By Tarquin Mandrake
Esther Williams was a star who exploded out of Louis B Mayer’s Warner Brothers studio system in the 1940s. A swimmer who was on course to compete in the Olympics until the Second World War intervened. She found work at a department store and intended to pursue a career in sales before being tempted away to work at a theme water park where she was forced to avoid the lusty attentions of ex-Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller.
She was courted by Warner Brother’s talent scouts for a year before she acquiesced to sign. Watching the first part of TCM’s Esther Williams DVD collection, TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams Volume 1 (order it from Amazon HERE), the contemporary viewer may be struck by a few things; the marked contrast in sexual politics between the 1940s and our time, the sense that these films are a product of the Americas entire rather than the United States alone and the flaws and merits of the Warner Brothers Studio system.
Red Skelton, a song writer responsible for such gems as “Beat Me Daddy With a Boogie Brush” and “Dig Me Sister With a Solid Spade”, is on sojourn at a holiday resort in California. Basil Rathbone, his friend and employer, paid for the holiday on the understanding that Red would seek inspiration to write the songs for a new water pageant.
However Red has fallen in love with Esther Williams, a vacationing swimming instructor, and the pair now plan to throw off their mutual obligations and elope. Overhearing Red’s intention to defraud him and abandon the boogie-woogie water pageant racket Basil enlists a female con artist and successfully breaks up Red’s wedding to Esther.
Red Skelton then pursues Esther to her place of work; the Victoria woman’s college, refuses to leave, locks her in his room on one occasion and then breaks into her house to whisper hypnotic suggestions that she disturbingly incorporates into her mental reverie on another. Eventually his persistence is rewarded, not with a restraining order but, instead, with the return of Esther’s love.
Easy to Wed
Capitalists have taken over the Morning Star newspaper and now it has grievously libelled Esther Williams, who is “spoiled, arrogant, engaged to a different guy every month. The crown princess of café society.” Faced with an unwinnable $2 million law suit the newspaper dispatches ace-gigolo Bill Chandler “the guy who specialises in dames”.
Bill (Van Johnson) ingratiates himself with Esther’s father by posing as a duck hunter and pretending to rough up a photographer. Although Esther is a practical young lady continually besieged by fortune hunters she cannot resist Bills allure after he insults her and shoots a duck in the neck. Finding out that he is already married to Lucille Ball she decides to propose to him, telling her that his seduction was a ruse to settle the lawsuit only brings her closer to him.
In a similar recent case, a reporter sought to mitigate a serious slander made by the evil Daily Mail newspaper against Ed Milliband. He gate-crashed a memorial service for one of Ed Milliband’s relatives posing as a mourner and asking leading questions in the hope of getting some good ammunition before he was exposed and expelled. Would you believe that no marriage proposal was subsequently forthcoming from the leader of the Labour Party?
On An Island With You
In the South Pacific an important film is being made; the tale of two native women who squabble over the affections of American sailor Ricardo Montalban. Eventually one will appear in a water pageant at a upscale hotel, the other will become a bar skank, twerking against random sailors.
Shooting the film on location, assistant director Jimmy Durante has erred deeply with his choice of technical advisor; Lieutenant Kingslee, an arrogant shell-shocked flake. Lieutenant Kingslee absconds to the barber on his first day, ignores the director on set and then interrupts the shoot because he is incapable of distinguishing between reality and a scripted scene involving two actors he has been formally introduced to.
Asked how he would change a scene he grabs Esther Williams and kisses her. Later Lieutenant Kingslee moons after Esther at a restaurant. He asks Esther to dance and after being refused four times seems about to resort to force before the director intervenes.
The next day he is (incredibly) entrusted to fly a plane with Esther as a supposed stowaway for a scene in the film. Instead of returning to the film crew he keeps flying, abducting Esther Williams and taking her to a remote cannibal infested island. He insists that she dances with him then becomes distraught as it emerges that they have met before, and what he thought was an earnest declaration of love on Esther’s part three years ago was in face a scripted routine that she performed hundreds of times on entertainment tours as part of the war effort.
Still, Lieutenant Kingslee’s sexy kidnapping ways ultimately render him irresistible to Esther. She is also charmed that he has spent years on the island burying spam and hallucinating about her.
Esther carries no trident, nor has she dominion over fish, she is merely a talented amateur swimmer that Keenan Wynn convinces to join him in a business venture selling ladies swimsuits. Ricardo Montalban, the captain of the South American polo team blackmails Esther into going on a date with him threatening that if she doesn’t he will take out her nympho sister Betty instead and ruin her families reputation. After the date Ricardo steals Esther’s car keys to in an attempt to prevent her from leaving.
After a couple of dates Esther decides to marry Ricardo, taking his word that he has ended the relationship with her sister Betty with what is later revealed as uncommon haste. Although Betty’s rapacious appetite for groups of men worries Esther, it doesn’t worry Betty who is mostly portrayed in a sympathetic light.
Esther “you’ve got to stop throwing yourself at men, you’ll only get hurt.”
Betty “not if my aim is good.”
Dangerous When Wet
Brash travelling Liquapep salesman Windy Weebe meets Esther and her health-obsessed family. He convinces them to travel to Europe and compete in the cross-channel swimming contest organised by the evil Daily Mail newspaper. In England Esther is pursued by André Lanet, a sophisticated French champagne vendor.
André (Fernando Lamas) takes Esther to dinner under false pretences, offering specialised knowledge of charts, wind, riptides and currents, then inveigles her aboard his yacht on the same promise, in each encounter he easily tricks Windy (Jack Carson) into leaving him alone with Esther. André knows the ways of women, he knows Esther will not be able to resist trying on his gift of a skimpy bikini and that by allowing her to end the relationship without complaint he only becomes more fascinating to her.
The evil Daily Mail stop the rest of Esther’s family from entering, start the contest with only a few hours notice, and demeans the female contestants by calling them ‘girls’. In French André and American Windy we see the clash of two masculine archetypes of the old and new world.
What is it about this Esther Williams that men must pursue her? Well, she’s gorgeous, blessed with a petulant scowl that trembles on the precipice of moonstruck adoration or decadent rapture, every frame she graces could be a pulp magazine cover, but Esther’s no sap.
In Bathing Beauty she’s the head mistresses’ right hand woman, in Neptune’s Daughter she’s a capable business woman (as in life) and in Dangerous When Wet Esther is effectively (and for want of a better term) the man of the family, obsessed with the appliance of science to the family’s dairy farm’s milk-yield while her addled father is lost in the vision of forging an American master race.
The men that pursue her frequently use devious means, but Esther expects that, and looks beyond such opening gambits for a partner who is as strong and intelligent as her.
The cultural differences between 1940s and today abound, for a start here is America entire, South America and Mexico specifically play an important role in these films cast, soundtrack and locations, whereas in the bulk of America’s modern cultural output you’d be forgiven for thinking that the continent comprised of two states; New York and the suburbs of L.A, both of which look suspiciously like Canada.
In the minus column it’s unlikely that in 2014 you’ll see a film so nakedly dedicated to the military’s recruitment drive as On An Island With You, (basically a randy G.I’s wet dream) or a lead character like Esther in Neptune’s Daughter with a black maid called Matilda and a Chinese handmaiden called Lotus.
The advantages of the studio system are a capable repertory company of stars like Ricardo Montalban, Red Skelton, Carlos Ramirez, Xavier Cugat, and Ethel Smith to draw on, all of whom appear in at least two of these films. Mel Blanc, the vocal genius of Warner Brothers cartoons appears in Neptune’s Daughter.
Dangerous When Wet is my favourite, possibly for nostalgic reasons and because it’s the one with the Tom and Jerry cartoon, but it does also have the best story line involving swimming, everything hinges on Esther’s swimming ability, whereas it’s hard to take the various water pageants that punctuate the other films too seriously. Easy To Wed has the best script, a remake of Libeled Lady, it’s a great screwball comedy with rapier wit snobs and despicable low-life journos pushed onto ever more nefarious excesses. Lucille Ball is particularly fantastic as a dim-witted showgirl with a questionable past.
Neptune’s Daughter has the best songs, the classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and Xavier Cugat outdoes himself with a tantalising horror opera (featuring the same impressive wooden pagan idol used in On An Island With You) punctuated by the screams of Latin women in white diaphanous pantaloons.
Bathing Beauty is the least of the five films and the starkest demonstration of the demerits of the studio system as it is so clearly cobbled together to showcase a non-acting, non-singing and non-dancing lead actress. (a neat rejoinder, in fact, for those who condemn todays supposedly formulaic cinema, twas ever thus) Esther Williams herself would later disparage and despair of her acting ability in this, her first, film.
The script appears to have been written in a great rush. “Let’s go over the border for some South American jive” students at an elite institution say improbably. Oxford educated Basil Rathbone remarks “Schubert’s the only guy who got away with an unfinished symphony.” Still, for all its faults, it’s a frothy, silly, enjoyable concoction of a film; as the Beastie Boys would have it “a good mixtape to put you in the right mood.”
Finally I’d like to recommend this compilation, five fun colourful films from a more innocent and apparently happier time packaged lovingly with documentaries and deleted scenes as well as cartoons and short features from the period.