The Mermaid and the Madman

In 1941, a pretty, young sales clerk went to the movies with her new husband to see the MGM extravaganza Ziegfeld Girl. As they sat in the dark, the man was not particularly impressed, but his wife was entranced. She was beguiled by the impossible glamour of Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr; Judy Garland's beautiful, trembling rendition of "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows;" and the unforgettable musical numbers directed by Busby Berkeley. What made the experience even more overwhelming was that this woman -- a champion swimmer, a former Olympic hopeful, and now an I. Magnin salesgirl -- was being courted by MGM at that very moment.

Esther Williams didn't have stars in her eyes when it came to Hollywood. After swimming in Billy Rose's Aquacade alongside Johnny Weissmuller and witnessing the seedy side of show business firsthand, Esther wasn't enthusiastic when MGM initially came calling. But then she had second thoughts, thoughts that were only intensified when she had her husband Leonard take her to the movies one night. "Ziegfeld Girl was the most lavish and exciting musical film I'd ever seen," she later recalled, "and now I was being offered a chance to be a part of that world. Suddenly, after saying no for all this time, I was starstruck. I was hooked on the possibility that all those dreams could actually come true."

And those dreams really did come true. In 1942, Esther appeared in Andy Hardy's Double Life and by 1944, her star power was so obvious that MGM quickly changed the title of their Red Skelton vehicle to instead focus on her, despite it being just her first starring role. Bathing Beauty, formerly Mr. Co-Ed, made Esther an overnight sensation, and for over a decade, her success at the box office didn't let up.

One man who contributed to this success was choreographer and director Busby Berkeley. Known for his jaw-dropping, sexually-charged visuals, the man had an imagination like no one else. The images that Berkeley created are unforgettable, mesmerizing, and iconic. The films he was a part of are nothing to sneeze at, either, including three collaborations with Esther Williams.

Esther and Buzz were a great match. Her water ballets were right up his alley, with their focus on spectacle and sumptuous mise-en-scene. Even before they worked together, you can see Berkeley's influence in Esther's work. Just look at the finales of Bathing Beauty and Neptune's Daughter (1949). Other than a handful of routines, though, Esther's swimming numbers were relatively tame. They're certainly gorgeous to look at and lots of fun to watch, but when Berkeley got involved, that's when things really got wild.

Well, actually, the craziness had to wait until Buzz and Esther's second film. The first time they worked together was when he directed her in 1949's Take Me Out to the Ball Game. According to Esther, it was one of the worst film experiences she ever had, thanks to her leading man, Gene Kelly, and his co-choreographer, Stanley Donen. She claimed the men ruthlessly mocked and belittled her. Her role had previously been Judy Garland's, but when Judy, one of Kelly's dearest friends, proved unavailable, Esther stepped in. Making things worse was the fact that she was noticeably taller than Kelly, which he hated.

Although Kelly and Donen were in charge of the musical numbers, Esther felt that they took over the whole movie, pushing Berkeley to the side. In her autobiography, she recounted a beautiful dream sequence that Berkeley wanted to add to the film:

"...he came up with an imaginative concept where I was swimming in a rushing river and Gene was reaching out to me, but couldn't quite grab hold of me. Buzz saw it as a kind of catching and losing and catching and losing -- very sexy and very pretty. [Arthur] Freed was enthusiastic about it and told him to put it on storyboards in time for a follow-up meeting. When I saw Berkeley's storyboards, I could foresee my liberation. I could envision the two of us going on together from one movie to the next. I knew I needed someone with a real sense of showmanship if my movies were to continue to be successful. Other writers and producers were coming up with only the most contrived excuses to get me into the pool, but Buzz had all kinds of marvelous ideas, not just for the film, but for others as well."

Esther was thrilled with the sequence, but Kelly didn't want to do it. Instead, he pushed for the number "Baby Doll," a cutesy song-and-dance that didn't fit Esther at all and was eventually cut. (It was later put into The Belle of New York, where it was more appropriately performed by Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen. You can find the surviving footage of Gene and Esther's performance as a DVD extra for Take Me Out to the Ball Game.) In my opinion, it's a shame that Berkeley's dream idea was thrown out. It might have helped highlight their characters' relationship more, and I'm sure with Esther and Gene it would have looked fabulous.

Sadly, the only time we see Esther in the water is when she is singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" to herself while swimming. It's a great scene -- her butter yellow swimsuit against the blue water looks marvelous, and it becomes pretty romantic when co-star Frank Sinatra appears to serenade her.







In the end, Esther admitted that Gene was right to nix the big dream sequence. "The movie does just fine without an Esther Williams aqua special," she wrote. "Even swimming while singing 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game' is a stretch." That being said, she was still enamored with the idea of collaborating more with Busby Berkeley, saying "...he was one of the most creative individuals in Hollywood, maybe the only true genius I would ever work with. I could see that at once. More than that, he loved what I did in the water."

That last point was very important to Esther. Not many of her directors took her seriously. They thought her talent stayed in the water, despite the hard work Esther put in to become better at acting, singing, and dancing. Her films were just fluff, not serious art. Berkeley didn't see it that way. He knew how dazzling Esther's water sequences could be and for their next film together, 1952's Million Dollar Mermaid, she had him hired for the big water scenes and he justified her faith in him. He also almost killed her.

"Busby didn't give much thought to my safety," Esther remarked. "He just expected me to do whatever he dreamed up for me. Because I was the star, he said I had to do it better than anyone else. As a result, I risked my life every time he said, 'Roll 'em.'" The actress had had her share of near-death experiences before. She was the only person who knew what her swimming routines entailed. Costume mishaps and irresponsible set designs forced her to be more vigilant whenever she stepped on one of her sets, but it wasn't until Esther worked with Buzz that she realized just how careful she needed to be.

One of Esther's most famous routines comes when her character (and real-life swimmer) Annette Kellerman is putting on a show at the Hippodrome. There are dozens of men and women swinging and jumping from trapezes; red and yellow smoke fills the air; Esther is dangled above swimmers forming kaleidoscopic shapes below. Watching the scene, you'd have no idea that Esther broke one of her toes from gripping her trapeze so hard with her feet.

You also wouldn't realize that she had no clue about the billowing smoke. "It was typical of Buzz that he never mentioned the smoke," she recalled. "He just assumed it was a production detail that I didn't need to be concerned about." Nearsighted and terrified of missing the water and hitting cold concrete instead, Esther decided she didn't have much of a choice and jumped anyway, executing a perfect dive. "Years later, fans would tell me that it was their favorite scene in all of my movies. It wasn't one of mine," she would later say. Watch it here.










Unfortunately, the scariest incident was yet to come. For another Hippodrome water spectacular, Helen Rose outfitted Esther with a bedazzled, gold, full-body swimsuit, complete with a crown. The swimming routine was rather simple: Esther would dive a few times and swim around some intense fountains, and at the end of it, she'll magically rise from the depths of the water, surrounded by posed chorines, all smiling with their hair and makeup still perfect. (That last trick, by the way, was achieved by putting the footage in reverse and was used more than once for Esther's films.)

It was all going smoothly until it came time for one of the dives. As Esther hurtled towards the water, she realized she was in trouble: "The gold crown on my head. Instead of being made with something pliable like cardboard, it was lightweight aluminum, a lot stronger and less flexible than my neck. I hit the water with tremendous force. The impact snapped my head back. I heard something pop in my neck." Unaware of any issues, director Mervyn LeRoy called for lunch and everyone left the soundstage, except for Esther and her wardrobe woman, Flossie Hackett. As Hackett came to her to collect her costume, Esther discovered she could move her legs but not her arms and shoulders. Hackett believed she was joking at first, but then quickly called for help. Esther had broken three vertebrae in the back of her neck: "I'd come as close to snapping my spinal cord and becoming a paraplegic as you could without actually succeeding."

For six months, she was in a full body cast. Those three vertebrae eventually fused together, causing headaches for the rest of her life. Because Esther was the one and only swimming star, she couldn't be replaced, forcing the studio to shoot around her and wait for her return. Those six months gave her plenty of time to consider how diligent she needed to be in the future. She chided herself, writing "I didn't think [the costume] out in advance, and shame on me, because I was the only who would understand something like that. Take care of yourself, I thought. No one else can really do that for you."








She stuck to those words when it came time for her third and final film with Berkeley, 1953's Easy to Love. Although Esther's friend (and her best director) Charles Walters was directing the romantic comedy, Esther again had Buzz brought in to take care of the more elaborate water routines. This was fine with Walters, who excelled at creating and filming more subtle, quiet moments. "We had [Berkeley] fly down to Florida to do all the second unit work," Walters recalled. "I [arrived] on location while Buzz was in the middle of a number. There he was, bullhorn in hand and playback blazing away, surrounded by motorboats, swimmers, water skiers, and helicopters. I was introduced to everybody, and I heard one of the swimmers whisper, 'Jesus, if this guy's the director, who's that ham we've been working for?'"

Easy to Love is one of Esther's best films, and it contains one of my favorite water ballets as she and John Bromfield share a steamy pas de deux in a lagoon setting. Although the scene is devoid of half-naked chorus girls and mind-bending geometric images, it still has some of the classic Berkeley touches, such as a lavish set, complete with gypsy violinists and massive floral blankets, and an undeniable eroticism. Esther's water routines always seemed to get by the censors, probably because it just looked like harmless swimming, but with scenes like this one, it's hard to ignore the sexuality her movies often display.









Berkeley was up to his dangerous tricks again during Easy to Love. The film's finale was especially terrifying in that there were a number of ways it could go wrong. "Certainly the possibility that I might be injured was never a factor when Buzz was dreaming up his routines," Esther said, "he just assumed I could do anything." One part of the finale, for example, involved geysers that shot water 60 feet into the air. Nearsighted and pregnant, Esther studied the geysers and made a mental note that the needle jets that created them stuck six inches out of the water. This became important to remember when one day, while shooting with the geysers, Berkeley invited visitors and friends to go on the camera boat with him to show off his latest feast for the eyes. All of those people, however, weighed down the boat, making it hard to navigate quickly. Berkeley became so busy with firing off guns to cue the crew and trying to get a closer shot of Esther that he didn't realize he was forcing her towards the needle jets while she was water-skiing. She had to figure out how to fall into the water without landing on the boat's propeller and without impaling herself on the needle jets. Furious, she swam to the shore as Berkeley yelled, "Esther, come back! Why did you ruin the shot?"

Funnily enough, in order to think up ideas for Esther's numbers, Berkeley would soak in his bathtub late at night with a martini in hand. If he thought of something, he would call and wake up Esther. That's what happened when she first heard of his idea for Easy to Love's crazy finale. The finale was less about swimming and more about water-skiing. There was just one little problem: Esther didn't know how to water-ski. Throughout her career, MGM constantly assumed that Williams knew how to do anything that related to water, and Berkeley was no different.

Esther accepted all of these challenges, except 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.'"

Despite Berkeley's alcoholism, Esther noted that he never drank at work. "On the set he was as wonderfully creative as ever. Before we did a take, he would gather everyone around him and chalk-talk his way through the scene. He stood in front of his blackboard, like a football coach diagramming a play, and told each of us on the team what our assignments were. Then we'd break the huddle and shoot."

"This was the kind of thing I loved," Berkeley later said about the finale. "I had Esther and eighty boy and girl skiers whizzing along on skis carrying big flags. I mapped out an intricate pattern of movements for them through the cypress trees and around huge geysers that shot sixty-foot sprays into the air. I had twelve boy skiers going over twelve-foot-high jumps simultaneously. ... I used a helicopter in another part of this sequence, with Esther standing on a trapeze while hanging from the plane, then diving from a height of eighty feet into a V-shaped formation of skiers traveling at thirty-five miles per hour across the lake...I wanted to create the effect that she might land right in the audience." In the end, it made for one of Esther's most memorable routines. Watch it here.










Busby Berkeley crafted some of the most iconic, intense moments in Esther Williams's career. She gave him work when a lot of people looked at him as just a washed-up drunk, and in return, he helped ensure her legacy as Hollywood's mermaid. So what's a few near-death experiences between friends?

_________________

This is my contribution to the amazing Busby Berkeley Blogathon, hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood. Check out the complete roster here.

P.S. Be sure to look out for my full review of Million Dollar Mermaid in a few weeks for the O Canada Blogathon!

Comments

  1. Bahaha! "So what's few near-death experiences between friends?" That made me laugh.

    The more I read about Esther Williams (courtesy of your find blog), the more I appreciate her. Thanks for including links to the sequences you described – she is AMAZING. I especially love the waterskiing scene, and all the patterns with the boats, the skiers, and the water.

    Can't wait to read more about Esther in the O Canada blogathon! ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for such a kind comment! It makes me happy to hear that Esther has gained another fan. Wasn't she just astounding?

      Believe me, I can't wait to write even more about her for your blogathon!

      Delete
  2. Amazing post! I love when you include quotes and texts from the actors and actresses themselves. Also, nice to know esther called Busby 'Buzz'. Million Dollar Mermaid was my first film with her, and I was very impressed with the choreographies - but I didn't know the shooting was so full of accidents. I'm happy Esther and Busby were a perfect combination in the MGM musical department.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! Glad you like the quotes. Esther's book is one of my favorites, so I love quoting from it.

      Million Dollar Mermaid was basically the film that kept trying to kill Esther. There is actually a THIRD accident that I left out because it didn't have to do with Berkeley. But I'm definitely be talking about it in my full review soon!

      Delete
  3. Busby Berkeley worked with so many fabulous actors and actresses, I almost have to think of them as phases in his career. I adore all of the work he did with Esther Williams. When I see her movies and the big production numbers in them, it's hard not to think of his earlier "By a Waterfall" number. Thank you so much for participating in the Busby Berkeley Blogathon!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for having me! I think of his career in phases, too. "By a Waterfall" was certainly early proof that Berkeley was ready to take on Esther when the time came.

      Delete
  4. Hello Bloggers!

    I'm writing to you because you participated in the Busby Berkeley Blogathon, and would love to offer you the option of including your article in our Busby Berkeley ebook. As I have done in the past, all proceeds go to the National Film Preservation Foundation. You can view some of our sample ebooks here: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=annette+bochenek

    If you are interested in participating, here is what I need--
    -Your article sent as Microsoft Word doc
    -The article typed up in size 12 Times New Roman, single-spaced
    -Font color must be black
    -No photos

    Please send me your article by February 28th. I'll be in touch with you once everything is ready to go. I can be reached at nettybo@gmail.com

    Have a great day!
    Best,
    Annette

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Awesome! I'll get my article sent to you today!

      Delete

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