Everyone has seen pictures of Esther Williams in a bathing suit. But here she is on the back lot in a plain ole dress. She still looks pretty good, in our opinion.
This rarely-before-seen snap is of Esther and uber fan (and our late friend) Donald Gordon, who was so seized by the moment that he grabbed her left forearm as well as her hand.
Before diving in, let’s set the stage with an excerpt of a 1952 interview Lillian Ross conducted on the MGM lot with Arthur Freed, producer of the studio’s most successful musicals — which are, of course, the best movie musicals ever made anywhere.
“The biggest money-making star at MGM, Freed told me, was Esther Williams, and he told me why. ‘She’s not only good looking, she’s cheerful,’ he said. ‘You can sell cheerfulness. You can’t sell futility….This is show business. You need laughs. You need cheerfulness. That’s the whole reason for show business in the first place.'”
In 1941, by the time the 20-year-old Esther Jane Williams arrived at what she called “MGM University,” the former class president of George Washington High School in southwest Los Angeles had endured her share of decidedly un-cheerful travails.
Her older brother, a budding child star and the darling of her parents, had died. She was raped at 15 by the teenage orphan housed by her parents. Her first marriage at 19 to a self-centered medical student, who cheated on her, was collapsing.
As a teenage swimming champion, Esther had been groped on a regular basis by Mr. Tarzan himself, Johnny Weissmuller, her water-bound partner in the 1940 San Francisco World’s Fair Acquacade produced by Billy Rose. And, for good measure, both Rose and MC-singer Morton Downey “couldn’t keep their hands to themselves.”
Still, Esther was a strong-willed young woman in her early MGM years who thought nothing of battling it out on occasion with powerful studio boss Louis B. Mayer.
For example, when Mayer wanted to punish Lana Turner — who had married Artie Shaw without Mayer’s permission, a capital offense — by casting Esther in Lana’s costarring role (opposite Clark Gable) in in the 1942 drama Somewhere I’ll Find You, Esther would have none of it.
She was back then just too green as an actress, she rightly figured. She eventually prevailed. (Turner returned to Mayer’s good graces when she divorced Shaw, and went on to costar with Gable in the picture.)
But Gable did play an unforgettable role in the studio life of the young Esther, who initially screentested for Lana’s Somewhere I’ll Find You role at Mayer’s insistence.
And, who was to be her partner in the screen test? None other than “the King,” Gable himself, who donated his services in the cause of ingratiating himself with a promising starlet.
No one at MGM thought for a nanosecond that Gable would actually deliver on his promise to help out the green-behind-the-ears Esther. Gable appearing in a screen test?
Out of the question!
“He’ll never show up,” snorted Sidney Guilaroff, MGM’s “hairdresser to the stars.” As a backup, Esther rehearsed her scene with fellow studio contract player Dan Dailey.
Came the day of the screen test, there were Esther and Dailey situated in the corner of what she later described as a cavernous and drafty stage so empty “that words echoed all over.” As they worked their way into the assigned scene, “there was a sudden commotion” at the stage door.
Disturbed that shooting was being interrupted (a no-no at MGM), everyone turned around to cast baleful glances at the interloper. Director George Sidney suddenly whispered, Oh, my God! It’s Gable, and he’s got Carole Lombard with him.
A bemused Gable sautered over to the set, tapped Dailey on the shoulder — Thanks a lot, kid. I’ll take over. Never mind that Gable had never bothered to learn the lines or study the script. Roll ’em, ordered Sidney.
Instead of speaking assigned lines, Gable leaned in close into Esther and kissed her. He planted a terrific Gable kiss on my mouth… I gulped. Two kisses later, the last being a long kiss. Interminable!…I felt as though I were going to faint, Gable bid the young Esther adieu, my dear, walked off the set, collected Lombard and headed for the door.
The King had left the building, leaving the super-charged Esther to get on with her career.