Esther Williams is the... Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)

Million Dollar Mermaid is arguably one of Esther Williams's most important films, not only because it was a huge moneymaker, but because it also demonstrated the power Esther came to have at MGM. Growing a little frustrated with her unique brand of aqua musicals, she decided she wanted to bring to the silver screen the life of Annette Kellerman, an Australian champion swimmer who was basically Esther Williams before Esther even was. MGM bought the rights to Kellerman's story and Esther had her hired as a technical adviser. Because this was a biopic and therefore a prestige picture, Esther was given a top-notch director in Mervyn LeRoy and a popular leading man in Victor Mature. The incredibly talented Walter Pidgeon was even cast as Esther's father.

Like a lot of biopics from old Hollywood, Million Dollar Mermaid takes many liberties with Annette Kellerman's story. The woman was reluctant to sign over the rights in the first place. Reportedly, she was annoyed with MGM when they remade her 1914 film Neptune's Daughter in 1949. She thought it should have been like The Red Shoes; MGM thought it needed to be a light musical comedy starring Esther, Ricardo Montalban, Red Skelton, and Betty Garrett. (I don't think the studio meant Esther's film as a remake. They're such vastly different properties, with the title being the only commonality. Funnily enough, Esther's character in the later film is a champion swimmer-turned-swimsuit designer, which describes what Kellerman did in the 1910s.)

Kellerman admitted that she would have never agreed to MGM doing the biopic if she hadn't met Esther and realized that "she really wanted to make my life story." Despite liking the star, though, Kellerman said in interviews from 1951 and 1952 that Esther definitely wouldn't have been her choice to play her. "I never would have thought of her for the part," she admitted, "she's much too pretty." The then-65-year-old (see right) would also say "I can still hold my own with Esther from the neck down. From the neck up I think she is much too glamorous for the role. I think, really, she's too beautiful. I'd rather have seen Metro-Goldwyn-
Mayer cast either a new actress, perhaps an Australian girl, in the part. Don't think I'm complaining, though. She's a lovely girl, and I'm very fond of her. I just feel that she's such a 'name' that people will be a little inclined to associate the picture with her rather than me." (That last statement proved correct. Esther's new moniker became "the Million Dollar Mermaid" -- she even titled her autobiography after it.)

Esther knew Kellerman's feelings on the subject, mainly because on the set one day she asked Kellerman point-blank how she felt about the casting: "There was an awkward silence. 'Do you have a problem with that question?' I asked. 'It's not that,' she finally answered in a pronounced Down Under accent. 'It's just that I wish you were Australian.' 'I'm the only swimmer in the movies, Miss Kellerman. I'm all you've got.' 'I know, I know,' she said. I wasn't sure she ever approved. She stayed and watched the shooting for a bit, and then left. I thought maybe she'd come to the
                              premiere, but I never saw her again."

The film opens in Australia in the late 1800s. We're taken to the Kellerman Conservatory, where a woman practices the harp, a man plays the piano, and little Annette Kellerman sadly watches other girls practice ballet from her bedroom window. Annette, who was played by Donna Corcoran, Esther's youngest sister in Dangerous When Wet, is confined to leg braces. Her father (Pidgeon) tries to comfort her with the idea of dedicating her life to music like he has, but Annette has a different plan. Every day she sneaks off to a pond and teaches herself how to swim. When her father finds her one day, she pleads with him to allow her to keep swimming, explaining that her legs have been getting stronger and
soon she won't need her braces at all. We then get a montage of Annette swimming with her father's help, which quickly leads to competitions and heaps of trophies until cute, little Donna Corocoran becomes tall, beautiful Esther Williams.

After returning from her latest competition with a giant trophy in her hands, Annette's father breaks the news that he is closing the conservatory because they are losing too many students to cover the costs. He has been offered a job at a London conservatory, however, so all is not lost. Annette suggests she could help their finances by swimming, but Mr. Kellerman is adamant that he
wants her to focus on music and ballet, with swimming staying a hobby.

On the ship to England, the Kellermans are walking on the deck when a kangaroo with boxing gloves goes rushing by, followed by Americans Doc (Jesse White) and Jimmy Sullivan (Mature). Jimmy is a promoter and the kangaroo is his latest act, as he explains when introducing himself to the Kellermans. Annette and her father mention they're going to London for his new job and for Annette to continue studying ballet. Jimmy perks up when he remembers seeing Annette's name in the paper for winning her last competition. Mr. Kellerman sternly remarks that his daughter won't be taking swimming seriously, but that doesn't stop Jimmy from offering to be her manager later that night. Annette is charmed by the handsome, fast-talking man in front of her, but once again, Mr. Kellerman shuts the conversation down.

In London, the Kellermans are dismayed to learn that the conservatory has closed and Mr. Kellerman's job has disappeared. Soon Annette has to start pawning her trophies to make ends meet. Her father is forced to give cheap music lessons and she is unable to get very far with her ballet. One day, Jimmy and Doc appear on their doorstep. Jimmy still has the boxing kangaroo and he wants Annette to swim some miles in the Thames to generate publicity for it. (It doesn't make sense, I know.) "Well, if you're going to stage a swim, why not make it a real one?" Annette says offhandedly. "Five or six miles aren't going to impress anybody, but twenty-six miles might."

Jimmy loves the idea and before long, he, Doc, and Annette are huddled in a rowboat on a cold, foggy morning. Annette slips into the water and begins her swim to Greenwich, the site of the carnival where the kangaroo performs. Word slowly starts to spread, eventually reaching Mr. Kellerman. As the trio approaches Tower Bridge, a crowd cheers Annette on, including her very proud father. A few hours later, a heavy current moves in, making the swim more difficult. Jimmy decides to pull her out, but she insists she can make it. Just then, the fog starts to clear and they can see Greenwich in the distance.

Upon arrival, Annette is besieged by reporters. Unfortunately for Jimmy, none of those reporters are interested in the kangaroo and they immediately leave once Jimmy asks them to let Annette rest. The next day, Jimmy receives dozens of employment offers for Annette, which stuns the Kellermans. He makes an offer of his own: they'll create their own "water carnival," with "water ballets set to music!" (Quick disclaimer: the real Jimmy Sullivan definitely did not invent the water ballet.) Jimmy even believes they could take the act to the world-famous Hippodrome in New York. The Kellermans point out that they're too poor to afford passage to America, but Jimmy has an answer for that: he'll sell his kangaroo
and some of his possessions! Plus, he is definitely (re: totally not) acquaintances with the Hippodrome's producer, so this should be a piece of cake!

Outside of the Hippodrome, Doc and Mr. Kellerman nervously wait while inside, Jimmy and Annette are pitching their show to producer Alfred Harper (David Brian). Although he admits that Annette is impressive, Harper says that her swimming feats overseas were just a small news item in America and they couldn't possibly risk building a show around her. He does offer Annette a job as a chorus girl, and to his credit, as they leave, Jimmy
encourages her to take it so she can take care of her father. Annette wants to do more than that, though -- she wants to give her dad his conservatory back, and in order to do that, she'll need a bigger income. She asks Jimmy why they couldn't stage another twenty-mile swim to generate interest in her. Since he has a connection at Revere Beach in Boston, they choose to start the swim there.

Unfortunately, this idea is halted the second Annette steps on the beach in her sleek one-piece bathing suit, which is in sharp contrast with the stockings, gloves, hats, and baggy suits the other women are wearing. This point is driven home by shots of horrified ladies and creepy men staring and following Annette. (I'm not exaggerating when I say the men chasing after Esther will make your skin crawl.) Before Annette can even touch the water, she is arrested for indecent exposure.

The newspapers have a field day. Annette, however, is angry about the arrest. As always, Jimmy sees this as an opportunity: "Don't you realize you're the standard-bearer of all American womanhood? In your hands lies the power to break the shackles of prudery. Free the feminine sex from convention. ... This is a crusade!" Mr. Kellerman actually agrees with Jimmy, and with the men's support, Annette decides to fight the charges. In court, the opposing counsel tries to shame her for having the gall to show her legs, arms, and shoulders. Annette insists it wasn't "indecent" and explains that the one-piece suit always enabled her to swim better and more freely. She presents the judge with a compromise: a one-piece with stockings sewn on to cover her legs and feet. The case is promptly dismissed.

With all of this publicity, Jimmy, Doc, and Annette are able to start their own show at a nearby carnival. Mr. Kellerman plays the organ while Annette dives and demonstrates various swimming techniques, all in her infamous bathing suit. The show is very successful and runs for many weeks. Meanwhile, Jimmy and Annette have become an item. Jimmy tells Doc he is going to propose to her. He also has started dreaming of their next act, which will include pilot Bud Williams and his "flying machine." As Jimmy lays out his plans, Annette arrives with a lecture promoter who thinks she would be great at speaking about "the body beautiful" -- they would even throw in some ballet! Jimmy, clearly
hating the idea that Annette would do something that he didn't come up with, thinks it is a hilarious idea. Miffed, the promoter insults Jimmy and the carnival, leading the men to come close to blows.

After that night's show, Jimmy comes to Annette's dressing room and apologizes. However, when she brings up the lecture idea and how much money it would bring in, he picks a fight again. "All we're doing is capitalizing on a lot of cheap bathing suit publicity!" Annette sighs. This causes Jimmy to drop the bomb that he was the one who arranged Annette's arrest. It was an awful,
manipulative thing to do, especially since he pushed Annette to go to trial under the guise of a "crusade." Jimmy then says, "Wet, you're terrific. Dry, you're just a nice girl who ought to settle down and get married." Annette lands the final stinger by retorting that she would never marry a man like him. (Side note: Esther rather infamously received an insult similar to Jimmy's when Fanny Brice once remarked "Wet, she's a star. Dry, she ain't.") That night, Annette receives a telegram with an offer from the Hippodrome. She hurries to the carnival to give Jimmy the exciting news, but her elation turns to devastation when she discovers that he and Doc
       have left for Florida to be a part of Bud Williams's flying show.

At the Hippodrome, Annette is able to put on fantastically mesmerizing routines and we are finally given an Esther Williams aqua spectacle, courtesy of choreographer Busby Berkeley. Helen Rose outfitted Esther with a sparkling, golden, full-body swimsuit, complete with a crown. The swimming routine is rather simple, consisting of two dives and a few laps around some impressive fountains, ending with Esther magically rising from the depths of the water, surrounded by posed chorines. (That last trick, by the way, was achieved by putting the footage in reverse and was used more than once for Esther's films.)

During production, everything was going smoothly until it came time for one of the dives. "I forced a smile for the camera and swan-dived from that tiny platform," Esther recalled. "Hurtling down, I muttered a silent 'Oh, shit.' I suddenly realized what was going to happen next. 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."

Back to the movie! Annette is backstage at the Hippodrome watching legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova perform "The Dying Swan" from Swan Lake. Pavlova is portrayed by Maria Tallchief, a woman who became the first true American prima ballerina and the first Native American to achieve the position. Annette is enchanted by Pavlova and praises her after her dance. Although she is a star, Annette slightly regrets not following through with ballet. Pavlova assures her, though, that what she does in the water is just as special.
It's a moment that reminds me of a conversation Esther wrote about between her and Ingrid Bergman. Esther frequently felt frustrated about how her films were treated as fluff, which meant that her acting wasn't usually respected and she wasn't always given the best directors or co-stars. She was jealous of actresses like Bergman and even told her that one day when they ran into each other in Paris. According to Esther, Bergman responded by saying she worked with the best because she needed them. "Your pictures are carried by you alone, dear -- you and your bathing suit," she continued. "Nobody has ever tried to ask me to carry a picture all by myself, so take it as a compliment."

Back at the Hippodrome, Alfred Harper, who is now a good friend of Annette's in addition to being her boss, gives her a generous new contract and tells her he has just hired her father as the new conductor of the Hippodrome Orchestra. Everything is coming up roses for the Kellermans -- however, Annette still wants to find Jimmy so he can share in her success. Mr. Kellerman cautions his daughter that "you mustn't confuse love and loyalty" and explains that Jimmy is probably trying to prove he can do well without Annette. He'll come back once he feels he has done that.
Until then, we get a marvelous montage of Annette gaining more popularity as she performs many fabulous routines. Actually, MGM got clever and recycled some of the routines Esther did in Bathing Beauty, This Time for Keeps, and Duchess of Idaho. It all ends in a new ballet-inspired number that takes place completely underwater. Wearing a bathing suit complete with a tutu, Annette does some pretty poses and twirls, with the panels of her tank surrounded by weird crystal-like structures that change colors. At one point during her routine, she swims into a giant clam shell that holds a big pearl.

While filming this scene, Esther suffered yet another incident that almost ended in her death. "I knew from the storyboard that I was supposed to go around the pearl one more time," she recalled, "but instead I lay my head on it, like a pillow, and sort of went into a trance. My eyes glazed over; I didn't know where up or down was, and I didn't care. This feeling is something like 'the rapture' experienced by scuba divers. It's a very dangerous dreamlike state caused by excess carbon dioxide in the body, and when it takes over, all you want to do is go to sleep even as the oxygen is running out." Thankfully, her little nap was interrupted by LeRoy, who
yelled at her through the underwater speaker. He didn't realize he was saving her life, though -- he just wanted her to get off the pearl because it was newly painted!

Sadly, in the film, the pearl scene doesn't bode well for Walter Pidgeon. As he is conducting, Mr. Kellerman collapses and is carried backstage. Oblivious, Annette finishes her number. When she finds everyone gathered around his body backstage, she is heartbroken. Jimmy and Doc learn about the death through the newspapers, but Jimmy refuses to go see Annette.

Some time later, Annette and Harper are entering the theater as they read about an insanely dangerous airplane contest that boasts a $50,000 prize. They then come across Doc, who has come to tell Annette that Jimmy is one of the contest's flyers. Doc knows how risky the flight is and he hopes that Annette can come talk Jimmy out of it. She says she will try, but first, it's showtime!

The following routine is easily one of Esther's most famous. Dozens of men and women swing and jump from trapezes; red and yellow smoke fills the air; Esther is dangled above swimmers forming kaleidoscopic shapes below her. 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 wrote. "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.

After her show, Annette goes to the airfield and sees Jimmy kissing another woman. She doesn't linger on it, though, and confronts him about his latest bullheaded stunt. Irritatingly, he acts all cool and casual, and refuses to drop out of the contest. Annette goes to plan B: she hands him a court order that says he still owes her money from their carnival days, money that is tied up in his plane. Jimmy tears off the chain around his neck that holds Annette's engagement ring and hands it to her as payment. She sadly walks away and he takes off without looking back.

Once again, newspaper headlines give us important information;
this time it is about Jimmy becoming lost in a storm. This makes it hard for Annette to concentrate when Harper takes her out to dinner. He knows that Annette still loves Jimmy, but he doesn't believe that they're a good match: "[Jimmy will] always be in the clouds looking for that fast dollar. The big ballyhoo that'll make him a seven-day wonder." Harper admits he loves Annette and proposes. Before she can reply, there is an announcement made in the restaurant that five flyers are still in the contest -- but Jimmy wasn't one of them because he has been hospitalized after crashing his aircraft. Worried, Annette calls the hospital and learns it was only a minor injury and he is no longer there.

We jump ahead six months. In Harper's office, a man is pitching the film Neptune's Daughter as a vehicle for Annette. Harper says he will have to ask Annette about it and finds her elsewhere in the theater. Instead of mentioning the film, though, he asks her to finally respond to his proposal. Guess how we learn her answer? If you guessed "newspaper headline," give yourself a cookie! Annette said "yes," and their marriage will take place as soon as she completes Neptune's Daughter.

On the train to Hollywood, the happy couple runs into Jimmy and Doc, whose current scheme is hocking "genuine" Native American blankets. Doc is even made up in brownface -- it's pretty shameful. Aware of Annette's upcoming movie, Jimmy says that he has Hollywood prospects himself thanks to a new client: a certain dog named Rin Tin Tin. (The real Jimmy Sullivan was never involved with Rin Tin Tin, so it's a very odd choice that the screenwriter made here.)

We fast-forward again to the last day of production on Neptune's Daughter. Harper goes to retrieve Annette from her dressing room and finds her rifling through her things looking for something. He figures out what it is when he finds a ring on the floor -- Jimmy's engagement ring. Annette remarks that she wears it whenever she does a stunt, but seeing how uncomfortable Harper looks, she laughs at her superstition and leaves it in the dressing room.

She then goes to the set, climbs up rickety ladders to her mark, and dives in to a small tank. As she swims underwater, cracks start to
appear in the tank's glass. One of the crew notices it and yells that the tank is about to explode. Everyone screams and runs, leaving Annette very confused -- and then the tank bursts. It's a genuinely scary moment, made all the more upsetting with its final shot of an unconscious Annette laying bloodied on the ground as the water washes over her.

For two weeks, she is hospitalized with a spinal injury. (This accident, by the way, really did happen to Kellerman, except she was swimming with her director and co-star Herbert Brenon and both of them only suffered bad cuts.) Jimmy has been trying to see
Annette, but he is unsuccessful until Harper lets him accompany him. They meet Annette's doctor coming out of her room. He tells them that it was good that they operated, but they're unsure how long she'll be without the use of her legs. He also says Annette shouldn't have any visitors, but Jimmy sneaks in anyway. He and Annette try to act like everything is fine -- she says she only has a sprain; he tells her Rin Tin Tin is posed to be a success. Annette can't stop the tears from coming, though, leading Jimmy to assure her that she'll recover, just like she did when she was that little girl with the leg braces. (I see what you did there, filmmakers, bringing this all full circle.)

Having listened in, Harper comes in and agrees with Jimmy. He also says that although Jimmy was stupid to let Annette go in the first place, he knows which of them really has her heart. He tells Annette her spot at the Hippodrome will stay open and then gives Jimmy his engagement ring back. Jimmy finally puts it on Annette's finger and they kiss.

Okay, now it's fact-checkin' time! For starters, Kellerman's mother was totally erased from the film and never even garners a mention. Because of her leg braces, both of Kellerman's parents put her in swimming lessons, and by age sixteen, she was winning competitions, breaking records, and performing as a "live mermaid" by doing a tank act and high diving. It's true that Kellerman swam the Thames as a publicity stunt, although the film doesn't mention that she also did swims in the Seine, the English Channel, and the Danube.

Million Dollar Mermaid is also correct in illustrating how
Kellerman became an international sensation with her shows at the Hippodrome in her one-piece bathing suit after her 1907 arrest in Boston. She also made movies in the 1910s and 1920s, many of which are lost or gone forever. You can see pieces of Neptune's Daughter here and here, one of her water ballets here, and part of 1924's Venus of the South Seas here. You can read more about this fascinating lady, including how she was the first major actress to appear nude on film (!), here.

While Million Dollar Mermaid does right by Kellerman for the
most part, her husband Jimmy Sullivan didn't fare as well. It is true that he was her manager, but according to Kellerman, the script's depiction of him was "the antithesis" of who he really was: a "quiet, unassuming" man who "never did anything cheap." Like Esther, Victor Mature wasn't who Kellerman had in mind to be in the film. She had wanted Glenn Ford, believing he was "the nearest thing I can think of to my dear husband -- not too glamorous, and he implies the strength and understanding necessary for the part. [My husband and I] have been married 39 years, and are still just as thrilled with each other as ever we were. Our film is no love story with misunderstandings and scandals. It is just a good clean story; that's the way we've lived our lives." The casting of Mature caused the real Jimmy's friends to teasingly greet him with "Here comes Samson," referencing Mature's role in Samson and Delilah. Annette and Jimmy, who are pictured on the right in 1933, were married from 1912 until his death in 1975. She would pass away a year later.

It is a shame that Everett Freeman's script makes Jimmy into a scheming shyster. It makes it hard to root for him, especially since Mature was so good at making his characters smarmy. In my opinion, it would have been much more interesting if they had hewed closer to Kellerman's real story, where she and her husband adored each other and stuck together as she became one of the most famous women in the world. Classic Hollywood biopics can be really confounding when you learn the actual stories behind their subjects. Sometimes it just doesn't make sense why they change things the way they do.

One person who had no problem with the casting of Victor Mature was Esther. Although she rarely fell for her leading men, the combination of their mutual attraction and their crumbling marriages was too much for either to resist. "Fictional desire and real desire blended during the making of Million Dollar Mermaid, and it's obvious, to me at least, in every scene of that film," Esther said. "Some days, I stood trembling with excitement, waiting for Vic's secret knock on my dressing room door. We were shameless and happy."
When she was recovering from her broken vertebrae, Esther recalled Mature being "exceptionally sweet," saying he was "one man I never had to teach anything, not even how to swim! But I had never thought for a second that our affair would last past the making of the movie. In some part of my heart, I knew that I was just one more in his long list of conquests. But I don't regret a minute in his arms. Romances with beautiful leading men don't last forever, but don't knock it until you've had one."

Despite all of the close calls she had during production, Million Dollar Mermaid was one of Esther's happiest filmmaking experiences. She loved playing Annette and she was glad the swimming scenes were more organic to the plot instead of being "shoehorned" in like they can be in her other films. She was thrilled to be working with Mature and Walter Pidgeon, men she called "actors of substance." And she had Mervyn LeRoy, an old pro, at the helm!

Unfortunately, LeRoy did prove to be a bit of a disappointment to Esther. "He wasn't the perceptive director I thought he would be," she confessed, explaining that the only direction he ever gave was "Let's have a nice little scene." Eventually, Esther realized that the director was feeling burned out. He had just finished Quo Vadis, which had a chaotic production, and he figured directing an Esther Williams flick would give him a break. "Mervyn knew we had a formula, and that we had a team of professionals who understood the art and science of making swimming movies," Esther wrote. "The fact that we knew what we were doing gave him license to sit back in the director's chair and talk about having 'nice little scenes.'" (LeRoy's laziness probably explains all of those damn newspaper headlines.) At the end of shooting, the director would admit to Esther that he took on the project because he needed a big hit and he knew she would deliver. Indeed, in her entire career, most of the twenty-four films she starred in were solid box office successes.

One of the best things about Million Dollar Mermaid is Busby Berkeley's water extravaganzas. Esther wanted him personally for these scenes, knowing that his creative genius was perfect for the kind of films she made. They worked beautifully together -- many of Esther's most well-known routines came from Berkeley's feverish brain, even though he almost killed his star multiple times. For more on that, you can check out the article I wrote on their partnership here.

Another enchanting aspect of this film is Walter Pidgeon. Kellerman was delighted that he played her father, saying that when she saw him in the rushes, she "felt like kissing him." It's not hard to understand where she was coming from. Pidgeon is one of those actors who could just silently stand and you'd feel like cheering him. He has such a charming, noble presence. I've never seen him give a bad performance, even if the film he is in doesn't require him to do much. Mr. Kellerman is certainly not one of Pidgeon's best roles -- it's actually kind of upsetting how the script kills him off and then jumps ahead months, never letting us see Annette grieve over him. Pidgeon deserved better.

Now it's time for me to confess something: Million Dollar Mermaid isn't one of my favorite Esther Williams films. Although it's a well-made movie that has a lot going for it, its status as a conventional biopic makes it pale in comparison to Esther's aqua musicals, those films that are a delicious mix of sweet romance, lovely music, quirky situations, fun dialogue, and heart-stopping Technicolor. I'm also not that impressed with the pairing of Esther and Mature, which is ironic given what was going on behind the scenes.

However, despite all of that, I would still encourage you to see this movie. Esther is never to be missed, and many people would say this is one of her most quintessential films -- she frequently said it was one of her own favorites! It doesn't top Thrill of a Romance or Easy to Love, but it is good, solid entertainment. Plus, how about that boxing kangaroo?


This is my contribution to the O Canada Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. For the other entries celebrating Canadian imports like Walter Pidgeon, Canada-set films, and actual Canadian productions, click here.


  1. In some ways, it's remarkable that Esther Williams survived this film. All the Esther W. films I've seen seem somewhat dangerous in places, but this one! Yikes! It just shows how tough and determined Esther was.

    I really liked what you said about Walter Pidgeon's presence, and I agree. You want to cheer for him, even when he's just standing there.

    As for this film, I had no idea to expect when I first saw it. I thought it was the usual Esther W. romantic-comedy fare, but I was so impressed with the story and Esther's performance. Like you, I wouldn't count it as a fave Esther W. film, but it's still well worth seeing.

    Thank you for joining the blogathon with this lively and educational essay. You're always a pleasure to read.

    1. Aw, thanks, Ruth! It's surprising how dangerous this film turned out to be for Esther, and yet she still loved making it.

      It's an outlier in her filmography, for sure. A lot of people adore this movie, and there is good reason to, including Esther's performance, but I just can't bring myself to love it.

  2. Talk about close shaves! I am amazed what Esther had to endure making this film. Equally amazed that the studio wasn't more careful with their personnel.

    I can certainly understand Kellerman's reservations about the project and would like to see a more factual film about her life someday.

    Walter Pidgeon is the one Hollywood star that I would want to hug. We were born in neighbouring provinces, so I think of him as a maritime cousin.

  3. Wow, I've never read much on Williams so I had no idea the backstory, danger and injuries involved here! Shocking, this whole essay was fascinating, thanks so much for putting so much work into it and being part of the blogathon :)

    1. Thanks! I didn't expect to write so much about the real Annette Kellerman, but she turned out to be a very interesting woman. Esther's films always have fascinating production histories too, and this movie was no exception, clearly!

  4. Fantastic post! Million Dollar Mermaid was the first Esther Williams film I watched, and later I also went to read more about Kellerman. The tank stunt made me soooo nervous!


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