The next few Thursday nights on TCM belong to May 2011 Star of the Month, Esther Williams. Born in Los Angeles, August 8, 1921, Williams would combine beauty, presence and athletic talent into a successful run of MGM blockbusters beginning in the mid-1940's and stretching through the mid-50's. A champion swimmer who'd had her picture in the papers and even Life Magazine, Williams would lose Olympic opportunity to World War II, but would be discovered by showman Billy Rose and hired to swim alongside Johnny Weissmuller in the west coast version of his Aquacade during the Summer of 1940. The opportunity in Rose's Aquacade would lead to her catching the eye of MGM's Louis B. Mayer, who according to Williams in her 1999 autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, had to give quite the effort to get the recently married Esther's name on a contract.
In her book Williams writes of her resistance to Mayer and her eventually caving in to the glamor in, of all places, a movie theater, where she thrilled to MGM's Ziegfeld Girl (1941), "the most lavish and exciting musical film I'd ever seen" (66), according to Esther. She writes of her period of star training at MGM University including a funny story about a screen test with Clark Gable and her insistence to Mayer that she not make a film for her first nine months under contract, a period she'd wanted to learn the ropes, wisely figuring she could do more damage to her career by setting immediately to work without a clue of her craft. Her first feature part would come appropriately enough in Andy Hardy's Double Life (1942), MGM's popular franchise which helped launch several major young actresses during its run.
Her time may be short alongside Mickey Rooney in this early effort, but Esther's trademark smile is already in place and she has her first underwater scene at MGM, effortlessly moving alongside a much sloppier swimming Rooney, who's all double takes in their main scene together, in the water and out. I can imagine jaws dropping in theaters across the nation as the camera, and Rooney's eye, begin at Esther's toes and slowly rises to reveal that magnificent swimmer's body and her pretty face with those teeth somehow almost shining through the black and white screen. It's no surprise she'd soon be a World War II pin-up favorite! (She'd also actively perform for GI's across America during the war). After her debut came A Guy Named Joe (1943) and then the picture that MGM must have imagined for her when they plucked her from the Aquacade, Bathing Beauty (1944), which made a ton of money and made Esther Williams a star.
While Williams did harbor the usual hopes of becoming a great actress, she seemed to have a great grasp on the reality of her career. On hopes of landing what would eventually be Lana Turner's part in Cass Timberlane (1947) she writes, "Betty Grable over at Fox was the only other woman in the top ten box office, and she had the same kinds of problems I had--cardboard plots and disposable leading men. By the typecasting rules of Hollywood, Bergman and Garson and Hepburn were "drama," and Betty and I were "fluff"; but fortunately for us, "fluff" seemed to be what brought in the paying customers" (154).
Being MGM's aquatic star did tend to get repetitive as Esther notes when she was writing about Duchess of Idaho (1950): "Wait a minute! Hadn't I already made this movie at least once? As soon as they gave me the script I realized it was yet another rehash of what was now the Esther Williams formula: the mismatched lovers plot. It was enough to give one a case of cinematic déjà vu. Delete Mackinac Island: insert Sun Valley. Delete Peter Lawford: insert Van Johnson--again" (182).
Just as she was reserved in entering her career because of her first marriage it was her third marriage to overly protective Fernando Lamas that she credited for her walking away from the movies, supposedly leaving a lot of money on the table to do so.
Williams writes extensively of her personal life in the bestselling The Million Dollar Mermaid and while she comes off as likable, and certainly funny, I'd have loved to get the other side of the story from some of the principles in her personal life. I was stunned to read what she wrote about one-time beau Jeff Chandler and reading between the lines about her marriages to Lamas and previous husband Ben Gage, I didn't think Williams was quite as blameless about personal decisions as she tries making herself out to be. While she admits to somehow being attracted to less then perfect situations, well, dead men can't really offer much of a defense.
All that said the book is light and very entertaining, and you know what, exactly as a project associated with Esther Williams should be.
With the entire May 2011 TCM Star of the Month Esther Williams schedule to follow it's interesting to note that at the end of The Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams comments on TCM's part in keeping her legacy alive:
"In part, I have Ted Turner to thank for my "immortality." When he bought the MGM film library and began running our old films onm his cable channel, Turner Classic Movies, he introduced the MGM stars to a whole new generation of viewers, and reestablished us in the minds of people, now middle-aged, who had seen our movies when they were growing up ...
"Initially, I was annoyed that I didn't get any residuals when Turner acquired the broadcast rights to my films, but I've come to look at the situation in a different light. It would seem that I got the fountain of youth in return, which in itself is quite a compensation" (401).
TCM Star of the Month Esther Williams Schedule
*All times EST
Thursday, May 5:
- 8:00 pm Bathing Beauty (1944) starring Red Skelton, Esther Williams, Basil Rathbone
- 10:00 pm Thrill of a Romance (1945) starring Esther Williams, Van Johnson, Tommy Dorsey
- 12:00 am Easy to Wed (1946) starring Van Johnson, Esther Williams, Lucille Ball
- 2:00 am Fiesta (1947) starring Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalban, Cyd Charisse
- 4:00 am This Time for Keeps (1947) starring Esther Williams, Jimmy Durante, Lauritz Melchior
- 6:00 am On an Island With You (1948) starring Esther Williams, Jimmy Durante, Lauritz Melchoir
Thursday, May 12:
- 8:00 pm Neptune's Daughter (1949) starring Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalban, Red Skelton
- 10:00 pm Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Esther Williams
- 11:45 pm Duchess of Idaho (1950) starring Esther Williams, Van Johnson, Lena Horne
- 1:30 am Pagan Love Song (1950) starring Esther Williams, Howard Keel, Rita Moreno
- 3:00 am Texas Carnival (1951) starring Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Howard Keel
Thursday, May 19:
- 8:00 pm Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) starring Esther Williams, Victor Mature, Walter Pidgeon
- 10:00 pm Skirts Ahoy! (1952) starring Esther Williams, Vivian Blaine, Barry Sullivan
- 12:00 am Dangerous When Wet (1953) starring Esther Williams, Charlotte Greenwood, Fernando Lamas
- 1:45 am Easy to Love (1953) starring Esther Williams, Tony Martin, Van Johnson
- 3:30 am Jupiter's Darling (1955) starring Esther Williams, Howard Keel, Marge & Gower Champion
Thursday, May 26:
- 8:00 pm The Unguarded Moment (1956) starring Esther Williams, George Nader, John Saxon
- 10:00 pm Andy Hardy's Double Life (1942) starring Mickey Rooney, Lewis Stone, Esther Williams
- 11:45 pm A Guy Named Joe (1943) starring Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne, Van Johnson
- 2:00 am The Hoodlum Saint (1946) starring William Powell, Esther Williams, Angela Lansbury
- 4:00 am Callaway Went Thataway (1951) starring Dorothy McGuire, Fred MacMurray, Howard Keel
Esther Williams will be 89 years old this coming August. As for now I heartily hope she gets a kick out being featured on Turner Classic Movies all throughout May. I'm certain her fans will.
Following is a gallery of the Esther Williams movie cards and collectibles which have come and gone through Immortal Ephemera over the past several years. Enjoy:
Esther Williams' Website:
Williams, Esther and Digby Diehl. The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1999.