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