Top Ten Esther Williams Films
Esther Williams, Hollywood's "Million Dollar Mermaid" and, possibly, the most unique star ever to grace the silver screen. Although, she grew to become a likable actress, as well as, a successful singer, Esther Williams will forever be remembered as the starlet who turned swimming into an art form. To this day, no other actress has ever attempted the water ballets and stunts Esther performed on a regular basis (often risking life and limb in the process). And she is universally credited as, single-handedly, popularizing synchronized swimming (now recognized as an Olympic sport).
Exhibiting a grace and control underwater that seems to border on superhuman, it should come as no surprise that Esther intended on becoming an Olympic swimmer, herself. In fact, she had set records as one of the few women capable of doing a butterfly breast stroke (at the time) and even qualified for the Olympic team. But, when the onset of World War II canceled the Olympic games of 1940, Esther's dreams of Olympic gold were shattered. But, fans of her films are forever grateful that she agreed to take the consolation prize of becoming the most unlikely of Hollywood stars. For there truly is only one Esther Williams.
And in honor of Esther, I have put together this list of her top ten best films. If you've never seen this water nymph in action, you're in for a treat.
FYI: I chose the order of my Esther Williams top ten by considering each film's importance in Esther’s overall career, the size/importance of her role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like, IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Esther Williams film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
And now, on with the Top Ten:
1. “MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID” (1952) –
Based on the life of Australian aquatic star, Annette Kellerman, Million Dollar Mermaid is, in many ways, the ultimate showcase of Esther’s unique talents. It features one of her greatest performances in and out of the water and it is, certainly, the most ambitious film she ever appeared in. A rare musical drama in Esther’s career, it tells the incredible story of how Annette Kellerman (Esther) went from a little girl with crippled legs to the greatest swimming star in the world. But, don’t expect to hear an Aussie accent coming from Esther. Most likely, the studio deemed an accent would be more distracting than it was worth (not an uncommon decision in studio era films). But if this bothers you, it is a very small hiccup in a movie with so many good aspects: gorgeous cinematography, a solid plot, and mind-blowing choreography by the one and only Busby Berkeley (his trademark kaleidoscope-like overhead shots will be easily recognized by fans). But, one particular Berkeley-choreographed stunt nearly got Esther killed. One of the water ballets required Esther to dive from a 50 foot tower wearing a metal crown. The impact of the water, actually, caused the crown to break Esther’s neck, putting her in a body cast for 6 months before shooting could resume. But, despite this trauma, Esther still referred to Million Dollar Mermaid as one of her favorite films. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.
2. "BATHING BEAUTY” (1944) –
Originally titled, “The Co-Ed” and clearly written as a Red Skelton vehicle, after seeing Esther in the finished film, the studio quickly changed the title to Bathing Beauty. Best described as a kind of variety showcase, this movie made Esther an instant star. But, the real star of the film is still Red Skelton, who plays popular songwriter, Steve Elliott. After meeting his beautiful bride-to-be, Caroline (Esther), in California, Steve impulsively decides to give up his songwriting and retire. It doesn’t seem to bother Steve that he had already agreed to score New York producer George Adams’ (Basil Rathbone) aquacade show. But, it certainly bothers George! Desperate to get his songwriter back, George flies to California to convince Steve to put off his retirement. When that doesn’t work, he vindictively hires a girl to pose as Steve’s "jilted wife” in order to break up Steve and Caroline’s wedding. The charade works only too well and sends Caroline running back to her old job at an all-girl’s university. Steve, immediately, follows her and, in the hopes of winning her back, finds a loophole in the university’s charter that allows him to enroll as a student. But, the dean of the school (as well as, Caroline, herself) will look for any excuse to throw Steve out again. (All in the name of the school’s reputation, of course!) Although a massive hit at the box office when it was first released, Bathing Beauty is, probably, the most dated out of Esther’s films. But, if you’re a fan of jazz or big band music, this is the film for you. The movie features extended musical numbers by some of the most talented musicians of the period, including Xavier Cugat (who would become a regular presence in many of Esther’s films) and the amazing organist, Ethel Smith. But, of course, the thing that really makes this film worthwhile is the iconic water ballet finale, the first of its kind onscreen. Clips of this water ballet were even reused years later in the #1 movie on this list: Million Dollar Mermaid.
3. “DANGEROUS WHEN WET” (1953) –
Dangerous When Wet marks an important milestone in the life and career of Esther Williams. It is the first and only movie in which Esther starred opposite future husband, Fernando Lamas. (Fernando, also, happens to be one of the only professional grade swimmers Esther ever co-starred with). In the film, Esther plays Katie Higgins, the eldest daughter of an extremely athletic family. When a fast-talking salesman happens to witness the family’s skill in the water, he convinces them to enter a competition to swim the English Channel (with his company’s product, Liquapep, acting as their sponsor). But once the family get to England for training, Katie meets Andre (Lamas), a handsome and wealthy Frenchman. Although Katie is intrigued by the debonair Andre, this new relationship, also, threatens to distract her from the family's crucial Channel race. Esther gives an absolutely charming performance in this enjoyable aqua-musical, never more so than when Katie gets pleasantly tipsy at Andre’s chateau. But, it’s in the film’s climatic Channel race that Esther really shines. She registers Katie’s exhaustion so acutely, you'll feel like you're, actually, witnessing her muscles shutting down. But, the film’s most famous moment is an extended dream sequence featuring the famous cartoon characters, Tom and Jerry. In this sequence, Esther appears to swim in a cartoon ocean and the moment perfectly highlights one of Esther’s most underrated talents: the ability to act underwater. The scene is, also, sure to fascinate swimmers, as Esther manages the incredibly difficult feat of performing an Australian crawl beneath the surface of the water.
4. “NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER” (1949) –
Filmed partly in the famed Weeki Wachee Springs (an iconic Florida attraction known for its resident mermaids), Neptune’s Daughter reteams Esther with her Bathing Beauty co-star, Red Skelton. But this time, it's Esther who’s the main attraction. She plays Eve Barrett, a former swimmer who’s become the face (and designer) of a popular bathing-suit company. But, Eve, actually, spends a lot of her time looking after her boy-crazy sister, Betty (played by Betty Garrett). So, when Eve hears that Betty has started dating a visiting South American polo player named Jose O’Rourke (Ricardo Montalban), she, immediately, gets in touch with the womanizing foreigner to give him a piece of her mind. The problem is, that Betty isn’t, actually, dating Jose at all! After meeting the polo team’s masseure, Jack Sprat (Skelton), Betty mistook the red-haired Jack for Jose O'Rourke (and Jack has never exactly gone out of his way to correct her mistake). That means, the real Jose has no idea what Eve is talking about when she accuses him of leading her sister on. But, if playing along means spending more time with the beautiful swimsuit designer, Jose is more than willing to play. Betty Garrett is perfectly cast as Eve’s vivacious little sister, and she and Skelton almost walk away with the movie with their combined comedic skills. But, the real highlight of the film is when Esther, Montalban, Garrett, and Skelton perform the classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”. The song, deservedly, won Best Original Song at the Oscars and has become a timeless holiday standard. Neptune’s Daughter is, also, notable for featuring a very rare live-action appearance by voice-over extraordinaire, Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck….etc….). Looney Tunes fans will be sure to recognize him by the voice he uses in the film (as it's very similar to that of one of his most famous characters).
5.“EASY TO LOVE” (1953) –
Sometimes cited as containing some of Esther’s favorite water ballets, Easy To Love is truly a movie only Esther could do. She plays the role of Julie Hallerton, the main attraction at Florida’s (now defunct theme park) Cypress Gardens. Julie has long pined after her workaholic boss, Ray (Van Johnson), but Ray has never shown the slightest interest in her, outside of work. Eventually, Julie finds herself pursued by two other men, as well as, a possible business opportunity. Can she wait for Ray forever or is it, finally, time for her to move on? (Both personally and professionally.) Although pregnant all throughout filming, Esther was forced to learn water skiing for this film in order to feature in Cypress Garden’s famous water ski spectaculars. In the end, the only stunt Esther did not perform herself is an incredible 80 foot dive from a helicopter-held trapeze. She refused out of fear for her child’s safety and convinced choreographer, Busby Berkeley, to use a double (which he, apparently, relented to rather begrudgingly). As well as showing off Esther’s swimming and newfound skiing talents, Easy To Love, also, shows how much Esther has grown as an actress. Her easy quality and comedic timing are pitch perfect and when she throws vanity out the window to perform the film’s over-the-top clown number, you realize that no other actress has ever been more fearless than Esther Williams (if there was ever any doubt).
6. “THRILL OF A ROMANCE” (1945) –
Before Esther co-starred with Van Johnson in Easy To Love, they appeared together in this breezy romance. Esther stars as Cynthia, a swimming instructor who rushes into marriage with charming businessman, Bob Delbar. Not long after the ceremony, Bob gets an urgent call from his office and leaves Cynthia to spend their romantic honeymoon all by herself. But, Cynthia isn’t alone for long. Decorated war hero Major Tommy Milvaine (Johnson) is staying in the same hotel and when this soldier sets his eyes on the lonely Cynthia, this new bride may be in danger of being swept off her feet all over again. This fun little musical features a unique mix of musical styles, half opera (courtesy of baritone, Lauritz Melchior) and half big band (courtesy of Tommy Dorsey). It’s, also, helped along by some very impressive young talents, particularly, Helene Stanley as Dorsey’s piano-playing daughter and Jerry Scott as the young singing bellhop, Lyonel. Considering how many movies Esther and Van Johnson would end up doing together, it might be surprising to hear that Johnson was not a very strong swimmer, himself. For the water scenes in this movie, Esther often had to keep her hand behind Johnson’s back to keep him above water.
7. “EASY TO WED” (1946) –
A musical remake of the film, Libeled Lady, Easy To Wed pairs Esther once again with co-star, Van Johnson. Taking on the role Myrna Loy originated, Esther plays Connie Allenbury, a wealthy socialite who sues a popular newspaper for libel after they accuse her of dating married men. The writer of the article in question, Warren Haggerty (Keenan Wynn), makes an attempt to save the paper from bankruptcy by enlisting the help of former employee (and known womanizer), Bill Chandler (Johnson). In order to nullify the libel suit, the two concoct a scheme to trick Connie into doing exactly what she was accused of. The convoluted plan involves Bill, temporarily, marrying Warren’s fiancée, Gladys (Lucille Ball), and then, attempting to woo Connie. If he succeeds, Gladys will appear to catch Connie stealing her husband. Of course, a photographer will conveniently be on hand to take pictures of the "scandal" taking place and Connie will be forced to drop the suit. But, the plan starts to go awry when Bill begins to really fall for Connie and Gladys begins to really fall for Bill. This film marks an important milestone in Esther’s career, since it was the first time she was allowed to sing in a musical. Luckily, Esther proved herself be more than worthy of that honor, especially since she was given the extra challenge of singing songs written entirely in Spanish and Portuguese. As a matter of fact, all of the songs in this film (with the exception of Lucille Ball’s solo number) are sung either in Spanish or Portuguese! In order to get their pronunciations correct, Esther and Johnson were, actually, coached by iconic Brazilian singer, Carmen Miranda.
8. “ON AN ISLAND WITH YOU” (1948) –
On An Island With You provides Esther with a bevy of talented co-stars, including Ricardo Montalban, Peter Lawford, Cyd Charisse, and Jimmy Durante. In the film, Esther plays movie star Rosalind Reynolds, who’s traveled to Hawaii to shoot a new movie with her fiancé, Ricardo (Montalban). Once she arrives, she notices that the movie’s technical adviser, Navy Lieutenant Larry Kingsley (Lawford), seems to have a crush on her. But, what Ros doesn’t realize is that she’s, actually, met Larry before. And Larry is determined to do anything he can to make sure she remembers their past time together. What makes this movie, particularly, unique is that some of the movie’s best scenes, actually, don’t feature Esther at all (Lawford and Montalban, actually, perform an entire underwater ballet by themselves!). Although Esther is clearly the star, this film, also, serves as a very nice showcase for Montalban, who dances two numbers with Charisse, as well as, a small swimming number with Esther. But, one of the major highlights of this film is the beautiful and epic Pagan Mask number (one of the scenes from the movie within the movie). It was originally intended for Cyd Charisse to dance the number but, she ended up breaking her leg during filming and her stand-in, Patricia Denise, finished the number for her. Considering the skill shown in this number, it’s really a pity Denise didn't become better known as a Hollywood dancer. (Random trivia note: Disney fans watching the film may recognize the voice of a very young Kathryn Beaumont, who makes a couple of memorable appearances in this movie. She would later become known as the voices of Disney heroines, Alice and Wendy in the animated films Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, respectively.)
9. “THIS TIME FOR KEEPS” (1947) –
Shot on location on Mackinac Island in Michigan, This Time For Keeps is, actually, the first movie of Esther’s career to heavily feature the song “Easy To Love” (the song would be used again in the #5 movie on this list). The film, also, serves to reunite Esther with one of her Thrill of a Romance co-stars, opera singer Lauritz Melchior. Melchior plays a famous opera singer whose son, Dick Johnson (Johnnie Johnston), has just returned home from WWII. Although, Dick’s father still expects his son to follow through on the plans he made before the war (become an opera singer and marry his socialite fiancée, Frances), Dick finds that his old life no longer appeals to him. Instead, Dick can’t stop thinking about Leonora (Esther), the aquacade star who performed at the army hospital when he was wounded. So, when Dick discovers that she’s performing in town, he decides to reunite with her. But, to get to "Nora", he has to go through her protective friend, Ferdi (Jimmy Durante). Even when Dick and Nora begin to hit it off, Dick still has to find a way to deal with his old obligations, even if it means hurting somebody he cares about. Behind the scenes, the making of This Time For Keeps wasn't always smooth sailing. At one point, a flannel bathing suit nearly drug Esther to the bottom of the pool after a dive (this being the reason that swimsuits shouldn't be made out of flannel). The film, also, marked the third time Esther worked with director, Richard Thorpe, and the two shared a mutual dislike of each other. (Esther later theorized that Thorpe hated cheerful people). However, any difficulties that arose offscreen are imperceptible in the film. All that's left behind is a charming musical with some terrific water ballets and a great comedic (yet surprisingly layered) performance by the one and only Jimmy Durante.
10. “PAGAN LOVE SONG” (1950) –
This virtual love letter to island life is bound to make you want to jump on the next boat to the nearest tropical island. Though set in Tahiti, the film, actually, ended up being filmed on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Based on the novel, Tahitian Landfall by William S. Stone, the film stars Esther as Mimi, an American expatriate living in Tahiti who is desperate to move back to the states. After living on the island since she was a small child, she’s long become bored with the relaxed Tahitian lifestyle. But, that all begins to change when an American named Hap Endicott (Howard Keel) comes to live on the island. Suddenly, Mimi’s life gets a lot more interesting as she teaches the naïve newcomer the ins and outs of Tahitian culture. Although Esther is (inexplicably) dubbed by Betty Wand in this tropical musical, co-star Howard Keel gets plenty of opportunities to show off his impressive baritone voice in a number of cute songs. But, the major highlight of this movie is its ethereal dream sequence; Esther has never looked more like a graceful mermaid. However, behind the scenes, this beautiful sequence, also, marks the moment that Esther came the closest she ever came to drowning. Experiencing something like what scuba divers call “the rapture of the deep” (a sort of euphoric feeling), Esther was only broken from her trance when a crew member happened to ask her to move closer to the light. Another challenging aspect of the film’s production was that the cast and crew could only get their mail once a month (the island of Kauai was much more rural in the ‘50s than today). This proved a problem when Esther discovered that she was pregnant and tried to get the word back to her husband in the states (she ended up having to use a borrowed ham radio). But, despite these problems, Pagan Love Song turned out to be a beautiful, cheerful movie that would be a great choice for your next movie night with your kids.
HONORABLE MENTION: “TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME” (1949)
For my honorable mention this time around, I have chosen this adorable Frank Sinatra/Gene Kelly musical. Set in the 1900’s, Kelly and Sinatra star as Eddie O’Brien and Dennis Ryan, professional baseball players and part-time vaudevillians. When baseball season starts, O’Brien and Ryan are shocked to discover that their team (the Wolves) is under new management. The entire team vows to hate the new manager, K.C. Higgins, but that sentiment gets more complex when they discover that the "K" in K.C., actually, stands for Katherine (Esther). A girl becoming a manager of a team called the Wolves? Wackiness, understandably, ensues. As if you couldn’t already tell, this is a fun, tongue-in-cheek musical with a healthy sense of humor. It’s, also, the very last full-length film that legendary director Busby Berkeley would direct on his own. Behind the scenes, Esther did not get along very well with star/choreographer Gene Kelly, who seemed to get pleasure out of putting her down. Esther, herself, theorized that he was uncomfortable with the height difference between them (Esther was a little over 5’8, while Kelly was only 5'7). But, personally, I believe it’s more likely that Kelly resented her lack of dance training and the fact that his first choice (Judy Garland) was unavailable for filming. On the other hand, Esther and Sinatra got along famously and their chemistry, certainly, shows onscreen. Despite the behind the scenes feuds, this patriotic and upbeat film is a joy to watch and Esther manages to hold her own opposite Kelly and Sinatra, proving that even when kept mostly out of the water, she's still dynamite.
If you would like to learn more about the incredible Esther Williams, I highly recommend Esther’s own autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid. And . . . if you love the style of the bathing suits Esther wears in her films, you might want to take a look at her swimsuit line, available from her official website: www.esther-williams.com.
© 2012 Luna B.