Exquisite Esther yearns for vain Van in... Easy to Love (1953)
If you watch Easy to Love just to see this moment depicted on the poster, you'll be sorely disappointed. However, if you are hoping to see a sassy Esther Williams struggle with three men who are in love with her, you've come to the right place. EtL is my second favorite Williams vehicle, coming right behind Dangerous When Wet. This film has so much to adore, I'm probably going to be extra effusive today. I know, what a shock, Michaela can't shut up about a movie. I promise you'll have fun reading this, though not as much fun as actually watching the movie. (Hint, hint). Feel free to hunker down with a snack and a refreshing beverage.
EtL was the fifth and sadly the last pairing of Esther and Van Johnson. In her book, Esther said "By this time, Van and I were as synchronized as any two swimmers in the pool... We were family. Through the years, I swam with Van, married him, fought with him, and made love to him -- all on camera. We knew our lives, our secrets, and our public and private personas, even though off camera we had little or no contact." I've written about two of these cuties' films, Thrill of a Romance and Easy to Wed, and I've always credited Johnson with being one of Esther's best partners. They were both sweet, funny, down-to-Earth people with winsome personas and as Esther herself said, they looked like they belonged together. EtL earns its title by giving its leading lady three romantic interests: Johnson, Tony Martin, and John Bromfield. Whoever will she pick?
This may shock you, but EtL wasn't originally written as an Esther Williams flick. It seems so perfect for her now, yet its first star was supposed to be Lana Turner, with the movie being a straight drama. Super weird to consider, right? A good deal of EtL was filmed in Winter Haven, Florida at Cypress Gardens. For production, the Gardens built a new pool shaped like the state of Florida, which came to a cool $50,000 (and that's 1952 money!).
Before shooting began, Williams found out she was pregnant. While the news thrilled her, she dreaded telling the film's producer, Joe Pasternak. This wasn't the first time Esther had to rush through a production because of a pregnancy, and poor Pasternak always had to figure out ways to rearrange shooting to accommodate the star. Honestly, you can't tell watching EtL that Esther was expecting -- she's typically wearing a tight bathing suit or figure-hugging clothes. They must have gotten the film done before Williams started to show. Let's get to it!
Ray believes he took Julie and made her into a merchandise-selling sensation, ignoring the fact that maybe she had something to do with it. He takes Barnes on a tour of the grounds, going by a photo shoot for Palm Beach. Barnes asks why they don't photograph it in Palm Beach, Ray responding that this is "more realistic." Aren't the studio system vibes just washing over you now? Ray wants Barnes to meet Julie, but their stop at her dressing room turns into yet another fight between her and Ray. Julie is completely exhausted -- every moment she has is spent working for
This routine had a great appearance in The Tender Trap (1955), a comedy directed by EtL's Charles Walters. Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds discover themselves alone at her house, but Sinatra's amorous ideas are blocked by Reynolds. Trying to find something else to focus on, they turn on the television and happen upon this swim sequence. The sensuality of the piece doesn't help relieve the tension at all, leading to some pretty funny reactions from Sinatra and Reynolds.
Unfortunately, Julie's suspicions prove correct -- this trip is going to be all business, which Julie learns as she spends hours posing for pictures. I absolutely love this swimsuit outfit, despite it not having any real functionality. Julie could care less what I think, though, because she thinks all of this modeling is ridiculous. She asks Ray if they can at least go out to dinner after this, but he wants her to get a good night's sleep since he has entered her in the Citrus Queen competition for the next day.
Walking to her changing room to get into another outfit, Julie bumps into singer Barry Gordon (Martin). As he picks up her fallen hat, Barry gets quite a look at Julie and he is instantly intrigued. She says thanks and goes on her way, while Barry humorously poses for his new album cover in just one shot. He then runs into Ted, a guy from the chorus of one of Barry's shows, who says he is there to shoot a lipstick ad with Julie. With mischief in his eyes, Barry gets rid of Ted so when Ray calls for him, Barry innocently says Ted just left but he'd be willing to fill in for the guy. Ray is thrilled -- Barry Gordon posing for free? Hooray for extra publicity!
Julie likes it, too, especially when the ad calls for her and Barry to kiss. Ray's excitement quickly sours as Barry and Julie ask for more shots, both of them claiming that one of them moved and ruined the photo. It's pretty hilarious. Barry invites Julie to his club act, but Ray has her pose for more pictures in her hotel room. He then tries to steamroll her by ordering her dinner via room service and telling her she is going to bed immediately after she eats. Julie isn't having it, though -- she gets all dressed up and goes to see Barry's act, Ray tagging along to keep an eye on her.
For our first Tony Martin song, we have "Didja Ever," a catchy little tune that has Barry charming Julie from the start. Ray isn't charmed, however, snarkily stating that Barry "probably can't even swim." Starry-eyed, Julie replies "I'd love to teach him." Barry then croons the gorgeous "Look Out, I'm Romantic" and Julie melts. Finally jealous, Ray makes Julie leave, a tactic that doesn't work at all because the minute she gets to her hotel room, Barry calls her up.
I adore the camerawork here. It focuses on Julie's feet as she initially throws her heels off, but then puts them back on as she talks to Barry, despite her protests that she couldn't possibly go back out on the town at this last hour. The camera cuts to two other pairs of feet doing a magnificent dance that we only get to see from the waist down. As the feet move, we see Julie's feet in the background, tapping along to the beat.
Barry and Julie go club-hopping, drinking plenty of champagne along the way. Julie tells him all about her Cypress Gardens troubles, and Barry sympathizes as he pours her another drink. They eventually make their way to a quiet place for breakfast, where Barry runs into a producer he knows. Remembering Julie's complaints, Barry lobbies for an audition for her and gets one for later that day. When Julie finally returns to her hotel, Ray is horrified to discover that she has been out all night. What makes it worse is that she was with that crooner. Julie barely gets any sleep when Barry calls her to pick her up for her audition. We get a wonderful montage of Julie hurriedly getting ready, only to have to take it all back off to get in her swimsuit. It's all very tasteful, of course.
The following routine is one of Esther's simplest. Wearing a crisp, white, sparkly bathing suit in crystal clear blue water, Julie does a few dives and strikes some poses against the glass walls of the pool, all with a shining smile. Afterwards, in her dressing room, Barry tells her she is hired for the producer's show, and at a better salary too! Julie is happy with the offer, but she is very nervous to tell Ray that she is quitting.
At the hotel, Ray picks her up for the Citrus Queen pageant. She wins, of course, but she falls asleep as she accepts the honor, which doesn't make Ray too happy.
He kisses her on the cheek and assures her that Cypress Gardens will always be open to her. It's quite a performance, and one that we can tell Julie falls for hook, line, and sinker.
At the club, Barry is rehearsing "Little Coquette," another bouncy tune that gets stuck in my head, although it really sounds like Tony Martin is saying "Little Cokehead." It makes the number unintentionally funny, since it sounds so breezy and sweet and then you think you hear "cokehead" repeatedly. You can listen to a version by the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra here; the vocals come in at 1:17. Anyway, Julie stops by to talk to Barry, but when he goes back to rehearsing, she has second thoughts about abandoning Ray and rushes to his plane.
Onboard, Ray nervously looks at his watch, but then he smiles to himself once Julie sits beside him. She thinks her change of plans will surprise him, but his smug greeting demonstrates that he knew she would come back all along -- he even bought her a magazine to read during the plane ride. It's safe to assume that Julie is probably regretting her decision already.
However, she kind of forgot about Hank. He thinks he and Julie are going to get married and move to his
All in all, it's very nightmarish. The kids in the Gardens audience may be laughing, but I think it's obvious that inside they're crying. What is really unfortunate is that Julie chooses to turn Hank down while still in her clown get-up. Being rejected by Esther Williams is bad enough, but Esther Williams-as-a-clown is even worse. Julie explains that she is in love with another man. She doesn't say who it is, but Hank can guess.
Angry, Hank goes to confront Ray and tries to take a swing at him, which Ray blocks without effort. (I love it when Ray tells Hank what we're all thinking: "Put your pants on! This isn't a nudist colony!") When Hank accuses his boss of stealing Julie, Ray is stunned. Julie loves him? Hank gives his one-week notice and stomps off, leaving Ray to ponder. If Julie loves him, then she must be expecting something special at dinner, not the pay raise that Ray was actually intending to give her instead.
Meanwhile, Julie is posing with tourists when she is told she has a phone call. Guess who it is? Barry, naturally! In a playful bit, Julie tries to talk on the phone in her voluminous dress, but the hoop skirt keeps preventing her from doing it, so she just steps out of it and chats in her undergarments. Calling from his limo (how fancy), Barry tells Julie that he is in Florida to see her. Before she can say much to him, though, she realizes she's attracted a gawking crowd and she hangs up to run away.
That evening, Julie arrives at Ray's house in a lovely, pink lace dress with giant pockets. She tries to prove to Ray how domestic she can be as she gushes about his home decor, talks about how she can cook anything, and makes him a martini that almost chokes him. Just then, the phone rings and Ray pretends like it is a female conquest when it is really his assistant Ben. It's Ray's way of letting Julie know he isn't going to propose, although it's pretty cowardly and cruel.
With tears in her eyes, Julie makes an excuse and goes home, where she is surprised to find Barry
another story. While Barry croons the Cole Porter piece during a weird, tiny water pageant of sorts, he also does a refrain of it when he is alone with Julie as she swims. (This is the enormous Florida-shaped pool I mentioned at the beginning. As if you couldn't tell.)
After she gets in a few laps, Julie joins Barry for a little poolside picnic, where he tries to persuade her into going with him for his Parisian tour. "It sounds like you're talking about a honeymoon," Julie comments. "More or less," Barry responds. Julie isn't fooled: "Which is it, Barry? More? Or less?"
Before that can be answered, Ray suddenly pops up. He offers to take them back to the mainland in his motorboat, but the trip is not a smooth one. Ray drives as fast as he can so the maximum amount of water will spray Barry. He then speeds away with Julie once Barry
It's a sweet moment, and it's the most sincere we've ever seen Ray, but unfortunately, Julie didn't hear a word he said -- she was so pissed at him that while he was spilling his guts out, she slipped off the boat and started swimming back to the shore. Understandably, Ray is peeved and throws her shoes after her. When will these crazy kids ever get together?!
Soaked from her swim and the thunderstorm that's started, Julie is in a bad mood when she gets to her and Nancy's apartment. She starts to take her sweater off when there's a knock at the door. Nancy answers it and it's Ray, who chides Julie for leaving while he was trying to discuss something important. She fires back and demands he get out. She tries to change clothes again, but there's another knock; this time it's Hank. He just knows Barry will hurt her and he won't let it happen! (Whatever, Hank.) Julie tries for a third time to remove her sweater, but Barry comes knocking. Unlike the other two suitors, he's much more gentle and relaxed as he asks Julie to dinner. Throughout this whole scene, Nancy is a total delight, watching her friend's romantic troubles from the sidelines. While Julie gets to end her night with a romantic dinner with Barry, Nancy gets a cheeseburger with onions to eat alone in her room. Story of my life.
While he is waiting for Julie to change, Barry goes downstairs and is feeling so happy that he bursts into "That's What a Rainy Day is For." Vic Mizzy and Mann Curtis are completely unknown to me, but they wrote this song, "Didja Ever," and "Look Out, I'm Romantic," and they are just wonderful in this movie, especially with Tony Martin's beautiful voice. ("Little Coquette," by the way, was written by Gus Kahn, Johnny Green, and Carmen Lombardo, Guy's sister.) Vic Mizzy certainly had a gift for a catchy tune -- he would later write the theme songs for Green Acres and The Addams Family.
But back to Barry. He has a thing for singing songs to seduce ladies, and the elderly women in the lobby are no exception! They adore Barry's singing, but they're also a little crushed when Julie appears and joins Barry in singing as they head to dinner. It's a cute, simple number, yet I always feel bad that Barry flirts with these little old ladies and then just walks away with the younger, prettier Julie.
Esther knew this and accepted it, but she refused to endanger her baby when it came to a stunt that involved diving from a helicopter eighty feet above the water and landing in the middle of a V-formation created by a group of skiers. Esther insisted her friend and accomplished diver Helen Crelinkovich, do the trick. When Berkeley grumbled that he hated doubles, Esther replied, "Not as much as I hate miscarriages. I'll do everything else you ask of me, Buzz -- I'll even ski-jump over the orchestra at the end -- but not the dive. I want to hang on to this baby."
Williams got her wish, later musing, "I don't know why I didn't say I would stay home like everybody else with any brains. It was that there was no other swimmer to replace me. And then they'd talk about 58 water skiers from all over the world and they were all under contract and they were all down at Cypress Gardens rehearsing, and Joe [Pasternak] would cry on the phone. He'd say 'You're strong, you can do it,' and I'd say 'I know, Joe, I've done it before.'" In the end, it made for one of Esther's most memorable routines. You can see it here. That's Esther standing with Berkeley on the right.
Putting her skis up after the show, Julie decides she really is done with Cypress Gardens. As she is telling Ben this, Nancy happens to be walking by with her skis hoisted on her shoulder. Shocked to hear that Julie is leaving, she whips around and accidentally hits Julie in the head, causing her to lose consciousness. Ray, Hank, and Barry all see this and come running, each fighting the other to get to Julie. While Hank and Barry push each other around, Ray takes Julie back to his office and lays her on the couch. Figuring that they've lost, Barry and Hank give up, only to be quickly paired off -- this is a romantic comedy, folks! Hank realizes that Nancy has been pining for him this whole time, and Barry does pretty well too...
Seeing a ravishing brunette in a fantastic blue swimsuit with dangling beads, Barry introduces himself in record time. The woman drops her hat and he returns it to her; then he finds out she is posing for a lipstick advertisement. Sound familiar? Oh, and did I mention that the brunette is none other than Cyd Charisse? Yep, Mrs. Martin makes another appearance and it's a fun, meta way to end Barry's story. According to Martin, "That [ending] was impromptu. It was arranged by the studio without my knowledge. All of a sudden, Cyd appears... [I]t was cute as could be." Indeed!
Back in Ray's office, Julie is still knocked out. Hoping to wake her up, Ray admits his feelings for her, but it still does nothing. She never has to work again! Okay, maybe just one show on Saturdays! Still nothing. They can get married! Yup, that does it! Happy endings for everybody!
EtL was directed by the multi-talented Chuck Walters, a good friend of Esther's and her best director (he's the man on the floor next to her). The two had worked together on Texas Carnival and Dangerous When Wet, with EtL proving to be their last collaboration. Once Esther completed production and finished her maternity leave, she was all prepared to work with Chuck again on Athena, a story she co-created with Chuck and screenwriter Leo Pogostin about a reincarnated Greek goddess. She had a rude awakening, though, when she returned to MGM and found out that her film had been given to Jane Powell. What was an even bigger slap in the face was that instead of Walters, the director would be Richard Thorpe, a man she hated after working on four films with him.
The person responsible for this nonsense was MGM's new studio head, Dore Schary. Favoring pictures with social messages, Schary moved MGM away from the kind of films that made Esther famous. Of the executive, Esther said "The thing that was the matter with Dore Schary is that it was abortive. There wasn't the consistency that we had with this other master we had of the star system [Mayer]. He really liked bit players a lot. He liked people that never acted before... I don't think he liked glamour," making him an odd match for the studio of glamour. After EtL, Williams would do one more movie, Jupiter's Darling (1955), before leaving the studio that had been her home for 14 highly-successful years. Unfortunately, the actress's career wouldn't reach the same heights ever again.
Chuck Walters, pictured in the darker boat in the same pose as Tony Martin opposite him, would encounter the same problem as Esther in the early 1960's. Walters loved working for MGM, but after the dismissal of Louis B. Mayer, it wasn't the same. In 1964, after the great success of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Chuck was let go. He directed his final film, a remake of The More the Merrier called Walk, Don't Run, in 1966 for Columbia, and then he turned his attention to teaching in his final years. By all accounts, Walters was a wonderful guy to work with. Tony Martin had nothing but praise for the director: "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] could have been a musical star himself. He just knew what to do...and he did it well."
1953 was a high-point in Chuck's career. Not only did he have EtL and Dangerous When Wet, he also directed Joan Crawford's comeback to MGM, Torch Song, and what may be his masterpiece, Lili. Lili was the definition of a passion project for Walters, and its release saw unanimous praise (and an Oscar nomination!) for the frequently overlooked director. Esther was so happy for her friend that one day while he was reading reviews of Lili to her, she started crying, telling him "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?" After EtL, they still looked for opportunities to collaborate, but it wasn't meant to be. For more on the relationship between Williams and Walters, click here.
In a roundabout way, EtL helped push Esther towards her third husband, Fernando Lamas. The mermaid and the Latin lover had met while making Dangerous When Wet, and while they were very much attracted to one another, Esther was married to Ben Gage and she wasn't ready to leave her husband for a well-known womanizer like Lamas, no matter how rocky her marriage was. Williams and Lamas said goodbye once production was over, but it wasn't final, as they found out almost a decade later.
In 1960, having unofficially left the movies, Esther was given a TV special that was to take place at Cypress Gardens based on her connection to the location. Wanting a partner for the special, Esther wracked her brain to think who could do it when it suddenly became clear: Fernando. He was undoubtedly her most skilled swimming partner in the movies, having been a champion swimmer in his country of Argentina, and she had to admit to herself that she wanted to see
Her answer came the first day Lamas arrived in Winterhaven. (Let's just say they didn't spend that night talking about the weather...) They didn't get married until 1969, and they were still together when Lamas died in 1982. That TV special, by the way, was called Esther Williams at Cypress Gardens and it was watched by more than half of the television-owning audience. I'm still waiting for it to be released on DVD. Get on it, people! Thankfully, you can see snippets of it here and here.
|I love this random moment in Ray's office. A costume designer brings in this mermaid and asks Ray what he thinks. With great seriousness, he stares at the costume and goes "Trim the tail." Sadly, we never see this outfit again.|
|I don't know why, but I really love this shot. It's got three of my favorite things: coffee, bright colors, and Van Johnson.|
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