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.

New Favorite Film Alert! And Clearing Out the DVR- Mrs. Miniver (1942)

This is one of the ultimate classics that I should have seen by now, but hadn’t until a couple days ago. In this film, Greer Garson stars as Kay Miniver, who is referred to often as “Mrs. Miniver.” Mrs. Miniver is portrayed as a very kind, beautiful woman. She is very warm and welcoming and treats everyone the same across the board, regardless of class or status. She seems to be well liked by everyone in her English village, especially by James Ballard (Henry Travers), the local train engineer. He shows Kay a rose that he cultivated in his garden outside the train station–a beautiful red rose that he’s named “Mrs. Miniver” in honor of Kay. He basically says that he named it after her because of the kindness that she shows him again and again when she visits his station.

I loved Greer Garson in this film. She was gorgeous and turned in an amazing performance in this film.

Anyway, Kay along with her husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) live in a beautiful estate named “Starlings,” on the River Thames. Clem is also part of the River Patrol and is enlisted to help out in the Dunkirk evacuation at one point in the film. Kay and Clem live at the estate with their two young children. Their oldest son, Vincent aka “VIn” (Richard Ney) attends Oxford. He comes home as Germany’s invasion into England is imminent during WWII. He announces his intention to enlist in the Royal Air Force because he wants to do his part. Kay of course doesn’t want her son in the war, but knows that they’re all in the fight with Germany together. 

At the same time, Vin meets Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright), the granddaughter of the very wealthy Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty). Lady Beldon is very much “old money” and resents the lower classes trying to acquire the same material possessions that she and her fellow rich folk enjoy. She basically doesn’t want the middle class trying to be upper class. Anyway, there is a conflict when Vin and Carol fall in love and want to marry. Meanwhile, during all of this, Germany officially invades England and the Minivers are right in the midst of all the “action” (so to speak).

The heartbreaking scene in the shelter

This was a heartbreaking film. I’m not one to cry at movies and I didn’t at Mrs. Miniver, but I can see how someone would. There are so many emotional scenes, some tragic and some happy. The scene of the Minivers hunkered down inside of their shelter while bombs blasted all around them was very suspenseful and scary. I cannot even imagine being confined to this small little bunker while bombs are literally falling down all around you, shaking your shelter. I can just imagine how scary it would be knowing that you could possibly emerge from the shelter and your home is leveled to the ground. I thought the scene with Kay and the German soldier was very suspenseful and also showed the strength of Kay’s character. She remains so stoic throughout the entire scene and throughout the film.

Teresa Wright and Richard Ney’s storyline was absolutely heartbreaking

I loved this film. It was fantastic. I loved this film so much in fact, that I bought the Blu Ray right after seeing it. I love wartime dramas and this is definitely one of the best. I wish I had seen it earlier. I also forgot how much I liked Greer Garson. I think I have a bunch of her films on my DVR that I’ll need to prioritize.