Esther Williams was a phenomenon that it’s probably impossible to explain to the current generation. Hell, she’s a tough one for even my generation. Her chief talent was the ability to hold her breath for a long time. She could swim pretty well, too, and might have won gold at the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo or the 1944 games in London, except for the fact that both cities had the shit bombed out of them.
But she was a huge star for MGM in the late ‘40s and up until 1955 when she refused to appear in a film she didn’t think was right for her. They told her she had to, so she packed up all her rubber ducks and Esther Williams brand swimsuits, redecorated her dressing room for the next occupant, Grace Kelly, and drove off the lot, without a word to anybody but the gate guard. That move cost her $3,000,000, but she was apparently happy to pay it, just to stick it to the studio execs that she had made so much money for.
I enjoy these movies, but I’ll be the first to admit that most of them are truly bizarre. She swam with everybody from Red Skelton to Fernando Lamas to Tom and Jerry. The “aquacade” numbers in these movies are so awesomely massive that your jaw will drop. That is the chief reason I decided to watch this one, and I’m sorry to say there were no massive numbers. Not even much actual swimming. There is one water ballet number, with a half dozen Greek athlete statues that come to life. The rest is the pretty silly musical story of how she meets and falls in love with Hannibal (the Carthaginian, not the cannibal), played by Howard Keel. Who knew that the reason Hannibal never managed to conquer Rome was that he fell in love with Esther Williams?
The highlights here are actually two dance numbers by Marge and Gower Champion. (And I can’t figure out why Hermes Pan is listed as the choreographer, when those two were so good at it.) In the first they do a very active number based on the figures on Greek pottery. In the second they perform with about a dozen of Hannibal’s elephants, who do a lot of tricks. I always wonder how they train circus elephants to do those incredible stunts. Those creatures have an incredible sense of balance. The number looked very hazardous to me. All in all, though, this one isn’t worth your time. Try Million Dollar Mermaid.
I was stunned to discover that Marge Champion is still alive at age 98! Gower died in one of the most awesomely perfect show biz deaths of all time. He checked out ten hours before the opening curtain of the premier of 42nd Street, which would become his most successful directing effort. It ran for nine years, 3,496 performances. I saw it on Broadway when Jerry Orbach was playing Julien Marsh. (“You’re going out there a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!”) David Merrick, the producer, didn’t let anyone know until the curtain call, when he announced it to a shocked cast and audience.