watching his films a little more special. I think I'll be checking that book out!

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    1. When I looked at Walters' filmography before reading the book, I was like "Yep, seen that. Oh, he did that? I love that one! Whoa, and that?" I'm still trying to figure out why he isn't more well-known. His anonymity does make his work more special to me, though, you're right about that. I'm going to have to start pushing Chuck Walters films like I do Esther Williams'! Thanks for reading, and I'm sure you'll enjoy the book!

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