HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Sunday, October 25, 2009


(Thrill of a Romance/ Fiesta/ This Time For Keeps/ Pagan Love Song/ Million Dollar Mermaid/ Easy to Love)

If the following sounds more like a love letter to Esther Williams than a DVD review, you have to understand--I've been a huge fan for several years now, and watching the six-disc set TCM SPOTLIGHT: ESTHER WILLIAMS, VOLUME 2 has been a heady experience. To paraphrase Bela Lugosi's "Ygor" from SON OF FRANKENSTEIN: "She...does things for me."

Hardly just the swimming star she's commonly remembered as nowadays, Esther Williams was one of the most beautiful and talented actresses ever to grace the screen. Whether dolled up in the coolest 40s and 50s fashions or dripping wet in a clingy bathing suit, her stunning good looks, razor-perfect figure, regal bearing, and endlessly appealing persona are what continue to make her films so watchable after all these years. She had a smoldering sexuality and bedroom eyes that could easily have made her a sultry femme fatale in film noirs if she'd ever decided to go that way. Yet she almost always played sweet, endearing characters who were approachable and attainable--well, theoretically anyway--by plain, everyday lugs like us.

Her aquatic skills, of course, are legendary. While stars like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Ginger Rogers may have been tops on the dance floor, Esther Williams had the water all to herself. This gave MGM the chance to keep coming up with one lavish, high-concept splash spectacle after another. Yet even in her more down-to-earth roles, in which she barely dipped a toe into the water, Esther proved that she had the acting skills and personality, along with her drop-dead gorgeous looks, to quite capably hold her own. And she even had a nice singing voice, too.

In THRILL OF A ROMANCE (1945), Esther is a swimming instructor named Cynthia Glenn who lives with her lovably eccentric uncle and aunt, played by Henry Travers (Clarence the angel in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE) and Spring Byington. Cynthia (who for some strange reason doesn't already have dozens of guys vying for her attention) is swept off her feet by a young business tycoon named Bob Delbar (Carleton G. Young) who takes her to a fancy hotel in the mountains for their honeymoon and then leaves her alone--on their wedding night--when a big deal lures him away to Washington. Yep, we knew right away that stuffed-shirt Bob wasn't the right guy for our Cynthia.

Right on cue, the suddenly lonely new bride meets warm, friendly war hero Major Thomas Milvaine (Van Johnson at his most personable), who falls for her like a sad-eyed puppy dog. We know that they'll be together by the end of the movie, and we can't wait to see Cynthia unload that incredible stiff Bob Delbar. But before that, we must endure the tortures of self-denial as Cynthia and Tommy splash around in the pool and dine to the music of Tommy Dorsey while rigidly maintaining the proper hands-off attitude.

Also practicing self-denial is Metropolitan Opera star Lauritz Melchior as rotund opera singer Nils Knudsen, who's trying to lose weight. Eventually becoming the benevolent cupid who helps bring Cynthina and Tommy together, the chubby-cheeked Melchior gets plenty of opportunities to sing in his bombastic style--we even get to see a closeup of his quivering tonsils during the titles--while his roly-poly character comically suffers through a vegetables-only diet as others around him indulge in rich food (just as Cynthia and Tommy yearn to indulge in each other).

The opening titles let the viewer know right off the bat that THRILL OF A ROMANCE is going to be filled with music, from opera to big band and in between. Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra are on hand for several hot big-band tunes, some including his nimble-fingered young daughter Susan on piano. During one rousing number, legendary cool cat Buddy Rich is featured in a kick-ass drum solo. With Dorsey's band, the hotel's house musicians, and opera singer Melchior running around, we have here the rare musical in which the songs and tunes don't just come from out of nowhere.

Esther, of course, gets a lot of mileage out of the hotel's wonderfully kitschy swimming pool set as Cynthia teaches Tommy how to swim and does several nice slow-motion dives off the high board. She also looks great in a series of outfits that compliment her figure, which is a never-ending source of visual delight. The breathtaking mountain and forest settings of San Bernadino's Arrowhead Springs Hotel and Yosemite National Park provide even more sumptuous Technicolor scenery.

In the days before television, people didn't go to movies like this for the thrills or complicated plots. They wanted to see eye-filling sights, lavish production numbers, and good-looking movie stars. They also wanted to see their favorite radio stars perform the music they could usually only hear over the airwaves. The simple story of THRILL OF A ROMANCE could've been told in twenty minutes, but getting there at a leisurely pace while savoring the sights and sounds along the way is what it's all about. All you have to do is settle in and enjoy the ride.

John Nesbitt's Passing Parade--"The Great American Mug"
Cartoon--Tex Avery's "Wild and Woolfy" (Droopy)
Musical outtakes

FIESTA (1947) was shot on location in Mexico and features Esther and handsome young newcomer Ricardo Montalban as twins Maria and Mario. Their father, Señor Morales, once a celebrated bullfighter forced into retirement by a crippling injury, has high hopes for Mario to take his place in the ring. But Mario has other ideas--he dreams of being a concert pianist and composer, while it is Maria who aspires to carry on the family bullfighting tradition. Well, it's a cinch things are going to get complicated before the eventual happy ending.

Esther and Ricardo make a smart-looking couple in their matching outfits and are a likable brother and sister act. I was surprised to find Montalban to be an excellent dancer, as he demonstrates several times during the film. Cyd Charisse, not quite the stunner she would become and hardly resembling the seductive vamp from SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (although there's a hint of it in the red-hot flamenco number she performs with Ricardo), plays Mario's devoted fiancee Conchita.

Esther barely gets close to the water in this one, giving her a chance to prove that she can carry a role without breast-stroking her way through it. Montalban's intense performance as the musician who's expected to be a bullfighter is a major component of the film, but the main draw is seeing Esther's Maria fulfilling her brother's destiny in the ring by posing as him. She looks way tuff in her form-fitting matador outfits and moves beautifully. Little matter that the matador stand-in doing the actual bullfighting bears scant resemblance to her.

Akim Tamiroff is very likable as the Morales family's old friend, Chato Vasquez, while John Carroll as "Pepe Ortega" convincingly plays a man who wants to forget all this bullfighting nonsense and get married to Maria ASAP. Fortunio Bonanova (CITIZEN KANE, KISS ME DEADLY) is good as the prideful and unyielding father, Señor Morales. Mary Astor (THE MALTESE FALCON) adds extra class as his long-suffering wife, who hates bullfighting and wants Mario to follow his own dreams.

FIESTA is filled with lots of festive Mexican music, including a pre-rock'n'roll version of "La Bamba", and Montalban deftly mimes playing piano to Aaron Copland's thrilling "El Salon Mexico" in one of the film's most effective scenes. But best of all are the large-scale bullfighting sequences, which should give Esther's fans a whole new appreciation for the sport. She's one muy bonita matador.

John Nesbitt's Passing Parade--"Goodbye, Miss Turlock"
Cartoon--Tex Avery's "Hound Hunters"

After the muted Southwestern hues of FIESTA, 1947's THIS TIME FOR KEEPS (photographed by Karl Freund) is a colorful confection. If you can get past Esther's arresting picture on the disc menu, the film opens with her as "Aqua Capers" star Nora Cambaretti, simultaneously torturing and delighting some injured WWII soldiers by prancing around the pool looking gorgeous. She meets Dick (Johnnie Johnston), temporarily blinded by an eye injury, who falls in love with her just her voice. Too bad she's already sorta engaged to her boring producer, Gordon (Dick Simmons), although we know this relationship's totally doomed. (Sorry, Gordo.)

Dick, meanwhile, is in a bit of a JAZZ SINGER-type mess, since he wants to croon popular swing tunes while his dad, famous opera singer Richard Herald (Lauritz Melchior again), insists that his son follow in his footsteps. (Come to think of it, this is mighty similar to Ricardo Montalban's dilemma in FIESTA.) Dick's also expected to marry the dour, bland socialite Frances Allenbury (Mary Stuart), which we also know ain't a-gonna happen. Sometimes it's nice to watch a movie where you don't have to worry about stuff like that.

THIS TIME FOR KEEPS is loaded with music, with Melchior serving up the opera while Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra make with the swing (including the ever-popular "Chiquita Banana" song). Here also we finally get one of those elaborate water-follies numbers that Esther Williams is known for, choreographed by Stanley Donen. As the great Jimmy Durante (playing her performing partner Ferdi Farro) croons some cringe-inducing lyrics about taxes and "taking off ten percent for your agent", Esther struts around the pool doing an alluring striptease from evening gown to bathing suit before taking the plunge amidst dozens of synchronized water sprites. If you love a good wallow in pure, undiluted kitsch, this is it.

Esther's character seems a little aloof in this one until she takes Dick to meet her grandmother (Dame May Whitty) and cute little niece Deborah (Sharon McManus) on Michigan's Mackinac Island. There we get to know the real Nora in a homey setting amidst beautiful snow-covered scenery. Later the island is seen in its multi-colored spring glory as Nora and Dick hash out their conflicts caused when Frances' mother runs a premature engagement announcement in the paper. Needless to say, Ferdi, Dick's father, Grandma, and Deborah eventually cook up a plan to make things right between the two lovebirds again.

THIS TIME FOR KEEPS drags a little in its overlong trudge toward the inevitable ending, but there's still a lot of fun along the way.

A Pete Smith Specialty--"Now You See It"
Cartoon--"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse" (Tom & Jerry)
Musical outtake--"Little Big Shot"

Like an exotic postcard from Tahiti come to life, PAGAN LOVE SONG (1950) is a Technicolor fantasia with Esther looking gorgeous in brown body makeup and two-piece outfits as the half-Tahitian Mimi. Bass-voiced Howard Keel is "Hap" Endicott, a teacher from the USA who just inherited some land with a bamboo shack on it and wants to kick back and become a native. Even though Mimi has plans to move to the States just as Hap is settling in, we know that they'll get together somehow.

So far, this is the prettiest yet dumbest film in the collection. Keel plays Hap like a big, grinning oaf who belts out some of the worst songs ever written (subjects include his singing bamboo house and how much fun it is to sing in the sun on a bicycle) while blundering his way around the island like a newborn giraffe. He gets along great with the natives (one of whom is played by a very young Rita Moreno), since they're all portrayed as a bunch of addle-brained children themselves. It's enough to make one yearn for the cultural authenticity of an Elvis Presley comedy.

Keel works overtime trying to force some feeling into the nonsensical songs that are shoehorned into the slim plot but he has little to work with--he was much more at home in robust musicals such as ANNIE GET YOUR GUN and SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS. Plus, incredible as it may seem, he and Esther have about as much romantic chemistry as a couple of cocoanuts. After the movie has toodled along with nothing much going on until almost the end, an awkward and overly melodramatic plot twist is dropped right in the middle of it like an anvil in order to remind us that there's supposed to be a story.

The only things PAGAN LOVE SONG has going for it--besides one of those cool SPFX water fantasies that glorifies Esther Williams as a sort of aquatic goddess--are the lush scenery, a really cool Tahitian dance sequence, and the fact that the star looks so good at times that it's almost unreal. (Amazingly, a look at the musical outtakes reveals that the film's best songs aren't even in it!) If you can turn off your critical faculties for an hour and a half and watch PAGAN LOVE SONG purely on a superficial level, you might enjoy it. Otherwise, this movie is so stupefyingly slight that it makes DONOVAN'S REEF look like a James Michener epic.

A Pete Smith Specialty--"Curious Contests"
Cartoon: Tex Avery's "Chump Champ" (Droopy)
Musical outtakes

After the lightweight fluff of PAGAN LOVE SONG, 1952's MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID comes as a shock--a genuine period biopic of early 20th-century swimming star Annette Kellerman. We first see her as a little girl growing up in Sydney, Australia with her music teacher father, Frederick (Walter Pidgeon). Barely able to walk and forced to wear leg braces, Annette teaches herself to swim, after which her legs become so strong that she starts winning swimming competitions. Financial woes force the Kellermans to sail to London, where they meet enterprising carnival showman James Sullivan (Victor Mature) and his sidekick Doc Cronnol (Jesse "Maytag Repairman" White).

With James' help, Annette becomes famous after swimming the length of the Thames River and later, before another long distance attempt in America, getting arrested for indecent exposure for wearing a swimsuit that exposes her bare legs! As Annette's star rises, eventually leading to a smash engagement at New York's Hippodrome, her romantic relationship with James takes a nosedive and they seperate. He hits bottom just as Annette, at the peak of success, meets with a tragic accident that may end her swimming career.

As a biopic, MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID is a solid effort from director Mervin LeRoy which is consistently entertaining even when the drama starts to get a little sudsy. Esther is utterly convincing as Annette Kellerman, while Victor Mature does a fine job as the smalltime wheeler-dealer who can't keep up with her rush to fame. Walter Pidgeon is perfect as the stodgy but warm-hearted father, and Jesse White plays the comedy-relief role of Doc Cronnol with his usual hangdog charm.

While the melodramatic elements hold our interest, what really makes the film stand out are the production numbers. Legendary choreographer Busby Berkely has a field day staging some of the most lavish and spectacular sequences yet seen in an Esther Williams vehicle--exquisitely kitschy and colossal in scope, these colorful flights of fantasy are both jaw-dropping and delightfully strange. I can't even begin to describe them, except to say that they're like a Technicolor acid trip. In addition to these, the smaller-scale aquatic vignettes are equally enchanting due to Esther's ethereal grace and beauty underwater.

Although not the sort of light comedy-romance she's usually associated with, this remains a quintessential Esther Williams film and a top-notch production in every respect, with the usual MGM gloss. More than any other film in this collection, MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID gives Neptune's daughter a chance to fully display her talents both in and out of the water.

A Pete Smith Specialty--"Reducing"
Cartoon: "The Wise Little Quacker" (Tom & Jerry)
LUX RADIO THEATER Broadcast with Esther Williams and Walter Pidgeon (audio only)

With EASY TO LOVE (1953), the final film in the set, we're back to frothy comedy, ear-bending Tin Pan Alley songs, and a shallow plot to keep us occupied between Busby Berkeley fever dreams. Esther plays Julie, an overworked swimsuit model and aqua-performer for the tourists at Cypress Gardens in Florida. THRILL OF A ROMANCE's Van Johnson is back as her manipulative boss Ray. King Donovan (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) has the thankless role of Ray's bumbling assistant, Ben, and REVENGE OF THE CREATURE's John Bromfield returns to the water as Hank, a hunky but not-too-bright coworker who's sweet on Julie.

During a trip to New York Julie falls in love with oily nightclub singer Barry Gordon (Tony Martin, THE BIG STORE) and is offered more than three times her regular salary to join a show there. (Blink and you'll miss Carroll Baker in a tiny role as one of Barry's romantic cast-offs.) But after a guilt trip from Ray it's back to Florida, where she's now torn between him, Barry, and Hank. Only after Barry shows up at Cypress Gardens to sweep Julie off her feet does Ray finally realize, perhaps too late, that he's in love with her.

As you might expect, the story is just about the least important element in this frivolous concoction. Esther gets to play a crabby character for a change, constantly complaining about how hard Ray works her. Which is okay because she's cute when she's angry--or any other time, as EASY TO LOVE gives her plenty of chances to demonstrate. As for the songs, the least said the better. When Tony Martin sits at a hotel piano and starts singing the interminable "That's What a Rainy Day is For" to a bunch of moony-eyed old ladies, you may think you've gone to hell. The rest of his tunes are equally forgettable (except for Cole Porter's "Easy to Love", a holdover from THIS TIME FOR KEEPS) and directed in a rather lethargic way as is most of the movie.

Esther does a little waterskiing and a pleasantly hokey water dance with the beefy John Bromfield, then later puts on clown makeup for a forgettable comedy number. During her audition for a producer in New York, it's just Esther in a plain tank of water with no frills, fancy costumes, or sets--just her beautiful underwater ballet moves--and it's one of the best moments in the picture. Notoriously flamboyant choreographer Busby Berkeley finally gets off his duff in the final minutes to give us the kind of exotic water carnival-type routine we expect from him. Eight speedboats pulling dozens of waterskiiers weave their way through columns of water blasting upward out of the lake until Esther grabs onto a trapeze hanging from a helicopter and dives into a sparkling tableau of streaming banners and cascading fountains. It's freakin' insane!

Before this hyperkinetic assault on the senses has even had a chance to die down, the plot is resolved chop-chop as Julie falls for the right guy while the other two slink off in defeat. Well, not quite--Tony Martin runs into his real-life wife, FIESTA's Cyd Charisse (not a bad consolation prize), while the other loser suddenly realizes that he's really in love with Julie's roommate, Nancy (Edna Skinner). It's a happy ending for everyone involved, including the viewers who are relieved that EASY TO LOVE is finally over. (It's still kinda fun, though.)

James A. Fitzpatrick's Traveltalks--"Romantic Riviera"
Cartoon: "Cobs and Robbers" (Barney Bear)

This DVD set from Warner Home Video and Turner Classic Movies features colorful, decorative packaging and menus, with actual poster art on each disc. All six films are in original standard format with Dolby Digital sound, and they look great. Each disc contains fun bonus features--MGM shorts, cartoons, theatrical trailers, and, in some cases, musical outtakes from the films.

Of all the actresses in Hollywood before or since, Esther Williams was one of a kind. Whether you're already a fan or would like to discover what makes her films so memorable, then TCM SPOTLIGHT: ESTHER WILLIAMS, VOL. 2 is a delightfully fun-filled collection. Sexier than a year's subscription to Penthouse, Esther is described pretty succinctly by Kenneth Tobey in this quote from THIS TIME FOR KEEPS: "Dick, there's a girl in the pool who's got everything. Beautiful eyes, shining hair, wonderful skin, a smile that tickles your ribs, and a figure...oh boy, for a tape measure."

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