Hubba Bubble.Posted: September 5, 2007
I’ve got a fever for Esther Williams, and the only cure is…more Esther Williams.
I just watched the DVD of Bathing Beauty, the first movie in which swimming phenom Esther Williams starred. I’m in love. It’s a silly film, but a very amiably silly one; and it has its comedic and musical moments. In the former category, Red Skelton has one bit of physical comedy that astounded me, and one line that made me guffaw. In the latter category, you’ve got Harry James and his Music Makers with Helen Forrest, and the Xavier Cugat band. A lot of the music (even some of the stuff Harry James plays in the film) is Latin; it was 1944, when FDR’s “Good Neighbor Policy” was working to improve relations with our neighbors to the south (we didn’t want Hitler and Hirohito getting their grubby Axis hands on them), and movie studios did their part.
But of course, the reason to see the movie is Esther Williams. She’s a goddess. Or maybe proof that there is a God. She certainly is as close to a Platonic ideal of athletic perfection as has ever made me pound the floor and cause the eyes to bug out of my head. In the TCM Private Screenings with Esther Williams which is an extra on this DVD, Williams tells Robert Osborne that even though she considered herself a capable actress in her later films, she’s embarrassed by her acting in this, her first starring film. But I beg to differ. She’s very appealing. In fact, I found myself marveling at her performance in the same way I marvel at Doris Day in her first film, Romance on the High Seas. Doris is the better actress, but both are astonishingly good considering their complete or nearly complete lack of prior acting experience. (MGM does keep Williams’ screen time limited in the middle of the film, and maybe this was done so as not to overtax her in the acting department, but she’s capable of doing whatever the film asks her to do, and winningly.) And then, of course, come the spectacular last six minutes, which contain the aquacade everyone has been waiting for.
I’ve been waiting a long time to see, in context, the Esther Williams sequences that I saw excerpted in the That’s Entertainment films of the seventies; in Bathing Beauty, I recognized several moments from those films. The finale in Bathing Beauty, choreographed by John Murray Anderson, has to be one of her greatest sequences; hell, it has to be one of the most spectacular sequences in the history of film. Dig how the synchronized swimming works not just with balletic music (which we’re used to), but with the swing of Harry James. You really need to see this in the splendor of your “media room” on the splendor of your big honking TV set, but if you think I’m lying, you can taste it right here:
The film also has one of the great, funny, exhilarating romantic-comedy endings (as in, the last 20 seconds–not in the above clip) when boy (Skelton) finally gets goddess. It’s the kind of ending that Hollywood once did well and then forgot how to do after Some Like It Hot.
To say I’m looking forward now to seeing the aqua-sequences in the other Williams DVDs that are (and will become) available is an epic understatement. This disc is part of a new release, Esther Williams Vol. 1, from Warner/TCM, and I feel safe in saying that the four other films in it will be well worth watching. But I recommend this particular disc (which is rentable on its own from Netflix) for another reason, which is that it (unlike the others) has that Private Screenings interview. I learned a lot about Esther Williams from watching it, things I’d been curious about (such as exactly how she went from national champion and Olympic hopeful to movie star–it’s a fascinating story). She comes off as very smart, and very self-possessed. The interview was taped in 1996 and she looks great. I know she’s still alive; I hope she’s still doing swimmingly.