TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams Volume 1
Bathing Beauty (1944) / Easy to Wed (1946) / On an Island with You (1948) / Neptune's Daughter (1949) / Dangerous When Wet (1953)
Studio: Warner Brothers
Film Length: Various
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Release Date: July 17, 2007
Warner has been in the DVD business for a solid decade now and somehow managed to avoid dipping into the MGM vaults for a set dedicated to popular 40s and 50s starlet Esther Williams...until now. The inaugural "TCM Spotlight" release features five Technicolor films from Ms. Williams' heyday with a decent smattering of extras to boot.
Williams was a native Californian and a championship-level swimmer who had qualified for the 1940 Olympics but was unable to compete because of concerns about the war in Europe. Disappointed, she took a job in a department store, but was eventually wooed away by an offer from theatrical impresario Billy Rose to star in his Aquacade show. This eventually led to her getting noticed by MGM, where she was first tested out in a couple of supporting roles in "Andy Hardy's Double Life", and "A Guy Named Joe". Satisfied that she had sufficient screen presence, MGM gave her the title role in "Bathing Beauty" a Technicolor musical that specifically exploited her swimming talents. It proved to be a financial success, and as a result, she would be the chief resident of the MGM water tank for more than a decade.
Bathing Beauty (1944 - MGM - 101 minutes)
Directed By: George Sidney
Starring: Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Basil Rathbone, Bill Goodwin
In her first starring role, Esther Williams plays aquacade star Caroline Brooks who is getting ready to hang up her flippers and settle down with songwriter Steve Elliot (Skelton). Steve plans on quitting his job writing tunes for the traveling show, but George Adams (Rathbone), the producer of the show is none too happy about this. George arranges for Jean Allenwood (Jane Porter) to show up at their wedding ceremony claiming that Steve is the father of her three children, which causes Caroline to run out on him and back to her old job as an instructor at an all girls college. Steve desperately wants to win his wife back, so he exploits a loophole in the college's charter that allows him to enroll as the school's only male student. He then attempts to woo his wife back before he accumulates enough demerits to be kicked off of the campus.
"Bathing Beauty" sets the tone for the next decade of Williams' career delivering an escapist confection with plenty of lightly comic romantic confusion framing some spectacular musical and aquatic set pieces. Comic Buttons is given top billing and carries most of the film. MGM further stacks the deck by including several splashy musical set pieces involving Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra, Harry James and His Music makers, and organist Ethel Smith. As an actress, Williams acquits herself fairly well, although she is not asked to do much and she would definitely improve as her career progressed.
The water ballet sequence at the end is suitably spectacular and set a solid benchmark for many more such sequences to come. The studio and director George Sidney wisely retained the services of John Murray Anderson to stage the water ballet. He had previously done the aquatic choreography for the Billy Rose shows in which Williams had appeared, and it was certainly a specialized field. Combined with Sidney's Busby Berkeley-influenced use of cranes to capture the geometric patterns of swimmers, a new movie art form was born.
Easy to Wed (1946 - MGM - 106 minutes)
Directed By: Edward Buzzell
Starring: Esther Williams, Van Johnson, Lucille Ball, Keenan Wynn, Cecil Kellaway
Easy to wed is a relatively faithful Technicolor remake of the 1936 screwball comedy, "The Libeled Lady". Esther Williams plays Connie Allenbury, the daughter of wealthy industrialist J.P. Allenbury (Kellaway). When the newspaper that has constantly thwarted J.P.'s political ambitions runs a false story impugning Connie's reputation, the Allenbury's announce their intention to sue for libel. As a result, the paper's owner calls editor Warren Haggerty (Wynn) in to work on his wedding day, much to the displeasure of his fiancé, Gladys (Ball). Warren concocts a plan to manufacture a compromising situation in which to ensnare Connie so that she will drop the suit. To do this, he must enlist the aid of Bill Chandler (Johnson), a man he recently fired from the paper who has considerable woman-compromising skills. The plan they develop involves marrying Bill off to Gladys after which Bill will pitch the woo to Connie so that she can be caught on the town with a married man. Things do not exactly go as planned when Bill starts falling for Connie and Gladys starts falling for Bill.
"While Easy to Wed" is not quite at the level of its predecessor, it still works, and it is easy to see why it was one of the biggest box office hits of 1946. By sticking close to its source, it proves to be a much wittier screenplay than was typical for an Esther Williams vehicle. The grafted-on musical numbers still have some of the stitches showing, and the ratio of dance floor Esther to swimming pool Esther is a little too high, but neither of these facts detracts too much from the enjoyment. Ethel Smith is back for another featured number, and provides an impressive organ workout on "Toca Tu Samba".
The casting is pretty interesting. While Keenan Wynn and Van Johnson are not quite at the level of Spencer Tracy and William Powell from the original, both actors are well suited to their parts. Their spouse-swapping roles are made more intriguing considering the roughly concurrent backstage drama in which Johnson would marry best friend Wynn's ex-wife, Eve Lynn Abbott, the day after their divorce was made official in January of 1947. Lucille Ball is not quite as transcendent in her role as Jean Harlow was in the original, but to her credit, she takes a completely unique approach to it and shows more of the comic spark that would make her a TV superstar in this role than in any of the films included in the recent "Lucille Ball Film Collection" DVD set. Similarly, Esther Williams is no Myrna Loy, but her acting has improved since "Bathing Beauty" and she is fairly convincing as the gradually thawing haughty heiress.
On an Island with You (1948 - MGM - 107 minutes)
Directed By: Richard Thorpe
Starring: Esther Williams, Peter Lawford, Ricardo Montalban, Jimmy Durante, Cyd Charisse
In "On an Island with You", Esther Williams plays Rosalind Reynolds, a movie star filming on location in an unnamed Polynesian location. Her co-stars include her fiancé, Ricardo Montez (Montalban), and Yvonne Toro (Charisse), who secretly pines after Ricardo. Jimmy Buckley (Durante) is the much put-upon assistant director who works to smooth over production problems. Lately, Jimmy's biggest headaches seem to be coming from Navy Lieutenant Lawrence "Larry" Kingslee (Lawford), the technical advisor on the film who is becoming increasingly obsessed with Rosalind. Things come to a head when Larry kidnaps Rosalind in an airplane and flies her to a remote island.
Reuniting director Thorpe with Williams, Montalban, and Charisse, three of the principal cast members from the 1947 box-office success, "Fiesta", lightning more or less strikes twice as the result was another box-office success that did not exactly wow the critics. This is an example of one of those MGM films where the pieces never quite come together, but they sure are gorgeous. The central plot of the film is so off-putting that you wind up disliking all of the principal characters by the time it is over. By the end of the film, Lawford never shakes the "creepy celebrity stalker" vibe into which the idiot plot forces him, Montalban comes across as an arrogant unsympathetic jackass (but the filmmakers would have us believe that it is okay because he is from Spain), and Williams' Rosalind cannot register with the viewer at all because she appears to be a plot marionette with no consistency in characterization.
On the plus side of the ledger, Esther Williams looks spectacular in her array of sarongs and bathing suits with or without water-resistant full body make-up, Cyd Charisse has a couple of mind-blowing dance numbers including a featured solo and a duet with Montalban; Montalban is a strong swimmer who looks good in the water with Williams during their aqua-duet; Jimmy Durante is given a large chunk of screen time and is hilarious whether acting against Xavier Cugat, a pre-"Alice in Wonderland" Kathryn Beaumont, or a chihuahua; and the Latin-Polynesian musical production numbers are a lot of fun.
Early on, the film almost sinks itself by getting too meta-cute about its own shortcomings. Durante criticizes young Kathryn Beaumont for not sounding like the American child she is supposed to play in the film within the film, and Lawford questions how Montalban can be playing a Navy Pilot with his accent. Both comments can be taken as a jab at the casting of Lawford, who had not mastered an American accent, as a naval Aviator in the "real" film.
Neptune's Daughter (1949 - MGM - minutes)
Directed By: Edward Buzzell
Starring: Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Ricardo Montalban, Betty Garrett, Keenan Wynn
In "Neptune's Daughter", Esther Williams plays Eve Barret, a successful competitive swimmer who is recruited by businessman Joe Backett (Keenan Wynn) to co-found a swimwear company. The company becomes very successful, and among its employees is Eve's boy-crazy sister, Betty (Garrett - yep, Betty Garrett with two "t"s plays Betty Barret with one "t" - Oy! I need an editor!). Betty gets very excited when she learns that the South American Polo Team is coming to town and sets her romantic sites on the team's captain, José O'Rourke (Montalban). In a "Much ado About Nothing"-style series of misunderstandings, however, Betty mistakes club masseuse Jack Spratt (Skelton) for O'Rourke and Spratt is too happy with his romantic success to tell her otherwise. Meanwhile, O'Rourke himself makes advances towards Eve, who is conflicted thinking that he is also dating her sister. It's actually more complicated than that, but I only allow myself a single paragraph for synopses.
Director Buzzell delivers another easy breezy musical light comedy that tickles your funny bone while embodying the kind of pre-feminist viewpoint that made the second-wave feminist movement necessary. It is never questioned that athlete turned business woman Eve would immediately drop her ties to the business she co-founded and built into a success the moment she married athlete O'Rourke. If modern viewers can get past that aspect, there is a lot to enjoy about the film. Freed from the romantic lead burden he carried in "Bathing Beauty", Skelton is even funnier in this film, and has great comic chemistry with both Betty Garrett and Mike Mazurki who plays a thug trying to kidnap him at one point.
Xavier Cugat and his orchestra are once more on board to provide some Latin-flavor to the musical numbers, and a lower-key showstopper is achieved with the Oscar-winning song, "Baby It's Cold Outside" in which Montalban, who I am pretty sure was dubbed in "On an Island with You", gets to do his own singing this time. Keenan Wynn gets the thankless romantic loser role, the likes of which I am sure went up for grabs when Ralph Bellamy began focusing on television work in the late 40s. The final scene between Wynn and Montalban is strangely depressing, especially when the camera stays on Wynn, who also serves as the film's narrator, a little too long. The climactic water ballet is not the most spectacular ever staged for Ms. Williams, but the employment of wide colorful ribbons in the water is visually interesting.
Dangerous When Wet (1953 - MGM - minutes)
Directed By: Charles Walters
Starring: Esther Williams, Fernando Lamas, Jack Carson, Denise Darcel, Charlotte Greenwood, William Demarest
In "Dangerous When Wet" Esther Williams plays Katie Higgins, the eldest daughter of a health-obsessed family of Arkansas farmers. When flim-flam man Windy Weebe (Carson) arrives in town hawking his cure-all tonic "Liquipep", he initially takes a romantic interest in Katie which evolves into a professional interest in her athletic family endorsing his product. (Hmm? A family of cheery Arkansas Farmers and Jack Carson as a leading man? I guess the Louis B. Mayer era was over). A promotional stunt is concocted where Katie's whole family will swim the English Channel in order to promote Liquipep. While practicing for her Channel crossing, Katie gets lost in the fog and rescued by André Lanet, the handsome wealthy owner of a French champagne company (A-ha! The old MGM asserts itself after all!). Katie tries to focus on her training despite her growing romantic interest in André. The pressure on her mounts even further when she learns that the rest of her family have not qualified for the crossing and her father has taken out huge loans that could result in the loss of their family farm.
This is not a particularly strong entry in Esther Williams' filmography, but it does have fitfully brilliant sequences. Most notably, the extended underwater dream sequence that integrates Esther into an animated world with Tom and Jerry is very entertaining and much better integrated into the film's plot developments than, for instance, the Bugs Bunny dream sequence that Warner Brothers awkwardly shoehorned into the Doris Day-Jack Carson film "My Dream is Yours" four-years earlier. The film is also notable for being the first on-screen pairing of future spouses Williams and Lamas, although they did not have a romantic relationship at the time and it would be sixteen years before they would actually wed.
The music for the film is primarily courtesy of Johnny Mercer and Arthur Schwartz, and it is poppy, peppy, and catchy. Even if you do not think it is a particularly great song and cannot stand morning people, you will likely have "I Got out of Bed on the Right Side" stuck in your head for quite some time after viewing the movie, so do not say I did not warn you.
Veteran actors Charlotte Greenwood and William Demarest play Williams' parents, and have a fun chemistry together. Greenwood in her early 60s at the time, shows that she is still capable of pulling off her trademark bizarrely flexible double jointed dance routines, and Demarest scores with another one of his amusingly frustrated bull-headed patriarch characters. Barbara Whiting as the middle sister in the family is given very little to do, but she makes the most of her solo musical number, "I Like Men", even though it springs up out of nowhere and neither adds or subtracts anything from the film's narrative.
All of the films in the "TCM Archives: Esther Williams, Volume 1" collection were shot in three-strip Technicolor and are presented in color 4:3 video consistent with their original theatrical presentations.
The transfer for "Bathing Beauty" is fitfully good, but inconsistent. There is a general softness and level of grain that keeps it from looking as good as the best transfers of vintage color films (e.g. "On an Island with You" below). There are also moments where the colors seem inconsistent and/or faded. One particular section of "dupe" stock sticks out jarringly in an early scene where Skelton is being shown his dorm room. A short piece of footage in the middle of the scene appears to be four or more generations of film down from the surrounding footage with excessively high contrast. Thankfully, the climactic water ballet looks very good throughout its duration.
"Easy to Wed" receives easily the worst video presentation in the collection. The element used for transfer is the grainiest of the five films and suffers from frame to frame fluctuations in density level throughout the film's running time. The early parts of the film look a little better than the rest, but some time around the second or third reel, things go especially grainy and stay that way. The compression is at times given fits by the excessive grain resulting in digital artifacts.
"On an Island with You" receives by far the best video presentation of all of the films in the set. In terms of color registration, depth of contrast, and grain, it is comparable to many of the "superscan" transfers Warner has done for some of the most prestigious classic color films in their library. There is slight ringing along vertical edges most noticeable in some of the shots of trees against a sky background, but other than that, there is very little to complain about.
The transfer for "Dangerous When Wet" is a bit softer and grainier than that for "On an Island with You", but otherwise looks pretty good. Digital compression artifacts are only really noticeable if you stair at the grain patterns and concentrate, which is not my preferred method of watching MGM musicals.
All five films in the "TCM Archives: Esther Williams Volume 1" collection receive English Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio tracks encoded at 192 kbps, and all are fairly similar in quality. Frequency response and dynamic range are decent for films of the era, although there seems to be a little less low-frequency content than on some other recent releases from films of the same era. This was not necessarily a problem as I sometimes thought they were developing a tendency to add excessive low-end boost via equalization. Hiss and noise are kept in check with only mild artifacts due to digital noise rduction noticeable with critical listening. No foreign language dub tracks are presented for these films.
In an encouraging change from recent releases, Warner has included a mix of behind-the-scenes film-related extras as well as their usual assortment of vintage shorts and cartoons.
The extras for "Bathing Beauty" kick-off with easily the most interesting behind-the-scenes extra in the set. "Private Screenings with Esther Williams" is a TCM program from 1996 in which Ms. Williams sits for a 47 minute interview with Robert Osborne discussing various topics over the span of her life and career with a refreshingly frank answers prvided to typically softball questions. Also included is "Main Street Today" a 19 minute propaganda featurette telling the story of a middle American town that struggles to find enough workers to build a crucial component for American anti-tank guns. This is followed by the vintage Hanna-Barbera Tom and Jerry cartoon "Mouse Trouble" in which Tom's "How to Catch a Mouse" book proves to be less than useful. Finally, the film's theatrical trailer is included.
The extras for "Easy to Wed" include "Sure Cures", a 10 minute short from the "Pete Smith Specialty" series in which narrator Smith offers wry commentary on a number of less than effective home remedies for ailments ranging from baldness to hiccups. Also included is "The Unwelcome Guest", a vintage 1945 George Gordon-directed Barney Bear cartoon in which our hero contends with a skunk who follows him home from a trip gathering berries. Finally, we are treated to the theatrical trailers for both "Easy to Wed" and its predecessor, "The Libeled Lady".
"On an Island with You" comes with "Personalities", a vintage 1942 short from the "Romance of Celluloid" series that promotes a number of up and coming (at the time - some of them up and went) MGM actors. Esther Williams is featured in a segment where they compare her screen test opposite Mickey Rooney for a scene in "Andy Hardy's Double Life" with that of two other actresses. Of the other actors and actresses promoted as "next big things", Donna Reed and Van Johnson are probably the best known to modern audiences. Susan Peters receives quite a push from this featurette, made sadder in retrospect by the fact that she would be paralyzed in a tragic hunting accident a few years later. Also included is "The Bear and the Hare", a 1948 Barney Bear cartoon directed by Michael Lah and Preston Blair in which Barney hunts the elusive snowshoe rabbit to his own regret. Finally, the film's original theatrical trailer is included.
"Neptune's Daughter" includes an excerpt from the 1951 Panama/Frank film "Callaway Went Thataway" in which Esther Williams cameos as herself. Also included is "Water Trix" a short from the "Pete Smith Specialty" series in which Mr. Smith provides his wry narration as director/cameraman Charles Trego photographs some impressive water skiing stunts, many performed by surf champion Preston Petersen, from a helicopter. Next up is "Hatch up Your Troubles" a 1949 Hanna-Barbera Tom & Jerry cartoon in which mouse Jerry tries to discourage a recently hatched woodpecker from calling him "mama", but eventually teams up with him to abuse cat Tom. The first extra related to the actual film is "I Want My Money Back", a musical number featuring an energetic performance from Betty Garrett that was understandably cut but is fun to see in this context. Additionally we get a five minute radio interview segment between Esther Williams and Dick Simmons in which they engage in some fluffy scripted exchanges about her personal life, swimming, and her new movie, "Neptune's Daughter". Finally, we get a pair of theatrical trailers for "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "Neptune's Daughter".
"Dangerous When Wet" includes "This is a Living?", a short from the "Pete Smith Specialty" series in which Mr. Smith offers his usual humorous commentary as the film shows footage of various people who professionally employ dangerous skills such as stunt horseshoe throwing and aerial acrobatics. For those desiring more Tom & Jerry underwater action, we have "The Cat and the Mermouse", a 1949 Hanna-Barbera cartoon in which Tom chases Jerry at the beach, falls into the water, and encounters a "mermouse" that looks a lot like Jerry from the waist up. Also included is "C'est La Guerre", a deleted musical number featuring Fernando Lamas and Denise Darcel that is fun on its own, but appears to be from a subplot that was excised from the movie. Next up, we have an audio-only feature with a set of three Johnny Mercer demos for "Get out of Bed on the Right Side", "Fifi", and "I Like Men". The latter takes on a whole new meaning when sung by another man. Finally, we get an Esther Williams trailer gallery including "Duchess of Idaho", "Pagan Love Song", "Million Dollar Mermaid", and "Easy To Love" in addition to "Dangerous When Wet". Those first four films plus "Fiesta" would make a just about perfect "TCM Archives: Esther Williams Volume 2" release, so I hope they are a preview of things to come.
The discs come packaged in a three-panel digipack with two overlapping trays and one single disc tray. The disc art and menus are adapted from original movie promotional art. My favorite menus were the ones from "Dangerous When Wet" which, aside from the scene selection menu, all feature art from the animated sequence from the film.
Warner has finally opened their watertight vaults and released a set of Esther Williams starring vehicles on DVD. The films receive average to very good video presentations that appear to be primarily limited by the quality of the source element available for transfer. The mono audio tracks are uniformly good with no major issues. Extras include a combination of vintage shorts, trailers, and behind the scenes pieces, the most interesting of which are a lengthy 1996 interview between Williams and Robert Osborne and deleted musical numbers from "Neptune's Daughter" and "Dangerous When Wet".