Esther Williams: Swimwear-garbed star of MGM Technicolor musicals dead at 91
Esther Williams, known for her swimming skills and ability to smile and keep her make-up and coiffure intact underwater in several MGM Technicolor aqua-musicals of the 1940s and early 1950s, died in her sleep earlier today at her Beverly Hills home. Williams, who in recent decades launched a successful swimwear line, was 91. (Image: Esther Williams publicity shot ca. 1945.)
Born on Aug. 8, 1921, in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, Esther Williams began honing her swimming skills at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Following several victories in swimming competitions, she looked forward to taking part in the 1940 Olympics. World War II, however, interfered.
In the early ’40s, she was reportedly discovered by an MGM scout while appearing as a “bathing beauty” at the World’s Fair in San Francisco. The swimming champion would write in her 1999 autobiography The Million Dollar Mermaid that the ensuing movie stardom was her “consolation prize.”
Esther Williams movies
“Esther Williams? Wet, she’s a star. Dry, she ain’t,” once said Broadway legend Fanny Brice. But from the mid-’40s to the mid-’50s that was a non-issue, as the swimwear-donning Williams seemed to spend most of her on-screen time dripping wet.
Following a bit of acting training in the short Inflation – with Edward Arnold as the Inflation Devil – and in the Andy Hardy franchise entry Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942) starring Mickey Rooney, Esther Williams landed a supporting role in Victor Fleming’s blockbuster A Guy Named Joe (1943), a sentimental World War II romantic fantasy starring Irene Dunne, Van Johnson, and Spencer Tracy’s ghost.
Next came the female lead in George Sidney’s comedy musical Bathing Beauty (1944), a box office hit that set the mold for nearly all of Esther Williams’ MGM movies of the next ten years: a little comedy (here courtesy of Red Skelton), a little romance, a little misunderstanding, some music, and lots of swimming, colorful swimwear, and underwater smiling.
Partly inspired by the Sonja Henie “skate-musicals” at 20th Century Fox, the vast majority of Esther Williams’ MGM musicals were pure fluff – run-of-the-mill Technicolor productions cranked out by the MGM factory with little concern for originality, character development, or clever dialogue. The settings and (sometimes) the leading men changed, but the basic setup remained the same. Initially, audiences surely didn’t mind.
Esther Williams became one of the top box office draws of the late ’40s. She made love to Van Johnson in Richard Thorpe’s Thrill of a Romance (1945), and reunited with him in the highly successful Easy to Wed (1946), a remake of Libeled Lady with Williams and Johnson in the old Myrna Loy and William Powell roles, in addition to supporting players Keenan Wynn (Spencer Tracy) and Lucille Ball (Jean Harlow).
More brightly colored fluff followed in Fiesta (1947), with Ricardo Montalban and Williams as a toreador-ess; This Time for Keeps (1947), making merry with Jimmy Durante; On an Island with You (1948), as a swimwear-garbed movie star torn between Montalban and Peter Lawford; and Neptune’s Daughter (1949), featuring Montalban, Red Skelton, Betty Garrett, and Frank Loesser’s Oscar-winning song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” All but one of the aforementioned titles were directed by Richard Thorpe; the exception was Edward Buzzell’s Neptune’s Daughter.
Clearly, MGM agreed with Fanny Brice. Esther Williams’ only non-musical during that period was the Norman Taurog-directed drama The Hoodlum Saint (1946), in which she, dry and fully clothed, co-starred opposite William Powell.
Esther Williams’ most prestigious star vehicles
In terms of prestige, the one Esther Williams musical that rose above the formula was the Busby Berkeley-directed Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949). In the nostalgia-filled period musical comedy, Williams plays the owner of a baseball team. Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Betty Garrett were her co-stars.
In the ’50s, Williams’ best – though still not very good – effort was probably Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), stolidly directed by Mervyn LeRoy, but featuring stunningly choreographed musical numbers by Busby Berkeley. In this highly fictionalized biopic co-starring Victor Mature, Williams plays swimmer Annette Kellerman, the MGM star’s early silent era predecessor in a handful of movies such as Neptune’s Daughter (1914) and Daughter of the Gods (1916).
Following a series of repetitive Technicolor musicals that, with one or two exceptions, seemed to change only the names of her characters – Leonora Cambaretti, Maria Morales, Rosalind Rennolds, Mimi Bennett – Esther Williams’ popularity suffered a significant setback in the early 1950s. Her movies were still profitable, but how to make them as profitable as they used to be? Well, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer brought in veteran Mervyn LeRoy (Little Caesar, Waterloo Bridge), whose 1951 epic Quo Vadis had become one of the studio’s biggest box office hits, to direct Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), starring Williams as early 20th century Australian swimmer-turned-actress Annette Kellerman (Neptune’s Daughter, A Daughter of the Gods), Samson and Delilah leading man Victor Mature as Kellerman’s trainer and romantic interest, MGM stalwart Walter Pidgeon as Kellerman’s father, and Kellerman’s one-piece bathing suit as its scandalous self. Added to the mix was choreographer (and sometime director) Busby Berkeley, who had previously worked with Williams on Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and screenwriter Everett Freeman (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, It Happened on Fifth Avenue), whose screenplay – in a radical departure from the usual Esther Williams star vehicles – featured an actual storyline. Million Dollar Mermaid became a sizable worldwide hit ($4.94 million) but due to its high production costs, it ended up earning MGM a relatively modest $243,000 in profits. By the way, Williams’ 1949 romantic aqua-musical Neptune’s Daughter was totally unrelated to Annette Kellerman’s 1914 aquatic fantasy of the same name.
A bizarre coincidence: Annette Kellerman suffered a near-fatal on-set accident when the water-tank on the set of Neptune’s Daughter burst during a fight scene. While filming Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams suffered her own potentially near-fatal on-set accident. After diving into the gigantic pool from a 50-foot platform, her head snapped when she hit the water, breaking her back. She would spend the next six months in a cast.
Esther Williams: ‘Pools and Smiles’ formula grows stale
Esther Williams: Swimwear MGM Musical Star Dies.”] By the early ’50s, Louis B. Mayer had been ousted from the studio he had helped to found, having been replaced by Dore Schary. Whether or not a coincidence, with the exception of Million Dollar Mermaid, the Esther Williams movies of the ’50s – e.g., The Duchess of Idaho, Skirts Ahoy! (stolen by Vivian Blaine in a supporting role), Dangerous When Wet, Easy to Love – lacked the luster of those released in the previous decade, despite more prestigious directors (George Sidney, Charles Walters, Robert Z. Leonard) and the usual co-stars (Van Johnson, Red Skelton, Howard Keel). (Image: Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid.)
Not surprisingly, although MGM’s color musicals would remain in vogue a few more years, Esther Williams and the studio parted ways following George Sidney’s tired-looking Jupiter’s Darling (1956), with Williams and Howard Keel (as Hannibal) fooling around in ancient times. Williams would later complain, “All they ever did for me at MGM was to change my leading men and the water in the pool.”
Esther Williams’ post-MGM years
There would be no need to change the pool water at Universal, Esther Williams’ next Hollywood stop. Displaying unsuspected dramatic ability, Williams starred in future TV director Harry Keller’s minor but effective crime drama The Unguarded Moment (1956), playing a teacher who may become the next victim of a sexu maniac. Unfortunately, the movie, co-starring George Nader and John Saxon, and based on a “story” by Larry Marcus and actress Rosalind Russell, was not a hit. Neither was Richard Wilson’s Raw Wind in Eden (1958), in which Williams was paired with one of Universal’s top contract players, Jeff Chandler – whom she gossips about in her autobiography.
Esther Williams’ last movie turned out to be the little-seen Spanish-made drama Magic Fountain (1963), directed by and co-starring her Dangerous When Wet co-star, the Argentinean-born Fernando Lamas. Six years later, she married Lamas, who happened to be her third husband.
Her first husband was pre-med student Leonard Kovner. The couple were married when she was 17; they divorced when Williams’ stardom soared in 1944. Her second husband was singer Ben Gage.
Esther Williams: ‘Lucky lady’
“I’ve been a lucky lady,” Esther Williams told The Associated Press in 1984. “I’ve had three exciting careers. … I had a movie career with all the glamour that goes with it. That was ego-fulfilling, but it was like the meringue on the pie. My marriage with Fernando - that was the filling, that was the apple in the pie.”
Still, according to the New York Times obit, Fernando Lamas made several difficult demands. Williams and Ben Gage’s three children, then in their teens/early 20s, were barred from living with her and Lamas, and even from attending their 1969 wedding.
Williams’ fourth and final husband was Edward Bell, a former professor of French literature turned television actor (Charlie’s Angels; Simon & Simon; Murder, She Wrote). Bell, Williams’ widower, is reportedly in his early 80s.
Esther Williams and Fernando Lamas remained married until Lamas’ death in 1982. One of her stepchildren is actor Lorenzo Lamas (mother: Arlene Dahl), best known for the ’80s TV series Falcon’s Crest and for his recurring role in the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. According to the IMDb, earlier this year Lamas was seen in a bit role in the Channing Tatum action thriller G.I. Joe: Retaliation.
Esther Williams MGM quote via David Shipman’s The Greatest Movie Stars: The International Years.
Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.