Archive for Million Dollar Mermaid

Davy Jones’ Looker

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2017 by dcairns

OK, nobody wanted to wade in (excuse the pun) and guess which of these Esther Williams stories are true, which is probably just as well they’re ALL true. Even the one about Victor Mature eating cardboard.

As she admitted, Esther’s movies were largely made to a formula, which makes them great comfort food if you’re low, and we were pretty damn low over the purportedly festive season. Esther Williams movies we have watched —

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TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME — not a proper Esther Williams movie — she only swims once, briefly — but a very good musical, though a lesser example of Comden and Green’s scripting and song-writing, Busby Berkeley’s direction, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s musical staging (they essentially got Berkeley fired so they could handle the dancing themselves) and Kelly, Sinatra and Jules Munchin’s team comedy playing. But it does have a great scene of Betty Garrett aggressively pursuing Frankie. A nice limbering-up for ON THE TOWN.

Kelly hated Esther for being taller than him. “The sonofabitch even sits tall!” he complained.

Esther’s singing was dubbed and she struggled to dance but we were so charmed by her acting — she compared notes with her non-actor co-star, Sinatra. “I just talk like I’m talking to one of my friends.” “Yeah, that’s what I do too.” So we wanted to see more of this terrific actress.

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We quickly discovered another part of Esther’s appeal. Her films are sexy, at least as long as the swimming is happening. Actually, her acting is pretty sexy too. (She has a posed, skeptical quality. She always seems like a challenging girl to impress.) In the forties and fifties, an Es film would be one of the few places you could get a realistic idea of the feminine form, shorn of shoulder pads and bullet bras. Though swimming gave her a streamlined form — flat ass, small breasts — it was a form audiences could actually SEE and appreciate. There is absolutely no conflict between her athleticism and her feminine allure.

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BATHING BEAUTY. See here. Esther complained later in life that she overacted in this one — “all that eye-rolling” — but she was too hard on herself. The film is disjointed and overstuffed with random novelty acts, but Esther manages to humanize Red Skelton somewhat and this is the movie that really gave us synchronized swimming. The script calls for Esther to be a little unsympathetic, which in turn requires us to suspend disbelief a little more strenuously than we’d have to during the insane water ballet.

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NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER uses the title of an earlier film starring the first screen swimming star, Australian champion Annette Kellerman, but has nothing in common with it. Much business is given to Red Skelton, who we’ve actually started finding funny, and to Betty Garrett, who is ALWAYS welcome. Throw in Ricardo Montalban (I explained the Good Neighbor Policy to Fiona) and you have a pretty entertaining bag of bits.

MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID is the famous one, and it does have the sensational and retina-melting Busby Berkeley number near the end, which is Esther’s real claim to immortality. Just as well, since they contrived to break her neck shooting it. The movie is a bio of Annette Kellerman. Even though they made most of it up, they saddled themselves with a disjointed one-thing-after-another non-structure. Most of Esther’s roles have a mildly feminist tone, but his one craps out by crippling her before the fade-out. I *think* they imply she’s going to recover in Victor Mature’s arms, but it could be clearer, especially since it never happened.

The real Kellerman visited the set, looking morose. “It’s such a pity you’re not Australian,” she told Es.

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This is the costume that broke Esther’s neck. The crown acted as a cup, catching the water when she dove in, and thrusting her head back, HARD. Three vertebrae cracked. When she surfaced, everyone had gone to lunch and she had to tread water until she could get help.

THE HOODLUM SAINT. Dull. This was MGM’s experiment to see if audiences would take to Esther out of the water and out of Technicolor, but it wasn’t a fair test as the script is so sluggish. Too much saintliness, hardly any hoodlummery. William Powell is, of course, enjoyable. In Esther’s very first onscreen moment with him she has to slap his face. They told her just to go for it, disregarding her athletic form… She smacked him, and half his face collapsed like he’s had a stroke. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I broke your face!” Make-up rushed in, to re-attach the little bits of tape tightening his skin to make him look younger…

The main reason this one doesn’t seem such a good vehicle for Es is not the lack of sub-aqua dance, it’s that the plot doesn’t allow her to look around her in skeptical amusement. She can direct some of her disbelief at Powell, but a Technicolor musical gives you far more scope to project that aura of “Can you believe this? Me neither. But let’s play along with it.”

DANGEROUS WHEN WET is the other best-known one, and it actually has a story. Es has great chemistry with the self-satisfied Fernando Lamas — the script stops him from ever getting macho. This is the one where she swims with Tom & Jerry (dream sequence), and though the logic of an underwater cat and mouse escapes me, it’s a fun sequence. Preview audiences couldn’t process it and didn’t know how to response until Hanna-Barbera animated in $10,000 of bubbles to PROVE that it was underwater.

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ZIEGFELD FOLLIES. Esther’s bit is beautifully lit and designed — Vincente Minnelli is the man in charge. James Melton sang away but ended up on the cutting room floor. Esther felt his section never made sense because “I was underwater. I couldn’t hear him sing and he couldn’t see me swim.”

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EASY TO LOVE has Berkeley again but he doesn’t get to do much spectacle until the climactic waterskiing scene. Esther, who had never skied, has to do it while avoiding explosive water jets, and she was too short-sighted to actually steer away from the danger spots… Van Johnson and Tony Martin compete insipidly.

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EASY TO WED is a remake of LIBELLED LADY, with Es in the Myrna Loy role, Van Johnson as William Powell and Johnson’s real-life partner Keenan Wynn as Spencer Tracy. Lucille Ball gets some laughs in the Jean Harlow part but can’t actually convince us she’s dumb enough. Buster Keaton seems to have contributed to Johnson’s slapstick duck-hunting scene, which is actually pretty funny (there’s very good canine actor — a veritable Spaniel Day-Lewis). Great mariachi band gag at the end, but not a great end. Johnson appears to come out of it bigamously wed to Esther and Lucille, which is a surprise. Made us want to watch the original.

Mere seconds of swimming in this one.

JUPITER’S DARLING. See here. Has spectacular deep-sea swimming and amazing dream sequence where Greek statues come to life and swim with Esther (rather than sinking to the bottom as you might expect). This one stirred the suspicions of the censor since the scantily-clad marble Adonis seemed a bit too frisky, and had not even been properly introduced to Esther’s character. There’s really no way to read him other than as a sex fantasy by a woman who just isn’t satisfied with what George Sanders is offering…

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All Wet

Posted in Dance, FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2017 by dcairns

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An octopus (Fernando Lamas) who has read to many hentai attempts to get grabby with Esther Williams.

Just when I’m supposed to be watching Ozu, Lang, Borowczyk and probably a few other great auteurs, we get fixated on Esther Williams. This was partly because during our somewhat traumatic Christmas “break” (or maybe “breakdown” would be more apt) we needed something lightweight and distracting, which isn’t really the right category in which to place TOKYO STORY, M or THE STORY OF SIN. And then we both started reading Williams’ autobio, Million Dollar Mermaid, and got so we pretty much wanted to see her whole bizarre oeuvre.

This is a tell-all-and-then-some memoir. Here are some highlights — but which of them are actually taken from the book and which did I make up?

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Williams’ co-star and lover Victor Mature suffered from — or perhaps enjoyed — the mystery condition “pica” which caused him to eat non-food materials. He would burst into Esther’s dressing room, grab a piece of cardboard, say, then spread jam on it and eat it.

Victor also suffered from — or perhaps enjoyed — a condition whereby his extremities would swell up if he became overexcited. Thus he was able to play the golfing colossus Big Victor in the Monkees’ film HEAD without the aid of special effects.

Cary Grant helped Esther take LSD under controlled conditions, after which, standing naked before a mirror, she hallucinated a vision of herself as a hermaphrodite. The new body parts were “sensible to touch as well as vision,” leading to a scene anticipating Martine Beswick’s famed mirror encounter in DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE.

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Preparing to swing from the studio ceiling in MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID, Esther clung so tightly to the trapeze she broke a toe. And Busby Berkeley hadn’t told her he was going to release red and yellow smoke which made it impossible to see the pool she was supposed to dive into. “You’ve already seen it, you know where it is!” he yelled.

Another dive on the same film resulted in Esther breaking three vertebrae when the aluminium crown she was wearing hit the water and forced her head back. She had to tread water with a broken neck, and the director had just yelled “OK, great, everybody go to lunch!”

Most of Esther’s co-stars couldn’t swim for shit. Van Johnson had to be held up by Esther.

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But Fernando Lamas was a champion swimmer as well as a bit of a playboy. “They tell me you can swim,” said Esther. “My dear, I used to be the fifth fastest man in the world!” “I know all about that, but what about your swimming?”

When Esther had the dressing room next to Lana Turner’s, she used to listen to the neighbouring sexual gymnastics with a glass held against the wall.

Lamas was a master of kickboxing — savate — who once forced Jim Brown to back down from a fight by lashing a foot out and missing his face by an inch. “You could have broken my jaw!” “I chose not to.”

Lamas explained that he gave the false impression of being spectacularly well-hung because he was “hung very high,” his genitals being situated further up his body than normal.

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When performing at a Vegas casino with a colour bar, Esther got one over on the management by inviting her children’s nanny and her boyfriend, who were both black, to attend disguised as Indian royalty.

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Go, Esther!