Guest post by Michaela Owens.
Let me start this by saying that it was a miracle I didn’t end up writing 10,000 words. When it comes to a woman named Esther Williams, I honestly can’t stop myself from blubbering. Strong, confident, funny, self-aware, and resilient, Esther Williams became an instant role model to me when my sister gave me her autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, four years ago. She wasn’t the actress that Katharine Hepburn was, but she had the same work ethic. She wasn’t a celebrated comedienne like Myrna Loy was, but she had the same twinkle in her eye. She couldn’t dance like Rita Hayworth, but she had the same grace. We will never see the likes of Esther again because she was so wholly unique.
You’re probably asking “Why? What makes her so special?” As a champion swimmer, Esther (yes, I’m putting us on a first-name basis) was the centerpiece of a string of films called “aqua musicals.” The formula was simple: you had stunning Technicolor, simple yet fun musical numbers, a handsome leading man who wouldn’t outshine her, and most important of all, there would be a spectacular swimming routine or two. Esther’s movies are the epitome of escapism, and they made her a box office sensation and an MGM star for a little over a decade. They are completely fascinating and completely insane and I don’t know how you can’t love them.
Esther owed MGM’s interest in her to Sonja Henie, an Olympic ice-skating champion that became a sensation at 20th Century Fox. Seeing the success that Fox had with Henie, MGM reasoned “Let’s just melt the ice and put a pretty girl in there!” They found their pretty girl swimming in Billy Rose’s Aquacade, a traveling show boasting Johnny Weissmuller, another Olympian athlete turned movie star. Esther had been an Olympic hopeful herself, but the cancellation of the 1940 games squashed that dream.
She wound up auditioning for showman Billy Rose, who asked her to learn how to swim “pretty” instead of going fast like competitions required of her. MGM approached Williams after seeing her in the Aquacade, giving her that age-old promise of fame and fortune. Esther wasn’t interested, though—she already saw what that lifestyle would be like during her time with Rose and she wasn’t impressed. She continued to refuse them for a year, but the more she said “no,” the more they wanted her until finally she signed a contract in 1941.
Part of that contract, however, insisted that she have nine months to work on her acting, diction, singing, and dancing. As she later wrote, “If it took nine months for a baby to be born, I figured my ‘birth’ from Esther Williams the swimmer to Esther Williams the movie actress would not be much different.” Her third film was her big break. 1944’s Bathing Beauty was supposed to be a vehicle for comedic actor Red Skelton, and it certainly is, but it also serves as one incredible introduction to Ms. Williams. In her first scene, with a clear blue sky behind her and a shockingly pink bathing suit on, Esther dives into a pool and performs an ad-libbed routine that remains refreshing in its simplicity and playfulness.
The amount of work and innovation that went into the aqua musicals is astounding. The mechanics of filmmaking were challenged with each film, as cameramen had to discover how to film in (and under) water and make-up artists, hairstylists, and costume designers had to figure out how to keep Esther looking glamorous while soaking wet. Chorus girls were replaced with swimmers who learned how to dance in the water, creating a form of synchronized swimming. MGM’s Soundstage 30 was transformed into a $250,000 pool that was came equipped with fireworks, fountains, and a hydraulic lift. (For reference, $250k at that time is over $3.5 million in 2016 money.) All of this was geared towards one thing: making movies that only one woman could make.
Although Esther isn’t a pop culture icon like Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn, you can still spot her influence in contemporary films. Just watch “Be Our Guest” from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, animated or live-action. Better yet, go to YouTube and look these up:
- Esther swimming with Tom and Jerry in my favorite film of hers, Dangerous When Wet (1953)
- Howard Keel dreaming of Esther and imagining her swimming around his hotel room in Texas Carnival (1951) – a magnificent technological feat
- “I Have a Dream” from Jupiter’s Darling (1955), a true showcase of how wonderfully bizarre her films could get
- Esther and John Bromfield swimming amongst massive flower blankets on a jungle set in Easy to Love (1953)
- Esther, Ricardo Montalbán, Betty Garrett, and Red Skelton performing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” from Neptune’s Daughter (1949) – not a swimming routine, but it was the introduction of the Christmas classic and it’s a hilarious rendition thanks to Garrett and Skelton
After she left MGM in 1955, Esther would make just five more movies in addition to other ventures like her swimming pool business and designing bathing suits. In 1984, she helped inaugurate synchronized swimming as an Olympic sport, acting as a commentator that year. She took a few stops along the way, but Esther finally made it to the Olympics. I don’t quite know what it is that makes Esther’s films so immensely enjoyable. Certainly she was extraordinarily natural and talented, but the swimming just adds an undefinable ingredient. Esther herself tried to explain it: “I think the charm of those pictures—there’s something very beautiful about the water and somebody’s that skillful in it makes you feel good.” I agree. But aside from the swimming, I just adore Esther as an actress and as a human being. She really was something special. So, go ahead and dive in. The water’s just fine.
Michaela Owens is an IU graduate with a BA in Communications and Culture and a desire to become a film professor and writer. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she has volunteered as an usher at the IU Cinema since 2016.