Esther Williams enthralls in... Dangerous When Wet (1953)
It's a bright, beautiful morning at the Higgins' Arkansas dairy farm. Giving us what may be the sunniest opening to a film ever, the Higgins family -- comprised of Pop (William Demarest), Ma (Charlotte Greenwood), cute little pipsqueak Junior (Donna Corcoran), middle daughter Suzie (Barbara Whiting), and the eldest child, Katy (guess who?) -- leaves the house one by one as they sing "I Got Out of Bed on the Right Side" and march to their swimming hole for their daily exercise routine. When it comes time to jump in the water, though, Katy only dips her toe in and turns her attention to the book she brought, which is such a fun bait-and-switch. Esther Williams is going to read about farming instead of swim?!
Finally, Pop tells Katy to do her laps before breakfast. She begrudgingly obliges, and in she goes, baseball cap and all, doing a simple but wonderful underwater swim -- until she suddenly hears some advertisement jingle that breaks her out of her peaceful routine.
Puzzled, she goes to the road and discovers Windy Webbe (Jack Carson at his con-artist best), a salesman for the health drink Liquapep. His van, full of samples and blaring the Liquapep song from a loudspeaker, was halted by a herd of slow-moving cows. Irritated, Katy steps in: "Why don't you ask them to move like a gentleman?" She clears the road and Windy is surprised by the sudden appearance of such a beauty. He tries to flirt, but Katy is not having it, especially when Windy invites her to the Liquapep demonstration he is giving in town that day. Rolling her eyes, she brushes him off and goes home.
At breakfast, Katy tries to convince her father that they need to seriously update their farm's equipment and get their hands on a prize bull to increase profits. The Higgins are simple, down-to-earth people and, as Pop reasons, they have a nice home with a good roof over their heads and food to eat -- why bother improving the farm when they're getting by as is? Katy is frustrated, especially when Suzie finds Windy's Liquapep demo flyer and the whole family gets more excited about that than her ideas. (Remember, they're kind of health freaks.)
At the demo, Windy tries to work his magic, but Pop is not impressed. As part of his schtick, Windy holds a talent contest of sorts, offering a big supply of Liquapep as the prize. Suzie is grabbed by some guys and they happily go onstage and perform "I Like Men." This number is unbelievably cute. Barbara Whiting, sister of Margaret, sells the song brilliantly and I'm obsessed with the choreography of her accompanying band.
Anyway, Katy sweetly and proudly mentions to Windy that the girl onstage is her sister, which immediately sends off an alarm in his head. He declares Suzie the winner and explains that he'll personally bring her prize by their house later. Katy is on to him, though. When Suzie tells him they'll leave the porch light on, her older sister exclaims, "We will not! It attracts bugs!" Ouch.
Bored to death by his weak advances, which includes a fantastic scene on the Higgins' porch that ends with Katy goading Windy into unsuccessfully arm-wrestling her stronger-than-he-looks father, Katy tries to avoid the salesman for the next few days, even going so far as to do extra laps so she can stay in the water until he leaves. When Ma informs Windy that Katy is the best swimmer out of all of them, having won a 14-mile race recently, you can see the light bulb going off above his head. Windy immediately calls his boss to pitch the idea of Katy swimming the English Channel under the sponsorship of Liquapep. She is appalled by the idea, but Pop is ecstatic! Why, the whole family could do it! Wait, the whole family?! Windy pounces, telling his boss that the publicity would be incredible for Liquapep. Katy very reluctantly agrees to it once her father reminds her that they could afford the changes to the farm if they won. It's off to Europe they go!
The crew arrives in England and just as they begin to get hyped up for the race, they become a little hesitant -- and maybe a little afraid -- to learn that once the current is taken into account, the race is 30 miles long, ten miles more than what they were expecting. Being the stubborn, go-get-'em family they are, though, they start out the next morning to train in the Channel. Their singing of "I Got Out of Bed" turns into yelps once they hit the icy waters, with everyone running out of the Channel except for Katy, making it immediately clear that she may be the only one of them really cut out for this. From this point on, the audience never sees the rest of the family training in or out of water.
During one of her training sessions, Windy rows a boat alongside Katy as she forges on. Even in a boat, though, he can't match her strength and asks her to push the boat forward to give him a slight edge before they continue. Unfortunately, this nudge sends Windy into the dense fog that has gathered on the Channel, separating the swimmer and her coach. Katy begins calling his name when suddenly a rowboat pops up and a hand reaches out.
Instantly realizing that this is not Windy, Katy's gaze travels up until it rests on the gorgeous face of André Lanet (Fernando Lamas). He helps pull her out of the water and they awkwardly try to introduce themselves to each other. Clad in a crisp, white tuxedo jacket and impeccably groomed, André tells a confused Katy he lives "here," as in the ocean. He is equally perplexed at this woman who has swum far out into the ocean at an early hour, wearing weird goggles and shouting "Windy!"
Arriving at his yacht, Katy is relieved to see that this is what André meant when he said he lived "here." As he changes his clothes below deck, he quietly sings to himself "Fifi," which was supposed to be a full-blown solo for Lamas. Instead, the moment becomes comical as André is muttering the lyrics right when he glances on deck to see Katy remove her goggles and swim cap, revealing that the stranger he picked up is an unexpected knockout.
His skepticism quickly changes into flirtation, and he brings Katy a suggestively lacy and transparent robe to wear over her bathing suit. ("It's my mother's!" he claims in response to her dubious look.) While they chat over hot coffee, any confusion between the two of them is finally explained away as Katy notes she is a Channel swimmer and André clarifies that he is a champagne salesman who had just left a party, hence the tux.
Meanwhile, in an encounter parallel to Katy and André's, Windy had thought he had found his swimmer when he really happened upon the Channel's French competitor, Gigi (Denise Darcel). She clearly has a thing for Windy, but he doesn't like her brash approach and even tells her at one point that it is the man who is supposed to do the chasing, not the woman. (Her terrific response? "Okay. I'll stand still and you can catch me, huh?")
Katy and André's meet-cute is soon interrupted when they start to hear Windy's calls for her. Since the fog is still intense, she alerts him that she is near and tries to guide him with her voice. In one of my favorite moments, Windy asks specifically where she is and Esther responds in the most uncouth manner she can muster, "On a yacht! With a Frenchman!" André practically spits out his coffee and Windy panics. "With a Frenchman?!" It makes me giggle every single time.
The two men immediately start competing for Katy's attention as André invites her to dinner to teach her about the Channel's tides and whatnot. When Katy brings Windy along -- he is her coach, after all -- André manages to ditch him by driving a two-seater and sending him to the wrong restaurant. Katy sees through the tricks, but she is willing to play along. After dinner, André surprises her with a gift: a skimpy bikini that looks like it would barely cover her. Ever the practical one, Katy chides him for such a ridiculous present, causing an embarrassed André to claim that French girls wear them all the time. Just then, their waitress chimes in to say that her sister wore a similar bikini to Brighton once... and was promptly arrested. Funnily enough, Esther didn't really care for the bikini off the screen, either -- or rather what passed for a bikini after the '60s. While promoting her swimsuit company in the '90s and beyond, she would often say that her suits provided comfort and support, unlike the "two Dixie cups and string" that comprised the two-piece.
Back in her hotel room, Katy looks curiously at the bikini and can't resist trying it on, unexpectedly breaking the fourth wall as she gives a disapproving look to the audience and pulls down a shade in front of the camera so we can't see. Downstairs at the bar, André guesses what she is doing and calls her room to cheekily ask how the bikini fits. She is furious, which just makes it even funnier for him. They laugh about it the next day, and André invites Windy and Katy on his yacht to study the tides and currents for real this time. Windy gets very seasick, though, forcing him to go below.
Now alone with Katy, André snuggles up to her and croons "In My Wildest Dreams." I adore watching Esther get flustered and try to act blasé while Lamas drapes himself all over her. By the end, Katy stops trying to fight her attraction and they kiss in a close-up that is just phenomenal.
However, back on land, Katy sets some ground rules. This Channel race means a lot to her, and being with him distracts her from her training and her concentration. She just can't see him until after the race. André eventually agrees to this, but Katy's disappointed reaction is all he needs to follow her, and the rest of the Channel swimmers, to France. The moment where Katy is speaking to a crowd at a press conference and discovers André waving a small American flag and giving her an absurdly exaggerated wink is so hilarious, I never fail to give out an obnoxious snort.
The night before the competition, rain postpones the start date but all the contestants still gather to pick the order in which they'll begin. When it is Pop's turn to draw a number, he is stopped by an official, forcing Windy to take the family aside and break the bad news: everyone but Katy has been disqualified. Pop is indignant: "Haven't they watched me train?" Windy sadly replies, "Yeah, that's when they disqualified you." The officials don't want to take a chance on the older Ma and Pop and the fairly young Junior -- which makes sense, although I'm not sure why they would disqualify Suzie.
Up until this scene, Dangerous When Wet is so breezy and adorable, but this development allows the film's heart to shine through. Windy, who we have always seen as blustery and insincere, is shown to have a softer side as well as a genuine affection for the Higgins family when he tells them the officials' decision, a character reveal that absolutely works thanks to Jack Carson's performance. Esther and William Demarest also get to demonstrate the drama of their characters when Katy talks to Pop to understand why he is so upset about missing out on the race when the rest of the family is actually quite relieved.
In one of my favorite moments from the film, Pop reveals that before they left their farm, he put in motion all sorts of repairs and bought new equipment, all on credit. He was so sure one of them would win, he also bought a prize bull! Katy is astounded and very worried, knowing that if they can't pay, they'll lose the whole farm. Demarest is so endearing in this scene, explaining, "I just wanted things to be nice when we got back." Katy hugs him and tries to remain hopeful that she'll win and everything will be fine.
That night, Junior sits in Katy's room as she gets ready for bed and reads aloud from her Tom and Jerry comic book. Katy bids her goodnight and quickly falls asleep, where she then dreams that she has entered Tom and Jerry's world. It is a magnificent sequence: funny, gorgeous to look at, and technically incredible. Like Gene Kelly did in 1945 for Anchors Aweigh and again in 1952 for Invitation to the Dance, Esther had to act by herself -- except she did it all underwater. The dream represents Katy's torn feelings over being with André and winning the race as Tom and Jerry try to keep her focused on swimming and steer her away from an amorous octopus that symbolizes André/Lamas (a fitting choice, Esther thought). A sweet family of seahorses even swims by with a "Dover or bust" sign as they sing "I Got Out of Bed," reminding Katy why the race is so important.
The sequence, as you can imagine, was a bit of a logistical nightmare, but Esther had fun doing it. There were cleats attached to the pool's floor so she could anchor herself while sitting at the octopus's table, and she knew how to move and interact with the characters by looking at a storyboard held up against the pool's windows while she was under. When preview audiences doubted whether Esther really filmed underwater or not because they couldn't see any bubbles surrounding her, the animators went back and added pink bubbles, costing the studio $50,000. Esther couldn't believe it -- she could have done the bubbles herself!
But back to the plot! Sick and tired of training, Ma encourages Katy to take the day off and go on a picnic with André. When Katy remarks how lovely the house is behind them, André nonchalantly replies that it is his. She doesn't believe him, so they go to the back terrace to meet André's mother. Unfortunately, the butler (Paul Bryar in a scene-stealing performance) informs them that Mama stepped out for the moment, which contributes to Katy's disbelief that there is a Mama.
The couple sits to have cocktails while they wait, Katy stubbornly drinking Liquapep instead of André's champagne. However, the alcohol content is much stronger than she was expecting, leaving her very drunk by the time evening comes around. André suggests a swim in the pool to sober Katy since she keeps refusing to let him take her home. The butler brings her a black, lacy, rhinestone-studded bathing suit -- a callback to "Mama's" robe from earlier -- and the two head to the backyard.
In their conjoined dressing rooms, Katy and André launch into my favorite number from Dangerous When Wet, "Ain't Nature Grand?" As the lovebirds change and dive into the water, we cut back to at the hotel where Suzie picks up the song and serenades the admirers surrounding her, Gigi and Windy share a brief duet, and finally Ma and Pop sing about how they feel younger than ever. Charlotte Greenwood does some impressive kicks and splits while William Demarest does a little soft-shoe -- it's the best.
But then reality intrudes. A race official announces that the weather and visibility are perfect, allowing the competition to begin at 4 a.m. the next morning, which is only hours away. Windy rushes to find Katy, who is having a marvelous time swimming with André. Fernando Lamas had been a champion swimmer in Argentina before he came to Hollywood, much like Esther had been in America, but when he arrived at MGM he purposely said nothing about his prowess, reasoning, "If I tell them that, I'm going to do nothing but movies with that swimming girl." When he and Esther were shooting their pool duet, he still hadn't revealed his abilities when director Charles Walters told him to get in the water and try to chase Esther. "She went in, and I did seven strokes and passed her," Lamas recalled. "She stopped me and said, 'What the hell was that?' Generally, she always looked back to see who was drowning." He isn't wrong! Esther relished the chance to actually swim with one of her leading men rather than her usual tactics of discreetly holding him up underwater or using concealed ramps. Writing about how well they swam together, Esther said, "[T]here was an exhilaration to it. It must have felt like that when Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire danced together; it was just so good to be comfortable with what you are doing."
Windy eventually finds Katy and whisks her away to get some rest -- just when Mama (Ann Codee) arrived, too! A few hours later, the race is underway, signaling another shift in the film as it becomes more like a sports drama than a musical comedy. Uncomfortable with scenes of spectacle and aware of his limitations, Chuck Walters let second-unit director Andrew Marton take care of the race sequence. Lamas summed it up perfectly: "It's funny, if you pay attention, suddenly it's like two different movies. Because the whole beginning of the movie had that slick, wonderful quality that Chuck had -- everything moved... the people moved. Then the swimming of the Channel begins, and it's like a documentary." It's so true! The switch can be a touch jarring, but every element is done so well that I don't mind it. It also builds on the dramatic tension that was set up by Pop's foolhardy purchases, which makes you care about the race and its outcome in a way you wouldn't have without those stakes.
While Pop and Windy row next to Katy, André offers to let the rest of the Higgins family sail on his yacht with him as he follows the race. As the hours go by, swimmers start dropping out, including Gigi, who is so depleted that her coach must flag down the medical boat. Katy is exhausted too, but she cheers up some when André joins Windy and Pop to be with her. Things continue to get intense as the race nears its end. Katy is ahead, but each stroke is such an obvious strain that André thinks she should be taken out. A radio reporter who has been giving a play-by-play on the race says that it looks like Katy's body will give out before she can finish, prompting a worried Ma to cry, "She ought to stop. She ought to stop!" But then Katy looks at dear Pop's crestfallen face. She knows she can't quit, and it's at this point that my heart bursts and I start to tear up. The Higginses just love each other so darn much!
Katy continues, getting closer and closer but still struggling. Unable to stand it anymore, André jumps in the water to help pace her to the finish line, reminding her, "We swim together good, don't we?" With his coaching, Katy finally reaches the shore in first place and collapses in André's arms amidst cheers. While this scene plays out very seriously, offscreen it was a little more like a screwball comedy. Lathered in goose fat like long-distance swimmers are supposed to be to help keep warm, Esther couldn't stop slipping out of Lamas's arms as she came out of the Pacific Ocean. It took hours to finish filming, by the end of which the actors were thoroughly drained from fighting the water's powerful waves.
The race's emotional climax was actually Esther's idea. Unsatisfied with the ending, Esther suggested this moment to screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley after seeing news coverage of long-distance swimmer and pal Florence Chadwick breaking her Catalina Channel record with the help of her friend Johnny Weissmuller, who jumped into the water to pace her to the shore. The above snapshot of Esther and Chadwick was actually taken at a party thrown for the latter after her victorious swim.
Some time after Katy's triumph, the Higginses are singing "I Got Out of Bed" once again as they grab their suitcases, ready to go back home. When they knock on Katy's door, however, they're shocked to find André -- until Katy's hand appears on his shoulder and he points to her wedding ring. With Windy and his new Liquapep swimmer, Gigi, in tow, the family and their new member march out of the hotel, still happily singing.
Dangerous When Wet was directed by the ever-reliable Charles Walters, who had a close friendship with Esther. Before she met Chuck on Texas Carnival (1951), Esther's directors never took her seriously. They figured that her only talent was swimming, an assumption that drove her crazy because she was anxious to learn how to improve her acting and singing precisely so swimming wouldn't be her only talent. Chuck gave her that chance; he worked with her to try and help her be the best she could be and she was grateful for it. They worked together for a third and final time on another 1953 gem, Easy to Love.
Throughout her career, Esther felt underwhelmed by the leading men the studio gave her. Which isn't to say that she didn't love Ricardo Montalbán or Van Johnson -- they just weren't what her fellow MGM leading ladies were getting, such as Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable. While I think an actor of their high caliber would've been fascinating paired with Esther, her leading men allowed the spotlight to really be on her and her character. Fernando Lamas had caught on to this and refused to be cast in DWW. He admitted to Esther that he didn't want to play second fiddle to her, but she was so anxious to get him to sign on that she promised to have his part maximized.
Noticeably, though, Lamas doesn't get a scene all to himself -- it is still very much the Esther Williams Show, which of course I love. In addition to "Fifi," another Lamas number that was cut was "C'est La Guerre," a duet between André and Gigi that was to come after Windy suggests that they date. I wish these songs had been kept
because I enjoy Lamas's voice, but Johnny Mercer's "Fifi" demo and the footage of "C'est La Guerre" have both survived as DVD features.
During filming, Esther and Lamas were equally aware of a growing attraction between them, but she was trying to work on her marriage to Ben Gage. Lamas, meanwhile, was living up to his image as a lothario, having affairs with the likes of Lana Turner and eventual wife Arlene Dahl. Esther knew he couldn't be a committed partner and for her that just wasn't going to cut it.
Fate stepped in, though, in 1960 when Esther needed a co-star for her TV special Esther Williams in Cypress Gardens. Remembering how well she had worked with Lamas, she reached out and he agreed to be a part of it. From the second they laid eyes on each other again, their previous spark was now more like a house fire. Lamas soon divorced Dahl, although he and Esther wouldn't marry until 1969. While their relationship was by no means perfect, they remained together until Lamas's death in 1982.
One thing I absolutely must point out is how stunning this film looks. Photographed by the great Harold Rosson, DWW's Technicolor world is glorious. Esther's aquamusicals always look beautiful -- seriously, we don't talk about that enough -- but the way Rosson lit things here, coupled with Walters's playful directorial style, brings me infinite joy. As usual, I took entirely too many screenshots, as you'll see below.
Dangerous When Wet is a film that makes me absurdly, overwhelming happy. As soon as those opening credits roll, I have a big dumb smile on my face. The Johnny Mercer/Arthur Schwartz songs are delectable; the Tom and Jerry sequence is downright excellent; the cast is perfect; Esther was never better... You just can't go wrong with this movie. And if you don't like it, well, maybe you got out of bed on the wrong side.
This is my contribution to my 100 Years of Esther Williams Blogathon, a celebration of this remarkable woman. Read the other tributes here!