esther williams

Esther Williams: The Ultimate Underwater Escapism

The Classic Connoisseur’s Guide to the Best Films & Stars

Esther Williams
The Lovely Esther Williams, circa 1945 |

Cyd Charisse once famously said that Fred Astaire got all the credit even though she did all the same things “in high heels and backwards.”  Esther Williams trumped Cyd Charisse since she did most of her performing while holding her breath underwater.

Hair stylists slathered her hair with Vaseline so it was always perfectly coiffed, no matter how much water acrobatics she did. MGM built a special pool with underwater filming windows and air hoses. Just think, the STAR did all that tough work — not doubles and not magic technology.

Esther also sang, danced and acted, and was one of the most popular pin-up girls during World War II. Her happy, glamorous, romantic movies were just what audiences of the 1940’s wanted — and needed — to take their minds off the concerns of a nation at war.

In case you’ve never seen an Esther Williams movie, the formula for the 25 aqua-movies she made (out of 28 total) goes like this. Take a glamorous woman with a brilliant and optimistic smile. Feature her in a typical romance plot. Add some singing and dancing. Set in a romantic location, like Hawaii in 1948’s On An Island With You. Decorate with more good-looking women performing fabulous Busby Berkeley routines. Then dunk the whole thing in water.

Williams popularized swimming and, particularly, synchronized routines. Easy to Love (1953) is an example of the pure entertainment watery musical. Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), a bio-pic about another swimming star, Annette Kellerman, co-starred Victor Mature. The title became Esther’s nickname.

She did other water-centric movies as well, like Dangerous When Wet, a 1953 movie musical about a family preparing to swim the English channel. She only did one more movie after that one — Jupiter’s Darling, a forgettable musical comedy about ancient Rome starring Victor Mature.

As for the non-swimming movies, there are too many to mention, and she seemed to play opposite every popular star, including five films with Van Johnson. Her career started in 1942 with an Andy Hardy movie starring Mickey Rooney. In a recent interview with Diane Sawyer, Williams says that all the “new girls” at MGM got a try-out for an Andy Hardy movie.  If they succeeded, they had a career.

Esther Williams, circa 1953
Esther Williams, circa 1953 – talk about toned! |

In 1946, she starred with Fred Astaire and Lucille Ball in Ziegfeld Follies. And she had to prove her dancing talents to a doubting Gene Kelly in the 1949 musical Take Me Out to the Ball Game, because he would have preferred Judy Garland. But the movie, which also starred Frank Sinatra, went on to be a smash hit.

Esther Williams deserves praise not just for her talent, beauty and athleticism (she was on the U. S. swimming team  and headed for the Tokyo Games when the 1940 Olympics were canceled). She also is one smart cookie.

Realizing that the studios made a lot more money than their stars and that this movie star gig couldn’t last forever, she became one of the first performers to lend her name to product endorsements. She endorsed swimming pools and swimming suits.  She even designed swimming suits, and you can still buy an Esther Williams suit at her web site.

I thought it was interesting that in a Vanity Fair interview in March this year, when asked what the greatest achievement of her life was, she said “Being a movie star at MGM.” What a contrast to the stars of today who whine about how hard it is to be a celebrity and use their popularity as an excuse for aberrant behavior.

Williams swam her way through movies during two marriages and three pregnancies (reportedly staying a size ten all the way) until she married her third husband (and sometimes co-star) Fernando Lamas. Lamas asked her to retire from movies, and she did.  When Lamas died, she married her fourth husband and taught him to swim. Last year in August, on her 90th birthday, she was still swimming in her backyard pool.

Learn more about Esther’s life and see the complete list of her movies at the official Esther Williams web site. Also look for Turner Classic Movie‘s annual tribute to Williams around her birthday on August 8.


16 responses to “Esther Williams: The Ultimate Underwater Escapism”

  1. Duncan Avatar

    I guess that’s what separates the old stars from the ones we have today. People back then are known for their accountability. Today, in a society without a lot of norms back then, it is easy to misbehave and say that we are just being ourselves.

  2. Melanie Votaw Avatar

    I don’t know. There was plenty of aberrant behavior back in Williams’ day. The stars were commodities to the studios then, however, so the studios often protected their reputations, sometimes to their detriment as in the case of Rock Hudson who had to pretend he was someone else. And there are plenty of actors today who are nothing but grateful for the opportunities they have. I don’t think today is all that much different except perhaps that more of what happens is in the news than in the past. I met Ann Miller when I was in college, and she paid no attention to me until I praised her. Then she “went all gooey over me.” She was such a product of being a studio actor from her teen years, expecting to be treated like a queen. I haven’t experienced that from any of today’s actors that I’ve met or interviewed.

    1. Melanie Votaw Avatar

      Also, when I was 19, I met Donald O’Connor. When I asked to have a photo taken with him, he planted a kiss right on my mouth. He was in his 50s at the time. Not exactly aberrant, but not what I’d call gentile either. It’s a funny story, but it was also a little creepy.

      1. Vera Marie Badertscher Avatar

        Okay, Melanie. You caught me generalizing. However, I think a little generalizing might be called for. We have this society today where there are excuses for everything, and I DO get tired of well-paid celebrities whine about how tough their life is.
        I’m definitely not implying that Williams was a saint. Just that it is refreshing to hear someone say they actually enjoyed the title of movie star.

        1. Melanie Votaw Avatar

          I’m really not trying to play devil’s advocate, but I understand why stars complain more today. The infringement on their privacy is much worse than in the past. We have camera lenses that can get close-up shots of them from far distances. The paparazzi are incredibly obnoxious and invasive. I know of one star who tries to schedule interviews at 5 or 6 a.m. just to (maybe) avoid being followed. It’s like they never have a moment’s peace. When I was an actor, I had nightmares about fame. While big stars make a lot of money, the costs are indeed great, and money isn’t everything.

        2. Kerry Dexter Avatar

          I take your point. working as I do in music, I’ve spoken with many high profile people who are thankful for their work and the opportunities it gives them, though.

          I think, too, that celebrities today have a different (not necessarily harder, just different) line to walk: if they say everything’s great people think they are being fake, but on the other hand it’s easy to say too much or come across as complaining when you start to talk about the other side of things.

          all that said, great to know Williams is going strong in her 90s. one of her movies — not sure which one — was filmed at Weeki Watchee, a park where we went sometimes when I was a kid, and so we always knew who she was even though it was after her heyday. thanks for the story.

  3. Bro Avatar

    Let’s not forget that other wet movie star, Johnny Weissmuller. He had mulitple marriages and Olympic medals. His famous “Me Trazan!” cry was supposedly a combo of voices: soprano, alto, and hog caller. And HE swam with alligators and hippos!

  4. Connie Avatar

    wow 28 aqua movies by this woman- I don’t think I’ve seen any of those!! It is mind boggling to think about- I’ve jotted down some of the titles because I’m going to try and watch a few to see what they were like. I was always into Doris Day and Rock Hudson movies 🙂 and of course Audrey Hepburn! (my fav)

    Boy I wish I didn’t have to work today- I would just sit down with a bunch of old movies and enjoy myself 🙂

  5. Vera Marie Badertscher Avatar

    Coinnie–I’m with you. As I research these pieces about classics, I always want to just retire into a darkened room and watch movies for a day or two.

  6. […] like to take a monthly trip down memory lane with me, check out this month’s tribute to Esther Williams and the escapism of underwater […]

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  8. Jennifer Avatar

    We would do drills in order to increase our lung capacity, and at one point I was able to do almost 4 laps (of a 25 meter pool) under water. The drills would usually consist of doing a lap at a sprint (trying to get your heart rate above 200 beats per min) and then doing a lap under water. We would sometimes do this 20 times in a single practice. This won’t give you results over night, but it definitely works.

  9. Vera Marie Badertscher Avatar

    Ah, yes, but when you were doing underwater laps did you have to flash a million-dollar smile at the camera as you swam by? (And she did have the advantage of underwater air hoses, some times.)

  10. Vera Marie Badertscher Avatar

    Just saw the news a moment before I read your update, Jane. I think everybody knew about her skill as a performer, but few knew she was a shrewd businesswoman and a pioneer in many ways for women taking charge of their own lives.

  11. Vera Marie Badertscher Avatar

    Just saw the news a moment before I read your update, Jane. I think everybody knew about her skill as a performer, but few knew she was a shrewd businesswoman and a pioneer in many ways for women taking charge of their own lives.

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