100 Years of Esther Williams Blogathon- “Million Dollar Mermaid” (1952)

August 8, 2021 marks the 100th birthday of MGM swimming superstar, Esther Williams. Williams’ remains one of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s best known musical stars, despite her stardom only lasting about a decade or so. I’ll admit that I used to not be a huge fan of Williams’. Not that I disliked her, but I thought she was stiff and somewhat bland. However, I think that I watched the wrong film as my introduction to Williams–Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949). I had originally watched ‘Ballgame’ to see Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. In this film, Williams plays the owner of a baseball team who does not initially get along with Kelly. Her character in this film is somewhat a stick in the mud and we’re only treated to a shoehorned-in swimming scene.

However, as someone who likes to give everyone another chance, because honestly as a classic film fan, I want to like everyone and everything. Luckily, my second introduction to Esther Williams was in the biopic, Million Dollar Mermaid, one of Williams’ best-known films.

The real Annette Kellermann, modeling her innovative one-piece swimming costume

In Million Dollar Mermaid, Esther plays real-life Australian swimming star, Annette Kellermann. We’ll look past the fact that Esther does not even attempt an Australian accent. The film starts in the late 19th century with polio-stricken Annette expressing her desire to swim as a means to improve the strength in her legs and overall health. Her father, Frederick (Walter Pidgeon) runs a music conservatory. We’re then treated to a montage of the young Annette taking swimming lessons, and later winning competitions. The montage also serves as a means to advance the timeline. Finally, we see a grown Annette (Esther Williams) accepting her latest trophy in the regional championship.

Later, Frederick accepts a teaching position that will take he and his daughter to England. While on board the steamer, Annette meets American promoter James “Jimmy” Sullivan, who is taking a boxing kangaroo to England. Thinking that Annette’s swimming talents will net them more funds than the boxing kangaroo, Jimmy begins to schmooze Annette and talks her into allowing him to promote her skills. As a promotional stunt, Jimmy announces that Annette will make the six-mile swim across a body of water. Annette ups the ante and announces that she will swim for 26 miles. Word gets around about Annette’s swim. However, she is unable to complete the swim.

Esther Williams as Annette Kellermann sporting a fantastic gold sequined one-piece swimming costume

Determined to figure out a way to market Annette’s skills, Jimmy suggests that they go to New York City to perform in an aquatic show in the famed Hippodrome. However, the owner of the Hippodrome does not see Jimmy’s vision and he is unable to get the deal. Annette then tries to go for a swim in Boston, but her “scandalous” one-piece piece bathing suit (versus the baggy dress with bloomers bathing suit that was worn at the time). The beachgoers are irate at seeing Annette’s body and repeatedly declare their disgust with being able to see her legs and shoulders. Annette ends up being arrested and goes to trial for indecent exposure.

In court, Annette pleads her case, stating that the one-piece men’s racing suit that she wears is much more practical for swimming than the big baggy things that women at the time were expected to wear. Annette’s occupation as a competitive female swimmer was unusual for the time as well. In the trial, Annette pleads not guilty to the indecent exposure charge. However, she offers a compromise: She has augmented her short, one-piece bathing suit by adding leggings to the bottom, thus covering her legs. Her new bathing suit basically looks like a cross between footie pajamas and a leotard. The judge is convinced and all charges are dropped. Annette is permitted to wear her custom swimwear.

Annette and Jimmy’s aquatic show is given the greenlight and is a big success. As these films typically go, Annette begins to fall in love with Jimmy, leading to amazing dialogue like this:

(Annette has finished her show and is drying off. Jimmy enters and pulls her into an embrace)

ANNETTE: Please, I’m soaking wet

JIMMY: Good, maybe it’ll put the fire out

Esther Williams and Victor Mature in “Million Dollar Mermaid.”

And like how these films often go, Annette and Jimmy have a misunderstanding which causes their romance to fizzle out… at least temporarily. During her separation with Jimmy Annette’s star begins to get bigger and bigger as her Hippodrome shows get more extravagant. Busby Berkeley directed the large, insane and extravagant water sequence, complete with Esther being dropped 50-feet and then rising above the surface on a platform.

Esther Williams performs in Busby Berkeley’s water routine

After my lukewarm introduction to Esther in Take Me Out to the Ballgame, Million Dollar Mermaid proved to be a much better initiation into Esther Williams’ stardom and filmography. I’ve found that no matter how corny, contrived and/or formulaic Williams’ movies can be, they are first and foremost entertaining. I love the spectacle of her films. Her underwater ballet sequences are fascinating and Esther’s dives and stunts are also impressive. Now, I find myself enjoying Williams’ films–even yes, Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

Esther Williams Blogathon- “Neptune’s Daughter” (1949)

August 8th would have been Esther Williams’ 99th birthday. I’ll admit that in the past, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Williams. Not that I thought she was bad or anything, but I hadn’t been impressed by her in the films of hers that I’d seen (Take Me Out to the Ball Game and Easy to Wed). I unfairly dismissed her “aqua-musicals” as ridiculous.

Then, it all changed when I saw Williams in Neptune’s Daughter. I watched this film and found that I really enjoyed it. Williams looked beautiful and there was a great aqua-musical number towards the end. Leading man, Ricardo Montalban was handsome, and supporting players, Red Skelton and Betty Garrett were funny.

Art imitates life in Neptune’s Daughter, where Esther Williams portrays Eve Barrett, an aquatic ballet dancer and then swimsuit fashion designer. After retiring from movie-making in the mid-1960s, Williams started her own line of fashionable swimwear. In Neptune’s Daughter however, Williams’ character, Eve, is an aquatic ballet dancer, who is asked to become a business partner at the Neptune swimwear company. She is reluctant at first, but then agrees when she realizes the publicity value of the position.

If there’s one thing I love, it’s a mid-movie fashion show!

Williams’ role as a swimsuit designer allows a foray into one of my favorite things about classic movies, the mini-fashion show. Singin’ in the Rain, The Women, How to Marry a Millionaire, Cover Girl, Easter Parade, Designing Woman… all feature fashion shows.

Back to Neptune’s Daughter… Eve’s business partner, Joe, learns that the South American polo team will be in town for a big match. He and Eve decide that this event would be the perfect opportunity to market their swimwear via a big swimming spectacle. Eve informs her man-crazy sister, Betty (Betty Garrett) about the South American team’s upcoming visit, and she decides that she needs to score a date with one of the players.

During polo practice, the captain of the South American team, Jose O’Rourke (Ricardo Montalban) is injured and seeks relief from the club’s masseur, Jack Spratt (Red Skelton). Jack is awkward and clumsy. He laments his lack of success with women to Jose. Jose gives Jack advice on how to attract women, including this gem: speaking to women in Spanish because it is the “language of love.”

Because when you think Spanish lover, you instantly think of Red Skelton.

Betty Garrett is wooed by South American lothario, Red Skelton.

A comedy of errors occurs when Betty, looking for the famous team captain, mistakes Jack for Jose and pursues him, aggressively. Jack decides not to tell Betty her mistake and accepts her invitation to visit her at home. He brings along a Spanish instruction record so that he can pretend to speak romantic Spanish phrases to Betty. Betty excitedly tells Eve about her date and Eve tries to encourage her to date outside of the visiting polo team.

Meanwhile, the real Jose is interested in Eve, however, at first, Eve isn’t aware that he isn’t the man whom Betty dated the night prior. Eve tells Jose to stay away from Betty, and he is understandably confused as he did not date Betty. But, he pretends to agree (because why not) and then asks Eve out. Eve reluctantly agrees to the date, because she thinks she’s keeping Jose away from Betty. On the date, Eve tries to ruin the date by being standoffish and disinterested, but ultimately Jose wins her over and they have a wonderful date.

The next morning, the mistaken identity motif persists when Eve’s maid advises her that Betty and “Jose” (i.e. Jack) have gone on another date. Furious, she goes down to Jose’s hotel room and is confused when Betty is nowhere to be found. At the same time, a crooked nightclub owner plots a scheme to kidnap Jose when he learns that he is the team’s most valuable player. He has money on the game–removing the opposing team’s best player will surely help him win the bet. However, he kidnaps “Jose” rather than the actual Jose.

Red Skelton goes incognito. Can you find him in this scene? Surely this will fool the nightclub owner’s henchmen!

Then, as classic Hollywood films typically go, the main characters have known each other for a week, so obviously a marriage proposal and subsequent engagement is the most realistic next step. Jose proposes to Eve and she accepts.

Further hijinks ensue when Eve tries to share her engagement to Jose with Betty, who tells her of her engagement to “Jose.” Meanwhile, the real Jose is kidnapped as “Jose” escapes.

The film ends with Eve and Jose and Betty and “Jose” reunited. We see the big water spectacle that Eve and her business partner have planned. Dozens of girls dive into the water from varying heights. Eve and Jose “dance” in the water. Obviously, you had to be a good swimmer to be Esther Williams’ leading man in her aqua-musicals.

Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban croon “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

This is an absurd but fun film. You have to look past the ridiculous plot points (e.g. anyone mistaking Red Skelton for a South American polo star) and roll with it. This is also the film that introduced the annual Christmas classic (despite not having anything to do with Christmas), “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Despite popular (and uninformed) opinion, this song is not about date rape.

Red Skelton and Betty Garrett perform a comical rendition of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”

I liked how the lyrics of the song were presented in two fashions: In the duet between Montalban and Williams, Montalban takes on the male part of the song and pursues Williams. In the Garrett and Skelton duet, Garrett takes on the role of the male pursuer with Skelton on the defense. The version between the two leads plays out more traditionally and romantically; whereas the duet between the supporting leads is more comical.

Mel Blanc (aka Bugs Bunny, Speedy Gonzales, Porky Pig, etc.) appears as “Pancho” one of the assistants to the polo team. His face might not be recognizable, but when he speaks, he’s instantly recognizable–it’s Speedy Gonzales! Ricky Ricardo’s nemesis, Xavier Cugat, also appears in the film at Casa Cugat, Xavier Cugat’s Mexican restaurant. Apparently, he also provides the live entertainment!

Esther Williams’ aqua-musicals aren’t the greatest films in the world, they are no Singin’ in the Rain, but they’re fun. The plots can be contrived at times, especially when they have to figure out how to insert a swimming musical number. Her films can also be repetitive, again, how to insert a swimming musical number and have it make sense within the context of the film, but they’re fun to watch. The thing I like about Williams’ films is the spectacle. The aqua-musicals are so elaborate. Williams wears such gorgeous bathing suits and her hair and makeup are never out of place. Obviously in real life, when swimming, you look like a mess!

Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams at the conclusion of the big swim number.

The best thing about Neptune’s Daughter and Esther Williams’ other films is that they serve as a fun diversion from the monotony of day-to-day life–especially now. These films allow you to escape from the world and relieve a little stress. And honestly, I think we could all go for a stress reliever.