Esther Williams, a huge movie star of the 1940s and early '50s, died last week at the age of 91. She starred in mostly musicals, where she did her fair share of acting, singing, and dancing, none of which I want you to concern yourself with. Truth be told, as an actress, singer, and dancer, she was merely serviceable. Betty Garrett, who was never a huge movie or even TV star (she was Laverne and Shirley's landlady, remember?) outacted, outsang, and outdanced Williams in Take Me Out to the Ball Game and Neptune's Daughter. So why was Williams so popular? Her looks? She was an extremely attractive woman. But Hollywood, then and now, is overpopulated with extremely attractive people. Even Betty Garrett back in the day was cute from certain angles. One of the reasons boys and girls go to the movies is to see girls and boys so attractive that they make the homecoming queen and her star quarterback boyfriend look like Punch and Judy. Williams did look good in a bathing suit, which she wore more often than any other star at the time. Now we may be getting somewhere, and not simply because of how she looked but what she did while wearing it.
Williams big dream growing up wasn't to win an Oscar (which she never did) but an Olympic gold medal in swimming. By the time she was 16, she had won three U.S. National championships in breastroke and freestyle, the latter with a record-breaking time of 1 minute 09.0 seconds in the 100 meter. In addition, her medley team (nothing to do with singing) set the record for the 300-yard relay at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. She was clearly on her way to the 1940 Helsinki Olympics, until the country that last held the event, Germany, effectively canceled the whole shebang by going out and starting World War II. Her gold medal hopes dashed, Williams took a job with Billy Rose's popular Aquacade, a singing, dancing AND swimming show held at various world fairs and expositions throughout the late '30s, this particular one in San Francisco, where she appeared along side former Olympic star and screen Tarzan Johnny Weismuller. A talent scout caught the act and signed her to a movie contact.
And thanks to that contract, Esther Williams turned swimming, formerly a "sport", into an art. Well, she had some help from the entire MGM apparatus: the set designers, Technicolor technicians, background musicians, hair dressers (her soaked head always remained nicely coiffed), makeup artists (her mascara never ran down her wet cheeks), and casts of synchronized thousands that made a Williams movie seem more than just a day--or whatever the film's running time--at the beach. Mostly she got help from legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley. In the 1930s, Berkeley had epitomized the Warner Brothers musical. He packed the screen with proscenium arch-bending imagery, a typical dance number looking like a Super Bowl halftime show as viewed through a house of mirrors. However, at MGM in the '40s and '50s, Berkeley faced stiff competition from the likes of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, who took a comparatively more subdued, more arty approach to song-and-dance escapism. Nevertheless, with Esther Williams acting as his muse, Berkeley made dousing an extravaganza all its own. Watch:
Bathing Beauty (1944)
Easy to Love (1953)
Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)
By way of comparison:
From Russia With Love (1963) No, Williams didn't star in this one, it's not even a musical, but doesn't she look she'd fit right in with that scene? And Busby Berkeley could have worked wonders with those explosions.
A rare photo of Esther Williams soaked head when it wasn't nicely coiffed. She looks good, anyway, don't you think?