The Short, Silly, and Lovely Cinematic Journey of Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalbán

When it came to her leading men, Esther Williams always felt a bit shortchanged. She never shared the screen with such icons as Cary Grant, Clark Gable, or Gary Cooper. There are two reasons for this, in my opinion. The first and most obvious one is that Esther mainly starred in aqua musicals, her own unique blend of musical comedy, romance, and gallons of water. This kind of film didn't exactly fit with the more high-profile actors' personas. (Can you even imagine Bogie getting in the deep end with Esther?)

Secondly, when you watch an Esther Williams movie, you know exactly who the star is. The aqua musicals were built around her and practically every bit of production was focused on how best to showcase MGM's mermaid. I have a feeling this discouraged a few actors from even considering becoming Esther's leading man. Take Fernando Lamas, for instance. When he was approached with co-starring in Dangerous When Wet, he turned it down, despite the fact that Esther's films were guaranteed moneymakers and he was a former champion swimmer himself. The actor admitted to Esther that he didn't see it as an "important" film and he didn't want to be forced into becoming her permanent partner. To get him to agree to the movie, Esther promised his part would be bigger.

Although she wasn't always wowed by her screen partners, I find many of them to be pretty swell. However, factoring in chemistry, the actors' ease, and the quality of their collaborations, Esther had only a few truly great partners. One of those was Ricardo Montalbán. Unbelievably charismatic and divinely handsome, Montalbán fit into the aqua musicals perfectly. He even made his foray into Hollywood with one...

Fiesta (1947)
Out of all of Esther's films, Fiesta is the one that has the most undeserved reputation, thanks to its far-fetched idea that Esther and Ricardo could play twins. Yes, twins. Ricardo is Mario, a burgeoning composer who is forced to become a bullfighter by their ex-toreador father Don Antonio. Esther is Maria, a woman who adores her brother and whose bullfighting skills are ignored by their father because she isn't a man. Knowing that Mario loves music more than bullfighting, Maria sends one of his compositions to a famous conductor named Contreras. When Contreras tries to find Mario to take him on as a student, Don Antonio intercepts him. However, Mario learns what happened right before he steps into the ring for his big debut. Devastated, he runs away. Unable to find her brother, Maria decides to bullfight as Mario, thinking that he will come out of hiding to see who is using his name.

The wackiness of the film wasn't lost on Esther. "The plot defied credulity, even by Hollywood standards," she admitted in her autobiography. Before filming started, she went to producer Jack Cummings with the concern that she needed to do an accent to match Ricardo: "Jack, would you explain to me how Ricardo and I could grow up in the same playpen together, with him speaking the way he does and me talking the way I do?" Cummings unsatisfactorily responded with "First of all, Esther, here at MGM we can do anything. I anticipated this question. Your mother is Mary Astor, who speaks perfect English, like you do. Your father is Fortunio Bonanova, who can barely speak English at all." Playing
along, Esther replied, "Oh, I get it. When we were growing up, I talked only to my mother and Ricardo spoke only with his father." "Just so," Cummings said. In her book, Esther conceded, "After a while, you just kind of have to accept the idea that not everything in Hollywood is going to make sense."

Despite the nonsensical idea of Ricardo and Esther playing siblings, let alone twins, Fiesta is actually a fun, delightful movie. It was also Ricardo's first American film, and trust me when I say he is stunning here. Mario is a conflicted character -- does he pursue his passion, or does he follow in his beloved father's
footsteps? All of the film's drama relies on Ricardo and he delivers a tremendous, sensitive performance. I remember tearing up the first time I saw the scene where Mario has left home and he hops on a bus to go work on a plantation. The bus stops at a restaurant, where a radio loudly plays. Suddenly, the radio announcer introduces Contreras and his orchestra as they present Mario's composition. Listening to his piece come alive, Mario becomes emotional. He glances around, wanting to share this glorious moment, but then he remembers that his family isn't there. Unable to restrain himself, he sits at the restaurant's piano and begins to ardently play along, completely losing himself.

In addition to his acting, Ricardo also astonishes with his dancing. His partner? The inimitable Cyd Charisse. As Conchita, Charisse isn't given much to do besides be Mario's devoted, understanding girlfriend, but when she and Ricardo dance, the screen sparkles. Their first number is a breathless affair set to "La Bamba" and can be viewed here. Later, at Mario and Maria's birthday celebration, the couple indulges in a magnificent duet that you can see here.








While they may not look like siblings, Ricardo and Esther certainly do an excellent job of acting like they grew up together. There is a charming playfulness to their interactions, and you really do feel like Mario and Maria care for one another deeply. "Although this was his first English language film," Esther wrote, "Ricardo was already revealing the congenial disposition that later characterized Mr. Rourke, his debonair Fantasy Island persona. Needless to say, he and I were instant friends. Every morning he'd come on the set with an energetic, heartfelt 'Good morning! God is smiling on us. How is everyone today?'"

Like Mario, Maria is an interesting character. I love her stubborn, plucky attitude and the fact that she doesn't let her gender stop her from secretly training alongside her brother. It's thrilling when she impersonates Mario because she is finally given an opportunity to shine. (Even though Esther does look kind of hilarious with her short pompadour and face still covered in make-up. A chameleon she is not.) That being said, the movie doesn't quite resolve Maria's story the way I'd like. Instead of the family discovering her talent, she and Mario keep quiet about the masquerade. In the film's final seconds, their father has figured out the truth, but it still feels like Maria's future won't include revolutionizing bullfighting.

Fiesta had a very difficult three-month shoot in Mexico. People became sick, including a director of photography named Sidney Wagner and another crew member who died from cholera after eating contaminated food. Director Richard Thorpe was a terror. Esther's husband Ben Gage made things worse by drunkenly starting a fight and ending up in jail. Then, to top it all off, tensions between the crew and the Mexican townspeople grew after Spanish bullfighters were brought in as doubles and bullfighting traditions were altered to suit the production, such as not killing the bulls.

One thing that I especially appreciate about Fiesta is that it enabled Ricardo to play his own ethnicity. He wasn't cast as Cuban, Brazilian, or French (not yet, anyway), and he wasn't made into a Latin lover, although that would come later. For Ricardo, acknowledging his Mexican identity was extremely important. He frequently and eloquently spoke about this, such as in this interview where he talks about how his frustrations fell on deaf ears in Hollywood.

On an Island with You (1948)
If you ask me, this is Esther's most unsettling film, not Fiesta. She plays Rosalind Reynolds, a movie star who is shooting a film in Hawaii with her co-star and fiancé Rick Montez (Ricardo). The film's military technical adviser, Lt. Larry Kingslee (Peter Lawford), met Roz a few years ago during her USO tour and has been in love with her ever since. From the very beginning, Larry is a creepy menace. He moons over Roz incessantly, rarely taking his eyes off of her. It is obvious that she feels uncomfortable around him, and yet he can't shake the idea that they're destined to be together. Then, one day while piloting a plane as a stand-in for Rick, Larry takes a terrified Roz to the remote island where they originally met, just so she will dance with him. When they walk back to the plane, however, the island's natives have stolen some of its parts, forcing Roz and Larry to set up camp and wait to be rescued.

Nothing Larry does or says is okay. The worst part is the script makes Roz fall in love with the jerk when she really should be filing kidnapping charges. What makes all of this even more vexing is that Rick is clearly the better catch. For one thing, he respects boundaries. He also acts exactly the way you'd want him to when Roz and Larry return, which is to say he is horrified. He makes sure that Larry is no longer an adviser and he asks Roz to promise to stay away from the lunatic. Roz breaks that promise, though, and meets with Larry's commander to take the blame for Larry's stunt. (Instead of thanking her, Larry contradicts her story and then chews her out. It's real charming.)

When Rick learns of this, he is understandably confused as to why Roz would even attempt to help out her kidnapper. Once he figures out that she has feelings for Larry, he leaves to shoot a dance number with Yvonne (Cyd Charisse), Roz and Rick's friend and co-star who secretly harbors feelings for Rick. Realizing what a connection they have, Rick quickly moves on with Yvonne -- and for some ungodly reason, Larry and Roz end up together, too.

While my problems with On an Island with You are many, I have to admit that there is still a lot to like here, which makes me wonder how the screenwriters went so wrong with Larry. For starters, it is fascinatingly meta. I mean, the film is about the making of another film, which shares the same title as the actual film. Roz is very similar to Esther, too. In addition to being swimming stars, they both married military men and the description of Roz's USO show came straight from the real act Esther did during WWII.

With the exception of Lawford, who admitted that he put little effort into his part, the cast is fantastic. Although Roz makes a huge mistake by choosing Larry, I can't find fault with Esther's performance. I also think this might be the movie where she looked her most luminous. (Seriously. The woman literally glows throughout the entire runtime.) In her book, Esther would write that On an Island with You was "yet another movie with a ridiculous plot, and by now we'd assembled something of a repertory company of actors who kept popping up in my films." That company included bandleader Xavier Cugat (Bathing Beauty, This Time for Keeps), Charisse, and Jimmy Durante (This Time for Keeps), who almost steals Island single-handedly.

This was Ricardo Montalbán's first film after Fiesta, and it proved to audiences that he was a great romantic partner for Esther. One scene that illustrates this is a dreamy swimming duet between them late one night in their hotel's pool. Ricardo was one of few leading men who could keep up with Esther in the water and look comfortable doing it.










After Fiesta, MGM knew they had a good thing going when it came to Ricardo and Cyd Charisse. Although I would have appreciated more scenes between their characters in Island, they do share two dance sequences that are simply jaw-dropping. The first one comes when Rick and Yvonne are dancing at a nightclub with the rest of the cast and crew. The duo soon finds everyone watching them, so they decide to put on a little show. You can watch it here.









After a moment like that, you can understand why Yvonne holds a torch for Rick. Later, they film a steamy number together, causing Rick to suddenly notice that Yvonne is the right woman for him. It's an impeccable dance, filled with overwhelming sensuality and breathtaking imagery. See it here.
















After Island, the studio put Charisse and Ricardo together for a third time for a specialty number with Ann Miller in The Kissing Bandit. You should definitely check that out here. I also just found out that Charisse and Montalbán starred in two more films with one another: The Mark of the Renegade (1951) and Sombrero (1953). Color me intrigued!

Neptune's Daughter (1949)
Speaking with Johnny Carson, Ricardo summed up his time with Esther thusly: "My very first picture in this country was called Fiesta, in which I played her brother. Then I graduated to be her rejected lover; she rejected me for Peter Lawford. And then in the third one, full graduation -- I was her boyfriend, her lover. It was called Neptune's Daughter. ... I swam a great deal with Esther. She was a brilliant, very graceful, marvelous woman. It was incredible what she could do in that water to make it seem so beautiful."

Neptune's Daughter is Esther and Ricardo's best and brightest collaboration. Esther plays Eve, a champion swimmer who is persuaded into becoming a swimsuit designer by Keenan Wynn's Joe. Their business is a success, but complications arise when Eve's daffy sister Betty (Betty Garrett) announces her intention to chase after José O'Rourke (Ricardo), the captain of a South American polo team that is in town for a big match. Unbeknownst to the sisters, Betty has actually fallen for Jack Spratt (Red Skelton), the polo club's klutzy masseur. Meanwhile, Eve meets with the real José to tell him to stay away from Betty. Bewitched by Eve, he plays along and says he will break things off only if Eve agrees to a date. I bet you can't guess how this one will end.

In a way, Neptune's Daughter foreshadowed Esther's future career as a swimsuit designer and businesswoman. Right before production, swimsuit manufacturer Cole of California approached her with the idea of being a spokesperson. The company also made the suits for the film. Fun fact: in one scene you can see an advertisement that Esther made for Cole in Eve's office! Later, Esther began her own successful line of retro suits that are still being made today -- you can check out the website here. She also owned a restaurant at one point and started a pool business that is still in operation. In an interview with Robert Osborne, Esther explained that she got into business "because I thought every picture was going to be my last. ... Because the problem with being a star is you peak so young -- everything's over when you're forty."

For Neptune's Daughter, Esther's "repertory company" was again put to use. Xavier Cugat, Betty Garrett (Take Me Out to the Ball Game), Red Skelton (Bathing Beauty, cameo in Duchess of Idaho, Texas Carnival), and Keenan Wynn (Easy to Wed, Texas Carnival) all comprise the amusing cast. I think one of the main reasons why this film fares so well is the stellar supporting players and the attention the script pays to them. Skelton's schtick is hilarious and I love his scenes with Garrett. There is an amazing running gag throughout the film where Jack says things like "Sacramento, California" in an accent and Betty believes it's Spanish. They'll say goodbye to each other with song titles, too, such as "Babalú" and "Tico Tico" (which might be a reference to this scene from Bathing Beauty). It's fabulous. You can watch one of their funniest scenes here.

After having a terrible time making Take Me Out to the Ball Game with Gene Kelly -- which you can read more about here -- Esther welcomed Neptune's Daughter with open arms. "It was a happy set," she recalled. "I was relieved to be back with my own style of film, and, of course, I was overjoyed to be pregnant." Having experienced miscarriages in the past, the actress was ecstatic to be expecting again. However, wishing to avoid a meltdown from Jack Cummings, the only person at the studio who knew about her condition was "co-conspirator" and costume designer Irene.

If I'm going to be honest, the roles of Eve and José don't really ask a lot of Esther and Ricardo. That being said, you couldn't ask for a more pleasant pair to lead a romantic comedy than these two. They're both mind-numbingly gorgeous, for one thing. Their warmth, humor, and naturalness are enormously endearing -- from the minute you lay eyes on them, you understand why they were stars. The first time I saw Neptune's Daughter, I had just discovered Esther's work and everything about the film felt magical. I was mesmerized by Ricardo's crooning of "My Heart Beats Faster" as he slowly draws Esther into a dance, her glittering dress twirling in the moonlight.










Of course, the most famous thing about this movie is Frank Loesser's Oscar-winning song "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Believing that Betty is at José's, Eve marches over to his apartment to drag her sister home -- only Betty isn't there. Feeling silly, Eve stays for a drink. And thus begins the song as José tries his damnedest to seduce Eve. She's wise to his ways, though, and manages to hold her own. Jack, however, can't say the same. Over at his place, Betty sings the more aggressive lines while Jack struggles to keep her at arm's length. Watch the fun here.

 Although Esther had her leading men join her in the water from time to time, Ricardo has the distinction of being the only one who swam in one of her grand water ballets. It's quite an honor when you think about it, and Ricardo doesn't squander the opportunity. José adorably surprises Eve by appearing in the pool after she thought she lost him forever. They then glide across the water amidst dramatic lighting and colorful ribbons, ending the routine with an embrace. You can see it here.





For three films, Esther and Ricardo invited us into a cinematic heaven that only the most special people could duplicate. No matter the faults of their collaborations, those two always managed to rise above the shortcomings with spectacular smiles on their faces and unmitigated talent in their bones. Their shared film legacy may be brief, but the joyful absurdity, sweet romance, and cheerful optimism they've brought to this writer's life could never be measured.

___________________

This is my entry to the Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon. Check out the other superb screen teams here!

Comments

  1. This is a marvelous piece on a screen team that I never really thought of as a screen team. Shame on me because I am a fan of both these stars' talents and from now on I will think of them as having a special place in screen team heaven.

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    1. Thanks! To be honest, Esther and Ricardo didn't immediately come to mind. I love them separately, but together they're pretty special.

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  2. A simply terrific choice that - as Paddy states - I would have never considered as a dynamic duo - but they are!! I spit up water when I read your description of Fiesta! That's the only one of their movies I've never seen and had no idea - or ignored - the fact that they are twins. OY!! I have to admit that as much as I love musicals, these water ones are not among my favorites, but you can't beat the winning formula or Esther's absolute charm and beauty. Thank you so much for this entry to the blogathon. Like its subjects, it is a delight.

    Aurora

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    1. Thank you! Fiesta is quite bizarre. I know many people can't get past the premise, but I enjoy the film a lot. As Esther wisely said, you just gotta accept the silliness of classic Hollywood sometimes. That's part of what makes it special, after all. :)

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  3. I have to admit that Ricardo and Esther are about as convincing as siblings as Fred Astaire and Jane Powell were in Royal Wedding, but like Astaire and Powell, Ricardo and Esther made it work! Fiesta certainly is an odd film, but I think that is a lot of what makes it fun. It wouldn't quite bet the same with a more believable premise!

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    1. Agreed! Even though it has some of the most baffling casting decisions ever made (John Carroll as a guy named Pepe?), Fiesta is an underrated treat.

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  4. You know it, Michaela. Sometimes a person has to suspend extra disbelief to enjoy a film, but, happily, actors like Esther William and Ricardo Montalban make it a little easier.

    As an aside, thanks to the link to Williams' swimsuit shop. Some very cute items there, and reasonably priced, too! (My Visa card thanks you as well...)

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    1. Haha, my apologies to your wallet! I've been on a very strict budget lately due to an upcoming vacation, and it's been really hard to restrain myself from buying a lot of things on that website. Especially the sunglasses!

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  5. CONGRATULATIONS!! You won a copy of ROAD BALI from Kino Lorber on DVD from the random drawing we did after the Dynamic Duos Blogathon. :) Email me your mailing address and I can get that to Kino Lorber for mailing. My email is: Citizenscreenclassics @ gmail.com

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    1. That should be ROAD TO BALI :)

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    2. YES! I needed a new copy of that film! Oh, this is so exciting -- sending you an email right now! And thanks!

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  6. I just discovered both Montalban and Williams this year! Now, I'm kicking myself and wondering what took me so long?? I've seen their collaboration in Neptune's Daughter, but wasn't aware of their other pairings.

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    1. You have a lot of fun headed your way then! Neptune's Daughter is undoubtedly their best film together, but their other films are great too (albeit with a few issues).

      I've seen almost all of Esther's movies and I can safely say I've enjoyed each one. I might be biased, though -- I kind of sort of worship her.

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