Sunday, June 16, 2013

Dive Diva

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?


  1. I remember many of these movie, great fun.
    But the movie I remember the most was "The Unguarded Moment" I was young when I watched it on TV but it has always stayed with me.
    It was a mystery I love mysteries but what I zoomed in on was she was a single woman, had a job (teacher) living on her own in her cute little home. What a dream.
    I realized then and there I wanted that. And even now ever so often I think of that movie.
    How funny.

    cheers, parsnip

  2. I can't say I ever saw THE UNGUARDED MOMENT, parsnip. I just now looked it up on the Internet, and was surprised to see the screenplay was written by Rosalind Russell under a pseudonym. I skimmed through the user reviews on the IMDb, and see that Williams mostly gets good reviews for her performance. I think one person said she showed promise, which obviously went unfulfilled since this was her last film. However, until I see this movie myself--and I would like to--I'm going to have to stick to my view that, as a straight land-bound actress, Williams was no more than adequate, but I could always change my mind.

    "I realized then and there I wanted that. And even now ever so often I think of that movie."

    That line of yours, parsnip, reminds me just how subjective art and/or entertainment really is. A movie--whether it's lauded as a classic or not--can mean different things to diffrent people. You obviously were affected by this one. Hope you got that cute little home.

  3. She was a babe, all the way to the end. What a talent, and pleasing to look at. I have no knowledge of her life, or what it was like to be her, all I have is that she was an icon, and deservedly so, all the way to the end.

  4. When researching this piece, Jim, I came across an Esther Williams video done to an Echo and the Bunnyman song. I didn't use it, because I wanted something from her own era, but it's nice to know she has fans among the postpunk crowd.

    Williams was married to Fernando Lamas. Lorenzo Lamas was her stepson. In the 1980s, Esther and Lorenzo appeared on FALCON CREST together, so they apparently got along. No wicked stepmother she.

  5. I remember watching a few of the movies she was in as a kid.
    I have an Esther Williams (brand) bathing suit by Mod Cloth. Black with Red Cherries, halter. Love it. ;)

  6. Now all you need, Akeru, is a dozen synchronized swimmers, and you're all set.


In order to keep the hucksters, humbugs, scoundrels, psychos, morons, and last but not least, artificial intelligentsia at bay, I have decided to turn on comment moderation. On the plus side, I've gotten rid of the word verification.