Remembering Esther Williams: MGM’s Million Dollar Mermaid

As Hollywood success stories go, there’s never been another one quite like hers. No other globally-ranked athlete has ever made such a complete transition to top box-office draw, or inspired such an enduringly popular and influential sub-genre of pictures uniquely their own. Born in Los Angeles in 1921, Esther Williams had ties to show business that started early; Her family had come from Salt Lake City in hopes of furthering the career of her eldest brother Stanton, a child actor who would die tragically young. Having gotten to witness the 1932 Olympics, the 11-year-old Esther determinedly chose her career path, and by the time she reached her late teens, she had become one of the nation’s ranked swimming champions, setting records in the 100- and 220-meter events. After her dreams of Olympic gold were dashed by global unrest and the cancellation of the 1940 Games, she pragmatically prepared to make a career as a retail buyer when stage impresario Billy Rose recruited her for the San Francisco edition of his Aquacade spectacle.

Her paddling pas de deux opposite Johnny Weissmuller in the show led to a test from MGM. Before signing her lucrative contract, she asked for guarantees that she could have access to The Beverly Hills Hotel swimming pool and that she not appear on screen for a period of nine months, giving her time to accomplish her “stage presence.” Later she would write, “If it took nine months for a baby to be born, I figured my ‘birth’ from Esther Williams the swimmer to Esther Williams the movie actress would not be much different.”

The studio’s Hardy Family programmers had become one of its proving grounds for ingénues, and her onscreen bow came as Mickey Rooney’s latest crush in Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942), followed by a small role in 1943’s WWII fantasy/drama A Guy Named Joe with A-listers Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne. It didn’t take long after that for Esther to become a headliner, as MGM’s powers-to-be decided to ape the success that Fox found with Norwegian skating star Sonja Henie, and contrive starring projects that would get their statuesque, wholesomely pretty aqua-sition into a swimsuit–and into her element–as frequently as possible.

The first of her swimming successes was Bathing Beauty (1944). Here, the studio tossed the unknown quantity a life preserver by splitting the bill with Red Skelton. The plot, such as it was, offered Esther as a gifted amateur swimmer tapped to be an instructor at an exclusive girls’ school. Red played her songwriter swain, who’ll go to any lengths to be near her — up to and including donning drag and enrolling. (For what it’s worth, the film had the working title of Mr. Coed, but the finished product convinced MGM where the marketing emphasis should lay.) Years later she would say, “No one had ever done a swimming movie before so we just made it up as we went along.”

Though Esther had yet to develop her familiar ease on-screen, the formula for her success had already pretty much fallen into place, courtesy of those saturated showgirls in an elaborate water ballet coordinated by Rose’s Aquacade choreographer John Murray Anderson, the music of Harry James and his band, and a $250,000 pool set replete with fountains, fireworks and a 50-foot hydraulic lift. The Latin rhythm then so much in vogue was provided courtesy of Xavier Cugat, Carlos Ramirez and Ethel Smith, and the invaluable supporting cast included Basil Rathbone, Donald Meek and Margaret Dumont.

Next up was Thrill of a Romance in 1945, which stars Williams as a swimming newlywed who is left high and dry by her businessman hubby on their honeymoon and does a backstroke over Army Air Corps hero Van Johnson. That same year, Esther also made an appearance in Vincent Minnelli’s Ziegfeld Follies, an enchanting MGM musical treat which has late, great showman Florenz Ziegfeld (played by William Powell, reprising his turn in the 1937 biopic, The Great Ziegfeld) looking down from Heaven and envisioning an assortment of the greatest song-and-dance spectaculars ever committed to celluloid. Performing in a “water ballet” number. Williams joined an MGM family of stars that included Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, Fanny Brice, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, Red Skelton, and others.

The following year, MGM may not have been sure if audiences would continue to show up to see Esther in beautiful bathing suits and starred her in The Hoodlum Saint opposite Powell, who at one time was one of Metro’s biggest stars. The edgy drama remains popular with fans in its occasional TV airings; moviegoers in 1946, however, were uneasy with Williams out of water. Esther returned to the familiar in Easy to Wed (1946), a musical remake of the 1936 Powell-Tracy-Myrna Loy screwball classic Libeled Lady. This time, Esther is the socialite slapping a tabloid with a defamation suit, and Keenan Wynn the managing editor who ropes cynical colleague Van Johnson and frustrated fiancée Lucille Ball into a convoluted scheme to short-circuit the litigation. Ramirez and Smith return to keep the beat, and Lucy finally gets to be in the show with the Continental Polka number.

Fiesta (1947) has Williams posing as her matador brother in order to save her family’s name. Ricardo Montalban, in his first American movie, co-starred along with Cyd Charisse. According to Williams’ autobiography, production on this film had to be halted when Ben Gage, her then-husband, had too much to drink one night and–after getting into trouble with Mexican police–was bodily escorted back across the U.S border. Also from 1947, This Time for Keeps featured Esther as a bathing-suited performer who catches the eye of an opera singer’s son. Melchior, Jimmy Durante, Johnnie Johnston co-star.

The sarong-clad Williams was tall, tan and terrific in On an Island with You (1948), as a swimming musical star on location in Hawaii who becomes an object of obsession for Peter Lawford, the young naval officer serving as an on-set technical advisor. It gets to the point where he abducts her to a secluded isle in the hopes of winning her love. (Guess that’s what happens when you drag your feet on that restraining order.) As Esther’s co-stars, Montalban and Cyd Charisse complete the romantic roundelay, and Durante comments on the revoltin’ developments as the film’s A.D. Cugat and his orchestra are back on hand, and the fun Nacio Herb Brown-Edward Heyman score includes the title tune.

1949’s Take Me Out to the Ball Game found Esther in perfect form for the fast and fun turn-of-the-century musical teaming Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly as baseball players trying to deal with their team’s new female owner (Williams). The score includes “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg”; Betty Garrett, Edward Arnold, Jules Munshin co-star under Busby Berkeley’s direction.

Williams reunited with Montalban and Skelton for Neptune’s Daughter (1949), another light farce with parallel romantic plots. In yet another casting stretch, Esther is a swimming champ turned successful bathing suit designer, and Montalban the Latin polo star consumed with her. Skelton’s a hapless masseur mistaken for Montalban by Williams’ man-hungry sister (Betty Garrett). The supporting cast included Looney Tunes voice maestro Mel Blanc, and the Frank Loesser score also introduced the Oscar-winning Baby, It’s Cold Outside.

Esther was comfortable in her formula movies, and Duchess of Idaho (1950) showed her off to her best advantage in Sun Valley, along the snowy trails and in the sunny swimming pool with Van Johnson, her co-star in five films (not counting the 1946 all-star revue Till the Clouds Roll By). Interestingly enough, Lena Horne is on hand singing in her signature style, but two of her songs, one of which was Cole Porter’s “You Do Something to Me,” ended up on the cutting room floor…as did Mel Torme’s sole number, leaving “the Velvet Fog” with only minor dialogue.

In Pagan Love Song (1950), Howard Keel shines as a teacher in Tahiti who falls for Williams–mistakenly believing that she is an island native. This movie’s working title was Tahiti, and when that was changed, out went the Arthur Freed/Harry Warren song, replaced by the new title tune, also written by Freed (with Nacio Herb Brown). Another song in the film, “The House Of Singing Bamboo,” was actually recycled from an unused number written for the The Harvey Girls, intended for Judy Garland in 1945. Esther was pregnant during filming and later said, “I don’t know to this day how I managed to fit into those bathing suits when I was pregnant, but I did!”

In 1951’s Texas Carnival, Williams teamed up with former co-stars Red Skelton and Howard Keel in a tale of mistaken identity; Ann Miller and Hans Conried also starred. The next year, she was in the Navy when she and Vivian Blane joined the WAVES in Skirts Ahoy!, which featured the aquatic actress finding romance with Barry Sullivan.

Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), considered to be among the finest displays of Technicolor photography, is an enjoyable biopic of 1890s swimming great Annette Kellerman, Williams shines in the title of Kellerman, who overcame childhood polio and public outrage over her “scandalous” one-piece bathing suits, with Victor Mature, Walter Pidgeon and Charlotte Greenwood along for the ride. Unfortunately, one of her stunts from a high diving platform caused Williams to suffer a broken neck, leaving the star in a body cast for six months before she could return to the set to finish the movie.

Dangerous When Wet (1953), which offered Esther as a farm gal who tries to save her health ethusiast family homestead by winning a contest to swim the English Channel will suffice to save the homestead. Also on hand are future spouse Fernando Lamas as the smooth Frenchvintner out to win her, Jack Carson as her angle-hunting promoter, and, of course, Tom and Jerry, diving in with Esther in the film’s charming live-action/animated sequence.

Easy to Love (1953) focuses on secretary Esther’s attempts to make boss Van Johnson notice her by dating Tony Martin. Ending up with Johnson at the film’s finish, co-star Martin is seen bumping into his real life wife, Cyd Charisse, playing a cameo role; John Bromfield and a very young Carroll Baker, in her screen debut, co-starred. It’s been reported that of all her movies, this one is Esther’s favorite.

In 1955’s Jupiter’s Darling, her last MGM extravaganza, the glory of Rome was brought to life as Esther tries to convince Hannibal (Howard Keel) to save her beloved city. As luck would have it Hannibal can’t swim, so it is up to Esther to help him cross the river as she guides him by his chin, in her very best American Red Cross life-saving technique. Elephants in beautiful painted colors add to the proceedings. The film also starred Marge and Gower Champion, George Sanders, Richard Haydn and the always dependable William Demarest.

Esther’s swimming spectaculars kept her legions of fans around the globe ecstatically happy. But there are some behind-the-scenes events her fans may not know. During World War II, when MGM chief Louis B. Mayer asked his star-studded family to appear at war bond rallys, he asked something different from Esther Williams. Knowing how gorgeous she looked in a bathing suit, he suggested she tour Army hospitals to boost morale for the thousands of stricken servicemen. She was a trooper and performed shows in high style, becoming a genuine crowd pleaser wherever she went. She listened to the popular radio headliners at the time like Bob Hope and Jack Benny to help her bone up on her comic delivery, and she crafted an act where she would ask servicemen to dance with her and then do make-believe screen tests, which always ended in Williams pulling away her skirt and top, revealing her signature gold lamé bathing suit. The men and women of the armed services loved it and even after the war’s end, Williams continued her goodwill tours into the 1950s.

By the mid-’50s, the heyday of the film musical was waning, and Esther’s sphere of influence at the post-Mayer MGM followed suit. She walked off the lot in 1955 (a move said to cost her nearly $3 million in deferred contract payments), and while she acquitted herself well in her handful of subsequent straight dramatic performances for other studios, audiences never really warmed to seeing her high and dry. She did make a splash in a “women-in-danger” movie for Universal in 1956, The Unguarded Moment, which was well-received, and co-starred with Jeff Chandler in the 1958 Mediterranean melodrama Raw Wind in Eden. However, after a hugely popular 1960 TV special and the 1961 circus thriller The Big Show, she toweled off and bid life before the cameras adieu, focusing on her always-present entrepreneurial concerns (primarily–of course–pool construction and swimwear) and newfound domestic life with third husband Lamas.

Her performances were so indelible, it should come as no surprise that disaster movie icon Irwin Allen sought her out to star in his 1972 blockbuster, The Poseiden Adventure. When she turned him down, Shelley Winters played the role, but Allen didn’t give up easily and came knocking on her door two years later with a part in his next star-studded disaster saga, The Towering Inferno — but she was happy attending to her family life. Following Lamas’ death in 1982, Esther returned to the limelight as a commentator for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, the games that introduced synchronized swimming–the phenomenon that she engendered–as a competition.

Her 1994 appearance in That’s Entertainment! III made it apparent that her peace had been made with her ex-employer, particularly in light of the fact that she had sued MGM over the use of her footage in the first That’s Entertainment! 20 years eariler. She once said of her former studio, “All they ever did for me at MGM was change my leading man and the water in my pool.”

In 1999, she published an autobiography, aptly titled “The Million Dollar Mermaid,” that raised a few eyebrows with its revelations, particularly the claim (later recanted) that she experimented with LSD in the late ’60s after a talk with Cary Grant, and her assertions regarding the cross-dressing tendencies of former co-star and one-time lover Jeff Chandler.

Esther Williams died on June 6, 2013 at the age of 91, passing away in her sleep at her California home, but the image of America’s Mermaid is still very much a part of the moviegoing public’s consciousness, and the demand for her classic films has never been more apparent.

And now, get a glimpse of Esther at her most aquatic and exotic in the 1949 theatrical trailer for Neptune’s Daughter:

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