TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams Vol. 2
Thrill Of A Romance (1945), Fiesta (1947), This Time For Keeps (1947), Pagan Love Song (1950), Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), Easy To Love(1953)
|Studio: Warner Bros.|
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Subtitles: English SDH, French
Release Date: October 6, 2009
In July of 2007, Warner released the first entry in their "TCM Spotlight" series. It was dedicated to MGM's one-of-a-kind swimming movie star Esther Williams and included five of her starring vehicles from her thirteen year tenure with the studio. Most encouraging for fans was the subtitle of the set: "Volume 1". After a little over two years, Warner has finally delivered on the implication of that subtitle with a second volume that does its predecessor one better by including six titles starring Ms. Williams.
Thrill of a Romance (1945 - MGM - 105 minutes)****In Thrill of a Romance Esther Williams plays Cynthia Glenn, a swim instructor who lives in a modest but eccentric home with her Uncle Hobart (Travers) and Aunt Nona (Byington). As the film opens, she is swept off of her feat by budding business tycoon Robert Delbar (Young). After a whirlwind courtship, they are married and head off to a fabulous vacation resort for their honeymoon. Unfortunately for the newly minted Mrs. Delbar, her husband is called away to Washington D.C. on their wedding night to close an important deal. Left alone and embarrassed, she finds some comfort in other residents of the resort, including world-renown opera star Nils Knudsen (Melchior) and war hero Major Thomas Milvaine (Johnson) to whom she gives regular swimming lessons. Cynthia becomes conflicted when her friendship with Milvaine threatens to become something more.
Directed by: Richard Thorpe
Starring: Van Johnson, Esther Williams, Frances Gifford, Henry Travers, Spring Byington, Lauritz Melchior, Carleton G. Young, Ethel Griffies
This film was the follow-up to Esther Williams' breakthrough success in Bathing Beauty. While the plot establishes plenty of reasons to get her in a pool, it does not feature the kind of elaborate aquatic ballet sequence that would become her trademark. While most of the films in this set are not exactly long on plot, this is probably the most representative example of how the vintage MGM "Dream Factory" could take a fairly weak "forbidden love" premise and somehow make it an enjoyable cinematic experience by applying copious amounts of glamour and dipping into their seemingly endless reservoir of talent.
The supporting cast is filled with ringers including Tommy Dorsey and his band in residency at the luxury hotel, Danish opera star Lauritz Melchior in his film debut, and the formidable team of Henry Travers and Spring Byington as Williams' adorably eccentric Aunt and Uncle. Williams and Van Johnson make for an appealingly sympathetic duo, and whenever their story threatens to drag, the filmmakers can simply cut to something spectacular such as a performance from Melchior, a drum solo from Buddy Rich, or various bits of comic business. My assessment above may sound a bit cynical, but in the interest of full disclosure, I bought what the producers were selling and found the film to be very entertaining.
Fiesta (1947 - MGM - 102 Minutes)***½In Fiesta, Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban play twin siblings Maria and Mario Morales. If you think that's implausible, wait until I get to the end of this synopsis! Maria and Mario are the only children of retired famous toreador Antonio Morales. Antonio's dream is for Mario to follow in his footsteps. Mario devotes himself to the necessary training, but his true passion is for music. When, on the eve of an important bullfight, Antonio sabotages Mario's chance to study with acclaimed Mexican composer Maximino Contreras (Haas), Mario goes AWOL. In order to coerce her beloved brother to come back and preserve their family name, Maria concocts a scheme, with the assistance of family friend Chato (Tamiroff), to impersonate Mario in the ring. This runs the risk of ruining both her health and her forthcoming marriage to scientist Pepe Ortega (Carroll).
Directed by: Richard Thorpe
Starring: Esther Williams, Akim Tamiroff, Ricardo Montalban, John Carroll, Mary Astor, Cyd Charisse, Fortunio Bonanova
Fiesta is a bit of an odd duck in Esther Williams' post Bathing Beauty career. While Williams is top-billed and gets more than her fair share of screen time, it appears to be a film designed to either launch Ricardo Montalban as an American movie star or at least put him through an MGM star obstacle course. He plays drama and light comedy, he performs multiple impressively athletic dances with Cyd Charisse, and he even mimes playing guitar and piano convincingly enough that the film can show his head and hands in extended shots while he is doing it.
Aside from a single gratuitous scene set at a swimming hole, Williams is given little to do besides act devoted to her on-screen sibling and look surprisingly hot in a Matador's costume. The romantic "B" plot between Williams and Carroll never really gets up to steam (Carroll's scientist gets a "D" in chemistry), but the filmmakers do not devote an inordinate amount of screen time to it. The bull-fighting elements to the plot are mildly intriguing, and animal rights advocates will at least be partially relieved that they are somewhat less than authentic. Being a classic MGM film, even the bulls are allowed happy endings.
The plot is a curious combination of bizarre and predictable, and modern audiences will no doubt be taken aback by so many Anglo actors playing Mexican characters. That being said, Montalban's highlights including the dance production numbers and a tour de force dramatic scene where Mario, shocked to hear his composition played over the radio, begins to play along with it passionately, are impressive enough set-pieces to make the film worth a viewing.
This Time For Keeps (1947 - MGM - 105 Minutes)***In This Time for Keeps, Johnny Johnston plays Dick Herald, Jr., a returning GI who is also the son of a famous opera singer (Melchior - no stretch there). His father expects him to join his opera company and marry his high society girlfriend, Frances Allenbury (Stuart), but Dick has other ideas. He is much more happy singing jazz, and sets his romantic sites on Aquacade star Nora Cambaretti (Willians, no stretch there, either), who he first met while convalescing in a GI Hospital. He attempts to get a job singing in her show, but overprotective musical accompanist and "friend of the family" Ferdi Farrow (Durante) tries to keep him at arms length by arranging a job for him with Xavier Cugat's orchestra. Dick remains steadfast in his pursuit, and even eventually travels with Nora to Mackinac Island, Michigan to meet her grandmother (Whitty), a retired circus performer and matriarch of the tight knit Camberetti clan. Just when Dick thinks his dreams will come true, public revelations about his relationship with Miss Allenbury threaten to dash his romantic hopes against the rocks.
Directed by: Richard Thorpe
Starring: Esther Williams, Jimmy Durante, Lauritz Melchior, Johnny Johnston, Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra, Dame May Whitty, Sharon McManus, Mary Stuart
This is another film assembled from highly conventional elements. At times one gets the feeling that rather than a script, the studio told Producer Joe Pasternak and director Richard Thorpe that they had Williams, Johnston, Melchior, Durante, and Whitty along with a tank of water and a few days on Mackinac Island and instructed them to make a movie, any movie, out of the ingredients.
Every member of the cast gets to do what they do best whether that is swimming, singing nightclub jazz, singing opera, or singing "Inka-Dinka-Doo", which makes it sporadically entertaining. Unfortunately, the elements never coalesce into something substantial. It is an indication of Williams' progression as an on-screen performer (and, no doubt, her work ethic) that the studio was now willing to pair her with a less polished actor as her leading man. Nightclub singer Johnston had been appearing in films for a few years, but had not progressed as an actor as much as Williams had.
Pagan Love Song (1950 - MGM - 76 Minutes)**½In Pagan Love Song, Howard Keel plays Hap Endicot, an Ohio schoolteacher who inherits a Tahitian coconut plantation from his uncle. He finds the plantation to be a bit more modest than his dreams of a life of wealthy South Seas leisure had led him to believe. Despite the initial disappointment, he is spurred on to uncharecteristic industriousness by the local people, and decides to make a go at copra farming. The most inspiring of all of the local people proves to be Mimi Bennett, a half-Tahitian half-American girl who will be leaving for New York unless the hapless Hap gets his romantic act together quickly.
Directed by: Robert Alton
Starring: Esther Williams, Howard Keel, Minna Gombell, Charles Mauu, Rita Moreno
Of all of the slight plots in all of the films in this collection, Pagan Love Song is by far the slightest. The producers, no doubt keenly aware of this, bring the film in at a reasonable 76 minutes, which is just enough time to hang the various singing, swimming, and native dancing set-pieces on the bare minimum of connective narrative skeleton. It is hard to get mad at how inconsequential the whole enterprise is when it is over so quickly.
If one can approach the film as a travelogue with musical set-pieces, they will find some easy pleasures in some light "fish out of water" comedy played at the expense of Keel's character, Keel's slight but charming featured songs, the elaborate native dance production numbers, and the obligatory climactic water ballet dream sequence. Director Robert Alton employs a couple of extended tracking shots that keep things visually interesting. The first is a musical number performed by Keel riding a bike and interacting with people he passes that looks like it would have taken a thousand takes to get perfect (and only inserts one brief rear projection process shot "cheat"). The second involves a series of swimmers led by Williams at the head of a pyramid formation moving towards a moving camera. Williams lip synchs with her head above water while the group of over a dozen swimmers never breaks formation with her.
Million Dollar Mermaid (1952 - MGM - 110 Minutes) ****Million Dollar Mermaid is a biopic of early 20th century swimming sensation Annette Kellerman. The film begins with Kellerman as a sickly child (Corcoran) living with her musician father Frederick (Pidgeon) in Australia. Her father discovers she has been sneaking off to a swimming hole, removing her leg braces, and diving in. Despite his preference that she pursue music, he encourages her aquatic activity since it seems to be improving her health. We then cut to several years in the future where a grown Annette (Williams) is an amateur swim champion. When economic hardship forces her father to pursue a job in England, they meet shameless showmen James Sullivan (Mature) and Doc Cronnol (White) on the ocean voyage. When Frederick's job opportunity does not pan out, Sullivan conceives of a distance swimming stunt in the Thames that results in Kellerman becoming a minor sensation. Sullivan next convinces the Kellermans to try for success in America, with the ultimate goal to become a featured performer at New York's Hippodrome. Forced to start in smaller town sideshows, Kellerman inadvertently creates a firestorm of controversy when her swimwear is deemed too risqué for early 20th century America. The resulting headlines and Kellerman's development of a one-piece bathing suit that satisfies her critics leads to burgeoning popularity and the call from Hippodrome producer Alfred Harper (Brian) of which she dreamed, but it also threatens to ruin her developing romance with Sullivan.
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Esther Williams, Victor Mature, Walter Pidgeon, David Brian, Donna Corcoran, Jesse White, Maria Tallchief
This is by far the most ambitious production of the six films in this collection. It is very much in the vein of other biopics produce by MGM in their heyday. This, of course, means that everything that was popular about the subject person is developed into a series of elaborate production numbers while everything else is fudged to fit into a plot with a dash of romance.
While Williams was not likely on anyone's Oscar short list as a result of this performance, she does demonstrate her continual development as an actress by successfully carrying the weight and dramatic focus of the film throughout its nearly two hour running time. Other than a specialty dance number by ballerina Maria Tallchief, Williams carries almost the entire film on her back and holds up well.
That being said, carefully modulated dramatic performances were not Esther Williams' gift to the world. Technicolor water ballet sequences were Esther Williams' gift to the world, and there were rarely any as spectacular as the Busby Berkeley-staged blow-out for the movie's Hippodrome sequence. It is a phantasmagoric explosion of color, composition, and movement that so successfully merges Berkeley's 1930s style with Williams' trademark water ballet production numbers that one wonders why MGM did not think to bring them together sooner.
An abrupt ending and a few head scratching decisions, such as having the chorines (or is that "chlorines") swimming along with Williams wear revealing swimsuits despite establishing the social unacceptability of such attire in the film's era, prevent the film from being a five-star classic, but it remains a dramatically satisfying biopic of Williams' only real cinematic antecedent with extremely high production values, which is more than good enough for me.
Easy To Love (1953 - MGM - 96 Minutes) ***½In Easy to Love, Esther Williams plays model/aquatic performer Julie Hallerton, who has been performing since the age of fifteen in the Cypress Gardens Florida shows of Ray "Cash Register" Lloyd (Johnson). Ray is a self-styled expert in marketing via beautiful females, and is equally adept at side-stepping any romantic entanglements that could possibly lead to matrimony. Julie is hopelessly devoted to him, and even starts dating Hank (Bromfield), her Texas beau-hunk co-star in a swimming exhibition, to try to make Ray jealous. She thinks that she has Ray hooked when she intimates that Hank intends to propose and Ray immediately whisks her away to New York. She is subsequently disappointed when, after arriving, he reveals that it is a working trip and she is committed to dawn to dusk commercial modeling jobs. On one of these, she catches the attention of famous nightclub crooner Barry Gordon (Martin). Frustrated with Ray, she paints the town with Barry, and even threatens to stay in New York. When Ray coerces her back to Florida, Barry follows and the romantic "quadrangle" between Julie, Ray, Barry, and Hank comes to a head.
Directed by: Charles Walters
Starring: Esther Williams, Van Johnson, Tony Martin, John Bromfield, Edna Skinner, King Donovan, Paul Bryar, Carroll Baker, Ed Oliver
In Easy to Love, we have yet another example of a film not overly burdened with plot originality. Anyone who has seen any romantic comedy will have pretty much figured out how this thing will play out during the first reel. Then again, fans of romantic comedies rarely object to predictability, and the best way to judge such films is based on not so much what they are about, but how they go about it. Such an assessment tilts Easy to Love towards the good side of the scale, although it falls short of greatness.
Among its strengths are some breathtakingly beautiful cinematography that exploits the Cypress Gardens locations and beautiful ladies as effectively as Johnson's character does in the movie. Also, Busby Berkeley is once again retained to develop the musical and aquatic set-pieces. He goes for variety with a beautiful Technicolor dream of an aquatic ballet between Williams and Bromfield at the beginning, a humorous sequence with Williams in full clown make-up just past the mid-point, and a spectacular water skiing finale that tops them both featuring helicopter shots that look darn-near logistically impossible.
On the negative side of the ledger is a less than inspiring trio of leading men vying for Williams. Johnson is a dependable performer as usual, but Martin and Bromfield, neither of whom suffer from an excess of on-screen personality, manage to make him look like the catch of catches. This technically works for the plot, but does not make it any fun to watch. Musically, the Cole Porter title tune (which was also used as a love theme from This Time for Keeps) is a ringer that stands head and shoulders above the lighter poppier fare crooned by Martin in the rest of the film. But then again, maybe I am just bitter about having the chorus to "Didja Ever" stuck in my head for going on three days now.
The film has one great inside gag near its end that offers up an instant happy ending by pairing a character up with their famous real-life spouse, who was a pretty big MGM star, in an unbilled cameo. Sharp-eyed star watchers will also catch Carroll Baker in her cinematic debut as a jilted lover of Tony Martin's character in two brief scenes (one being really just a shot with no dialog).
The VideoAll titles are presented in color 4:3 video appropriate to their original theatrical presentations. Thrill of Romance has deeply saturated colors, nicely balanced contrast, and only a few shots where registration is a tiny bit off.
Fiesta is the most visually problematic of the bunch, although it is by no means a disaster. It looks like a lot of work went into it, with different source issues noticeable to critical viewers depending on what reels you are watching. The first reel is the closest to unacceptable as there is unusually heavy high contrast edge ringing (not limited to titles/opticals) that does not look source-related. Fortunately, this does not continue through the rest of the film.
This Time for Keeps is very good although not as consistent in its color and density as Thrill of Romance.
Pagan Love Song is not quite as sharp as the others with possibly a bit more fading. It sometimes looks like the telecine colorist was battling a film element that wanted to "go magenta", and was mostly successful, although there does appear to be a slight sepia cast to much of the film. Compression does not always keep up with the level of grain on this film, but artifacts are generally mild from a reasonable viewing distance.
Million Dollar Mermaid looks very good, although the image is a touch softer, the grain is a bit coarser, and there are more (although not excessive) apparent instances of film element damage than for Thrill of Romance.
Easy to Love is one of the best looking titles in the set. There is a hint of contrast manipulation, but nothing severe. There were a couple of shots that looked like they had very slight "fringing". I may be wrong, but I do not think this was a three-strip Technicolor production. Those may be shots where YCM protection elements were used.
The AudioAll films are presented with English Dolby Digital 1.0 mono tracks. Thrill Of A Romance, Fiesta, and This Time For Keeps, all sound pretty similar in character: non-magnetic sources with light sporadic crackling and only mild noise reduction artifacts. That description also applies to Pagan Love Song except that there is excessive "optical crackle" during portions of the first reel, including during Howard Keel's first "House of Singing Bamboo" musical number. It sounds like they had to go with a lower generation source for this part of the film. Million Dollar Mermaid is a step up from the older titles in the set, with less audible hiss and crackle. Easy to Love is of similar quality. The high end sounds slightly rolled-off, and some of the musical numbers were recorded "hot" so you get some distortion when they get loud, but it is otherwise very good.
The ExtrasAll extras are presented in color 4:3 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound unless otherwise indicated below.
Thrill of a Romance:
- The Great American Mug (B&W - 9:42) - One-reel Short from John Nesbitt's "Passing Parade" series. It first focuses on a modern (circa 1945) barbershop and then takes a nostalgic look at such an establishment in the early 20th century.
- Wild and Woolfy (7:36) - 1945 Technicolor Tex Avery cartoon in which an outlaw wolf rides into an old western town, tears it up, kidnaps saloon singer "Red", and rides off to his hideout. As much success as he has avoiding the large posse pursuing him, he cannot seem to shake Droopy and his little blue pony. The audio on this cartoon seems to have a strange phasing effect applied to it.
- Outtakes (6:44 w/"Play All") presents the following excised musical numbers. All feature audio and video quality just a hair below that of the film itself:
- Gypsy Mattinata - featuring Melchior
- I Should Care - Tommy Dorsey & singers I could not identify
- Please Don't Say No - Melchior with the King Sisters and Tommy Dorsey
- Theatrical Trailer (2:09) - Promises various "Thrills" including the thrill of discovering Lauritz Melchior and "the thrill of Van Johnson making love to Esther Williams". Whew! I guess some thrills are more thrilling than others.
- Goodbye, Miss Turlock (B&W - 10:26) - Vintage one-reel short from John Nesbitt's "Passing Parade" series. It takes a nostalgic look back at American rural school houses, recreating such a school environment overseen by the stern but caring teacher of the short's title via period re-enactments with voiceover narration by Nesbitt.
- Hound Hunters (7:18) - Vintage MGM Technicolor cartoon directed by Tex Avery In which two bears named George and Junior (modeled after George and Lenny from Of Mice and Men) decide to improve their hobo lifestyle by getting jobs as dog catchers. They prove comically inept at the job in the wildly hilarious manner one would expect from a Tex Avery cartoon. The video transfer appears to be fairly ancient with 3:2 pulldown artifacts resulting in a very jittery appearance.
- Theatrical Trailer (4:03) - Is a lengthy assemblage of the film's dramatic highlights that begins by introducing "Two Spectacular New Stars: Ricardo Montalban and Cyd Charisse". Ya know, I think those two kids just make it in this crazy business called "show".
This Time for Keeps:
- Now You See It (9:22) - Is a color short in the "Pete Smith Specialty" series. It features some impressive "macro-cinematography" and "micro cinematography" of small and detailed items like wristwatch gears, baby hummingbirds, lizard eyes, cat tongues, and a wide array of insects with wry narration from Smith. This technically impressive short was nominated for an Oscar in 1968
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse (7:25) - Is a vintage Technicolor Hanna-Barbera Tom & Jerry cartoon in which cat Tom tries to concoct a poison beverage for mouse Jerry, but inadvertently creates a potion that makes him big, strong, and aggressive. Massive slapstick cat abuse ensues. This cartoon was nominated for an Oscar in 1948.
- Little Big Shot Outtake (1:38) - Is a brief deleted musical number where Jimmy Durante sings young Sharon McManus to sleep.
- Theatrical Trailer (3:30) - In addition to the film's stars and musical numbers, this promo emphasizes the Mackinac Island locations and the bevy of aquatic beauties. Not a bad strategy.
Pagan Love Song:
- Curious Contests (B&W - 8:27) - is a vintage one-reeler from the "Pete Smith Specialty" series. This entry looks at unusual competitions including a Dance Marathons, a Diaper Derby, a Firemen's Ball, an Infant Crawling Contest, Sumo Wrestling, a Pie Eating Tournament, a Basket Race, a mud-fest Tug-of-War, odd variations of Bull-Fighting, a Train Wheel Twirling contest, a Log Chopping contest, Water Jousting, Old-Fashioned Bicycle Racing, and a put-the cat-out competition. Footage of the event is accompanied by Smith's standard wry narration and a few sound effects to underline the humor.
- The Chump Champ (7:15) - Is a hilarious vintage Technicolor Tex Avery cartoon in which Droopy (aka "Droopy Poodle") and Spike, (aka "Gorgeous Gorillawitz"), compete in a series of athletic events for the title of "King of Sports". Spike's increasingly desperate attempts at cheating in each event continuously (and sometimes literally) blow up in his face.
- Outtakes (14:46 w/"Play All") -
- Why is Love so Crazy - Sung by Williams (on-screen, at least, I am not sure about dubbing details) in and around a hammock in the front yard of her character's home from the film. It is only a piano and vocal track, but it is in sync with the film
- The Sea of the Moon - Sung by Williams (again, on-screen at least), this is a fantasy sequence with a large supporting female chorus and elaborate sets and costumes that would have served as the opening for the film's climactic dream sequence. The final film gives a brief glimpse of the sets and chorus, but then cuts right to the swimming.
- Tahiti Version One - Sung by Keel standing still while Williams watches on a rocky beach with the ocean in the background.
- Tahiti Version Two - Same song as before except on a studio set with a solid colored yellow-orange background intended to be replaced for a process shot.
- Theatrical Trailer (3:06) - Emphasizes the two leads and Tahitian setting. The musical set-pieces are all given names: "The Choral Sea Ballet", The Dance of the Sirens", "The Thrilling Ori-Moorea", "The Rhythmic Taakapati", "The Love Chant", "The Samoan Knife Dance", and "The Fete of the Mythical King"
Million Dollar Mermaid:
- Reducing (B&W - 8:21) is a vintage one-reeler from the "Pete Smith Specialty" series. Smith applies his wry narration to staged footage of a large woman named "Maggie" who is attempting to lose weight. There are some un-PC fat jokes by today's standards.
- Little Quacker (7:07) is a vintage 1950 Technicolor Hanna-Barbera "Tom and Jerry" cartoon. It is incorrectly identified as "The Wise Little Quacker" on the box, which made me wonder if they had originally intended to include the 1952 "Barney Bear" cartoon The Little Wise Quacker, which would have been closer in its original release date to Million Dollar Mermaid. In any case, in this short, Tom steals an egg from a mother duck's nest and when it unexpectedly hatches, he upgrades his meal plans from "omelette" to "roast duck". The baby duck finds a friend in Jerry Mouse who tutors him in the finer points of slapstick cat abuse with props including a meat cleaver, an axe, and a sledgehammer.
- Lux Radio Theater Broadcast with Esther Williams and Walter Pidgeon (41:44) is an abridged radio-play adaptation of Million Dollar Mermaid. The audio is muffled and sped up so that the voices are pitched way too high. The integrated ads are excised which makes for some awkward edits. For reasons I will never understand, like most recent audio-only features on WB catalog DVDs, pausing and fast-forwarding functions are locked out, but there are chapter stops every three minutes.
- Theatrical Trailer (1:12) is a brief dialog-free "clip and title" promo for what it bills as "The Miracle of MGM Musicals".
Easy to Love:
- Romantic Riviera (8:36) is a vintage color one-reeler from the "James Fitzpatrick Traveltalks" series. It takes the viewer on a tour of the French Riviera with informative narration by Fitzpatrick. The monopack color film looks a bit faded and soft in this video rendering, but it is an interesting snapshot of early 1950s southern France.
- Cops and Robbers (6:21)is a Technicolor Dick Lundy-directed "Barney Bear" cartoon in which Farmer Barney Bear contends with a flock of crows that are eating all of the corn from his cornfield. He hires a scarecrow who proves to be less effective than he initially appears. This short looks decent visually, but has some ill-advised audio processing applied to create a distracting stereo effect.
- Theatrical Trailer (3:40) predictably highlights the stars, Cypress Gardens locations, and big production numbers.