Esther Williams’ 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.
Hello everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers here with more on America’s bathing beauty.
By the time Esther 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. (Kudos to cable channel Turner Classic Movies for selecting Esther as their star of the month in May.)
For one thing, Williams looks gorgeous. Tall for her time (she was about a half-inch under five foot nine), 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 has in abundance in her pictures wears particularly well today.
She was, in short, a cheerful knockout in her pictures. 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.
Williams fared less successfully in some of MGM’s non-acquatic 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.”
As one of Hollywood’s major stars of the Forties and Fifties, Esther’s personal life drew a lot of attention. We’ll get into her private affairs in detail in a later blog. We’ll also reveal how Esther really felt about some of her famous coworkers.