Esther Williams proves she's a true... Bathing Beauty (1944)
For the eight weeks that I was away, I was so determined to keep my posts in synch with where I was at. I thought it would be cute... until I couldn't find any suitable films for Prague or Spain. I faced two restrictions: I didn't have anything in my DVD collection that worked, and whatever I did find, I didn't love it enough to write about it. So, while I'm off gallivanting around Europe, you'll see that many of my posts are focused on films set in France while one or two are set in vague European countries. That being said, when I heard about the Athletes in Film Blogathon, I didn't hesitate for a second with my choice: the all-American Bathing Beauty. This blogathon was built for my adoration of Esther Williams, built for it I say!
Esther Williams had been an Olympic hopeful herself, but the cancellation of the 1940 games squashed that dream. She wound up auditioning for showman Billy Rose, who asked her to learn how to swim "pretty"
She continued to refuse them for a year, but the more she said "no," the more they wanted her. Talent agent Johnny Hyde kept calling and insisted she have one meeting with Louis B. Mayer. Esther's co-workers at the department store I. Magnin told her to go so she could tell them all about it. When she insisted she had nothing to wear, they put her in a chic Chanel suit and told her to be back before 6 pm when the store closed. (Esther can be seen modeling for the store on the left.)
Obviously, Esther finally gave in, signing a contract in 1941. Part of that contract, however, insisted that she have nine months to work on her acting, diction, singing, and dancing. As she later wrote, "If it took nine months for a baby to be born, I figured my 'birth' from Esther Williams the swimmer to Esther Williams the movie actress would not be much different."
Her first film would be Andy Hardy's Double Life (1942), no surprise since MGM frequently tested starlets opposite Mickey Rooney in this film series. That's Williams and Rooney above on the set with director George B. Seitz, and you can see the trailer here. After that was a small role in A Guy Named Joe (1943), and then came the game-changer: Bathing Beauty.
Bathing Beauty stopped that from happening, though, becoming a box-office smash and earning the studio a $2 million profit. This film set the formula for Esther's future "aqua musicals," with a template comprised of wonderful songs, extravagant water sequences, and a love story at the center. Her films would be bright, lightweight, and definitely entertaining, and they would be in stunning Technicolor, a choice that always made Esther look radiant.
Originally, Bathing Beauty was supposed to be a Red Skelton vehicle, and for the most part, it still came out that way. Skelton has more screen time and he got to do a lot of comedy routines, but MGM knew to favor Esther in the publicity. They changed the film's name from Mr. Co-Ed to reflect their new star, and all advertisements had a bathing suit-clad Esther smiling on it. At the film's premiere at the Astor Theater in New York, the studio set up a six story-tall billboard of Esther diving into Times Square with the tagline "Come on in, the show's fine!" MGM must have felt quite confident about Esther since they were willing to sink so much money into this film. The biggest chunk of change?
Bathing Beauty was wholly different from the average musical, thanks to Esther's swimming. While her films stuck to the conventions of a musical, the addition of water made things quite interesting. Talking to Robert Osborne, Williams said "What happened is we invented a movie form of dancing in the water that hadn't been done before. They needed a swimming champion to do that because it was very hard to do because nobody knew what they were doing, and there was a kind of 'I don't know, what is she going to do? Do what you do, Esther!'"
It was all pretty experimental -- MGM didn't know what the swimming entailed and many times Esther herself had to improvise and learn as she went along. For BB, she recruited John Murray Anderson from Billy Rose's Aquacade to come and choreograph the big finale, while her more simple swimming scene at the beginning was mainly her ad-libbing. Although Sonja Henie's athletic pursuits did well with audiences, there was still an uncertainty regarding the aqua musical, Esther recalling that "after Bathing Beauty, I thought that would be the only picture I would do and that would be the end of it. It seemed to be it was all kind of a wonderful circus time." How fortunate we are that it wasn't her last film -- let's get to it!
a lively tune by the pool. Applauding them at the end of their song is Steve Elliott (Skelton), an adorable songwriter. He asks Carlos Ramirez, a real-life singer playing himself, to perform a new song he just wrote for a Ms. Brooks. Carlos begins "Magic in the Moonlight" and soon our Ms. Brooks (Williams) appears, wearing a pretty Spanish-style cape over a simply lovely pink swimsuit, with short heels and a bow in her hair to match.
Ms. Brooks, or rather Caroline, is embarrassed by Carlos's serenade, her attempts at fleeing him
Caroline finishes her brief swim and strikes a pose next to Carlos. When she sees Steve, though, she crosses the pool and pops up in front of him to give him a kiss.
"Darling," Caroline coos, "I've a surprise for you." "What?" asks Steve. "I can cook," she replies. "Sweetheart, I have a surprise for you. I can't eat." Steve leans in for another kiss, but Caroline goes underwater and he finds his head submerged in water. They're cute.
Arriving just then is George Adams, and he is not pleased. He sent Steve to this resort to relax and write songs, yet he hasn't heard from the guy in weeks. He's greeted by Cugat and asks the bandleader where Steve is. "The pool, of course. Where else?" "The pool? But he hates water!" "But wait 'til you see what's in it." George is appalled to learn that Steve plans on leaving show business and settling down. His conversation with Cugat is interrupted by one of Cugat's chorus girls, Maria (Jacqueline Dalya), a woman who is upset with George because he promised her fame years ago and never delivered. (I always wonder, is this an allusion to the casting couch? Or maybe I'm reading too much into it.) They overhear Steve and Caroline talking about their future, with Steve excited that he can finally focus on writing serious music now that he has Caroline as his muse. Someone didn't tell Basil Rathbone that he was in a light comedy, though, because he ominously declares "I'll get those songs if I have to stop that marriage!" Maybe he has a job for Maria after all...
Harry James and his Music Makers. This film is packed with songs and popular performers of the day, so sometimes it can feel a little overstuffed.
Seeing an opportunity, Steve applies to the college,
Because he will be the sole male student, and because the faculty wants to make him uncomfortable, Steve gets special living quarters: a dusty shack cluttered with junk. Caroline tries to be all-business as she gives Steve his schedule and explains school rules to him, but in between her sentences, he manages to say things like "I dream about you every night" and "You're even lovelier than I remembered." Before she can give in, Professor Evans (Bill Goodwin) and his barking dog arrive, ruining the mood. You can watch the sequence here.
Easy to Wed, another Williams flick that Smith pops up in, I don't understand the appeal of Smith. The organ just isn't my thing, apparently. I'm definitely a fan of her shoes, though -- check those out! If you're so inclined, you can see Smith and the girls perform "Tico, Tico" here.
Fred Astaire in my mind. It's a traditional Scottish ballad that makes Steve shake his head as the rest of the class is forced to sing it. Prof. Hendricks wants to know why he thinks he's too high and mighty to sing along, causing one of the students to say that Steve's music is a big improvement from this stale old tune. Annoyed, the professor challenges Steve to write a better arrangement and bring it to class.
here. Do it before I'm forced to give you an F.
His solution is to try and trick the dog by dressing as a woman, which doesn't really work. There's a lot of running back and forth between the front door and the window before Steve is able to get free and make it home in time. During shooting of this scene, Skelton found himself stuck on a decent ending. Like his character, he had no idea how to get out of this predicament. Buster Keaton took one look at the scenario and figured it out immediately. His much-maligned years at MGM often consisted of him helping out Skelton, among others, including Lucille Ball.
Steve finds George in his room, and it sounds like Steve had purposely not told the producer where he would be. George bullies him into completing those songs he needs by threatening to tell the press about Steve's presence at the school, thus dragging Caroline and the school through the dirt. Steve agrees to finish the songs, but he's under a lot of pressure here, what with every teacher hoping to expel him, Caroline ignoring him, and lots of homework. No worries -- George will do his homework! He used to go to Oxford, after all.
With George gone, Steve calls the club Cugat is performing at and gets the stage manager instead. He says Cugat's on right now, but hey, would you like to hear his number through the phone? It's a clumsy way to shuffle in yet another number, but I find it funny and acceptable. You can watch the routine here. Once that's over with, Cugat gets on the phone and straight up lies to Steve, telling him he hasn't seen Maria since the wedding. Et tu, Cugie?
At a staff meeting, everyone is bummed to hear that Steve is doing well in his classes and he's only gotten 55 demerits out of the 100 needed. Their last hope is Mme. Zarka (Ann Codee), the ballet teacher. Her methods are pretty cruel -- Steve is forced to wear the same outfit as the girls and she slaps him around to get his body in the right form. There'd be a lawsuit if that was done today. Steve takes it in stride, though, and after some pratfalls that precede I Love Lucy's infamous ballet episode, he dances with the rest of the class and does a decent job.
When Mme. Zarka catches Jean with chocolates, she announces that the next person found with a chocolate or even a wrapper will be given 25 demerits. Naturally, Steve gets a wrapper stuck on his foot, leading him to transfer it to Jean who sticks it on someone else until the wrapper makes its way back to Steve. He finally gets rid of it -- unfortunately, he did so by accidentally hitting Caroline in the face when she walked into the room. Yikes.
a number by Harry James. It doesn't take long for Caroline to realize what a darling Steve is and how silly she's been.
Her face says it all as she watches him draw their future house and talk about where they'll put everything -- he even uses a salt shaker to represent her and paprika to represent him. It's pretty charming. Steve wants to leave Victoria College right away so they can start their married life, but Caroline stalls him by asking him to dance. Guess what? It's time for another song! This time, we get Helen Forrest, the real one. (Watching the film for this review, I just noticed that they freaking announce Forrest before she sings. How did I miss this?!)
here. It's a shame that this is the only showcase in the film for Forrest. She was very popular, having worked with Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman before James. She had actually left James for a solo career in 1943, finding great success with Dick Haymes as a partner, but she briefly returned to accompany James for this film and Two Girls and a Sailor, released the same year.
While Forrest is performing, Maria returns to talk to George. He locks her in his office so Steve doesn't see her, which does not go over well. She starts to trash his office when she comes across Steve's contact info. She sneaks out through the window and happens upon Carlos, who directs her to Victoria, only to realize who she is once she's gone.
However, he agrees to pack up his things and leave if Caroline comes and helps him after telling Evans he already left. In his room, Steve is ambushed by a group from a sorority who attempt to start an initiation process. Hearing a knock at the door, he thinks it's Caroline and the girls hide. It's not Caroline, though -- it's Maria. Before she can say anything, Caroline knocks and Steve shoves Maria in a closet. Things get a little steamy between our stars, but Carlos comes in
Things really pick up when Jean rushes in; her parents are here with the dean and they want to see for themselves that Steve has left. As they find hiding spots, George comes in and finds himself put in the same closet as Maria. Jean's parents look around and leave satisfied, allowing Caroline and Steve to come out. They hear Jean's mother say she left something in the room, though, so Caroline runs into George and
Seeing Maria, she screams and furiously runs away. So much for that trust she has of Steve. Anyway, the parents are scandalized, the dean is shocked, everyone is yelling and freaking out, and in the midst of all that, Carlos and the sorority girls come out of the closet on a four-seat bicycle while he plays guitar and sings. It's truly random and very, very funny. I wonder if Buster Keaton came up with that, too? Whoever did, I tip my hat off to you.
Some time later, it's the night of the show. George brings Steve to Caroline's dressing room and she runs into his arms. One of these loonies finally listened to Maria and the whole thing is cleared up. George slips away, but when Steve hears what his buddy has been up to, he goes right after him. We'll get to them later -- right now it's time for a show!
I don't even know if words can do justice to what all happens here. There are dozens of chorus girls who were trained to swim; both Harry James and Xavier Cugat; fountains; fire; giant seahorse sculptures; big columns; and at the center of it all, Esther. I'll let my pictures do the talking...
here. And if you're wondering why Esther's swimsuit looks especially sparkly, the wardrobe department sewed panels of small mirrors into the suit so that the camera would catch all the light and sparkle it created. Although the water ballet looks glamorous, in real life Esther was dealing with pneumonia and a 102 degree temperature. With everyone involved, though, the studio couldn't postpone the shoot, forcing Esther to work with it. As the audience is applauding Caroline, George jumps into the pool to escape Steve, who goes in after him only to remember he can't swim. Caroline arrives to help him and provide him with a kiss, which makes him sink... and he playfully pulls her down with him!
Skelton and Williams would be in two more films together after this, but never again would they play a couple, which is a bit of shame since they're so lovely here. In Neptune's Daughter (1949), they don't even know one another and in Texas Carnival (1951), they're partners in a carnival act. Skelton would also make a cameo as himself in Esther's Duchess of Idaho (1950) -- as he presents Esther and Van Johnson with an award, he goes "You both look awfully familiar to me" but he can't place them. Bathing Beauty would be the first and last time Skelton had billing over Esther; after all, this film made her a huge star!
One part of this film that I've consistently enjoyed is Jean Porter, who plays Jean. I'm glad I finally got this whole Helen Forrest thing figured out, because looking up Ms. Porter gave me some interesting information. Like Esther, she was put into an Andy Hardy flick, hers being Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble, released the same year as Bathing Beauty. After seeing the push the studio tried to give her in 1944, you'd think she would have done well, but instead the next year she was given a two-minute part as a gushing newlywed in another Esther Williams film, Thrill of a Romance. Apparently she was also in Easy to Wed, but I don't remember her at all. Porter would appear mostly in television as the years went on, including The Red Skelton Show. She was married to director Edward Dymtryk from 1948 until his death in 1999, so she was with him through his infamous time with the Red Scare in Hollywood. Porter is still alive today at the age of 93.
When asked by Robert Osborne what her favorite film is, Esther said she didn't really have one, commenting that "Bathing Beauty would be if I hadn't been such a lousy actress. I can't watch that one anymore, the rolling of the eyes and everything." It's true she wasn't totally refined as an actress yet, but it's still an admirable, star-making turn that I love each and every time. For fourteen years, Esther produced hit after hit for MGM, making a total of 21 films, not including her cameos in Till the Clouds Roll By and Callaway Went Thataway.
After she left the studio in 1955, she would make just five more pictures in addition to other ventures like her swimming pool business and designing bathing suits. In 1984, Esther helped inaugurate synchronized swimming as an Olympic sport, acting as a commentator that year. She took a few stops along the way, but Esther finally made it to the Olympics.
I don't quite know what it is that makes Esther's films so immensely enjoyable. Certainly she was incredibly natural and talented, but the swimming just adds an undefinable ingredient. Esther herself tried to explain it: "I think the charm of those pictures -- there's something very beautiful about the water and somebody's that skillful in it makes you feel good." I agree. But aside from the swimming, I just adore Esther as an actress and as a human being. She really was something special.
|Williams wore this dress to a charity event, where she met her second husband, Ben Gage. Their first date was the film's preview at Pomona.|
This is my contribution to the Athletes in Film Blogathon. You can check out the roster here.
WOWZA! This is fantastic. Rich, gorgeous and informative. I've nothing else to add except THANK YOU for taking part in the blogathon! We couldn't have done without Esther Williams and your tribute to the star and film is outstanding.ReplyDelete
Once Upon a Screen
Thanks so much! I'm sorry I didn't get the link to you. I forgot I had the post scheduled to go up, and then I went on an overnight trip and my hotel's wi-fi didn't work. I'm usually much better prepared, so thanks for retrieving the link yourself. :)Delete
"Swimming pretty," huh? That's funny.ReplyDelete
Nice article. Didn't know much about how Esther Williams got into show biz before this.
I find Esther's life story endlessly intriguing. It's really interesting how things fell into place for her. Yeah, swimming "pretty" is a bit weird -- she admits in her book that it's not a natural thing, but apparently it's really difficult to do.Delete
Thanks for co-hosting this blogathon!
I didn't realize Esther Williams resisted MGM for so long. (Love that story about I. Magnin loaning her a Chanel suit!)ReplyDelete
I haven't seen all of Esther's movies – including this one – but every time I do see her in film, I'm always struck by how charismatic she is. Plus, she always seems to have a great wardrobe.
This was a perfect choice for the blogathon. I would not have thought of it. :)
Thanks for reading, Ruth! Esther really wasn't that enamored with stardom -- she felt that fame was a fleeting thing and she accepted that she couldn't keep doing aqua musicals forever. Her autobiography is refreshingly frank about her career and Hollywood in general.Delete
You're right about Esther's clothes! She always had a fabulous wardrobe. I hope you check out more of her films! To me, she was the definition of a natural talent.