As you probably know by now, Esther Williams died on June 6 at the age of 91.
She was not only the one of the last classic stars — the centerpiece of all those watery MGM extravaganzas of the Forties and Fifties — but an extraordinary combination of all-American sexiness and sharp intellect (yes, you read that last correctly).
As the saying goes, she called them as she saw them.
Hello, everybody. JoeMorella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to honor Esther’s legacy today and tomorrow by recalling her career and some of her sharp-edged observations of life in classic Hollywood opposite a raft of the biggest stars in the MGM firmament.
Although a teenage swim champion in California, Esther’s initial break in movies came not in an aquatic setting but as Mickey Rooney’s girlfriend in 1942’s Andy Hardy’s Double Life. The fan mail streamed in, always a sure signing of a budding star at MGM.
By the time she played Caroline Brooks in 1944’s Bathing Beauty, she was in her element. MGM had spent about $250,000 — a fortune at the time — to build an elaborate swimming pool set just to accommodate their future star. She was not yet “America’s mermaid” but she was on her way.
It’s our opinion that Esther’s swimming movies — particularly 1949’s Neptune’s Daughter, 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid, 1953’s Dangerous When Wet and 1955’s Jupiter’s Darling — hold up extremely well today.
For one thing, Williams looks gorgeous. Tall for her time (she was about a half-inch under 5 foot 9), she had superbly toned legs that go on forever. In a bathing suit, Esther looked dazzling — something she later parleyed into lucrative off-screen business, creating a bathing suit fashion line, after her movie career ended in the early 1960’s. The clean-cut athleticism she displays in abundance in her pictures wears particularly well today.
She played a cheerful knockout in her movies. Like Betty Grable, that slightly less cheerful knockout at at 20th Century Fox, Williams was a huge box office draw.
Her swimming films also boast of rarely-matched visual mastery driven by elaborate production numbers choreographed by the likes of Busby Berkeley . How did Esther stay under water for so long?
(She later confided that some of her more dangerous under water stunts nearly cost her her life.) She occasionally used doubles for some high dives especially after she sustained a broken back after taking a swan dive off a 50-foot platform during the making of Mermaid.
Williams fared less successfully in some of MGM’s non-aquatic titles. In 1949’s Take Me Out To The Ballgame, she was cast as the owner of a baseball team that included Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra on its roster. Kelly and Sinatra are fine, but Esther looks a bit out of kilter in the movie although she more than holds her own in the singing and dancing sequences. (One reason for her apparent discomfort: she took an intense dislike to Kelly, who made her life difficult. Among other things, he resented Esther for being taller that he was.)
She was largely wasted in 1952’s Skirts Ahoy!, a song-and-dance version of navy WAC life. In all, Williams appeared in more than 25 films. Comedian-singer Fanny Brice is credited with the quip, “Wet, she’s a star, dry she ain’t.”
But critic-author David Thomson wrote that two of Esther’s later movies made after she departed MGM — 1956’s The Unguarded Moment and 1958’s Raw Wind In Eden — “show that she was worthy of drier things.” In the latter movie made in Italy, Esther turns in a very sexy performance opposite then paramour Jeff Chandler.
One of readers, Kathy, asks a fundamental and interesting question: How were they able to keep her hair in place and look perfect in water and when she surfaced?
Well, Kathy, Esther comes clean on this point in her excellent 1999 autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid (coauthored by Digby Diehl and published by Simon & Schuster:) The hairdressers poured warm baby oil and Vaseline into a bowl, patted the mixture into their hands and said, ‘Come here, Esther,’ she wrote.
They smeared this gooey mess …into my shoulder-length hair, and then maid tiny braids all over my head. After that, they affixed artificial braids to the natural braids using two giant interlocking hairpins that looked like crowbars….The pins created massive welts in my scalp, but even when I dove off a high platform, those braids stayed put. They became my trademark underwater ‘do.’
Esther’s personal life always drew a lot of attention. We’ll get into her private affairs in detail in tomorrow’s blog. We’ll also reveal how Esther really felt about some of her famous coworkers.