Twelve Favorite Water Ballets from Esther Williams.


Ever since I fell in love with the work of Esther Williams, I've tried to figure out what it is about her filmography that makes me so happy and delighted. There are many factors: Esther's smart and sassy characters, the stunningly bright Technicolor, the beautiful costumes, the superb musical numbers... What makes Esther's films unique, though, is water. As a champion swimmer, she had a monopoly on her own special genre. Her aqua musicals are your typical musical comedies, just with a lot more swimming.


Esther's water ballets are dazzling, ranging from elegant simplicity to wild extravaganzas. In honor of her 96th birthday on August 8th, I wanted to discuss my favorite ballets from the Million Dollar Mermaid. In my opinion, these ballets aren't limited to the gigantic, smoke- and fire-filled sequences that made Esther famous. My list will include some of the smaller, less frantic moments that solidified her star power and kept her an undeniable box office sensation for a little over a decade. Narrowing down my favorites was a challenge -- evidenced by the fact that I started this as a top ten list and ended up with twelve -- but I couldn't have asked for a more fun chore. Also, I tried to link to video as much as I could; unfortunately, not all of my picks are online. (Get it together, internet.) And now, in no particular order...


Bathing Beauty (1944): Her First Solo
The first time audiences saw Esther on the big screen, she was flirting with Mickey Rooney poolside in Andy Hardy's Double Life. It's a great introduction, but two years later, a more complete one came in the form of Bathing Beauty. 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 playfulness and minimalism. It all culminates in a smooch and some adorable banter with leading man Red Skelton. You can watch it here, and check out my full review of Bathing Beauty here.











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Easy to Love (1953): Duet with John Bromfield
Giant blankets of flowers? Check. A jungle theme? Check. Gypsy violinists? Check. It doesn't get much better than this routine, which is a prime example of how sensual Esther's swimming could be. Watch it here, and read my review of the fabulous Easy to Love here.










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Easy to Love: The Audition
Part of what makes the aqua musicals exceptional is the attention to detail, as evidenced by the impeccable color schemes, the costumes that are to die for, and so on. When Esther's character auditions for a show in Easy to Love, everything is stripped down to a simple pool, an accompanying piano track, and our star. The imagery is gorgeous, especially with Esther popping against the blue background with her white swimsuit and red lips. Check it out here.








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Texas Carnival (1951): Howard Keel's Dream
While thinking of Esther in his hotel room, Howard Keel imagines what I'm sure many men did at the time: Esther appearing in a clingy negligee. While this scene could have been tawdry, it is actually a tasteful illustration of the eroticism that is inherent in Esther's ballets. (She once jokingly called the routine "Howard's wet dream.") It is also a demonstration of the technical excellence that make her films so awe-inspiring as she swims around Keel's room with nary a glitch. You should definitely watch the scene here.








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On an Island with You (1948): Duet with Ricardo Montalban
When it came to her leading men, there were very few who could keep up with Esther in the water. Peter Lawford did terribly in On an Island with You. Van Johnson had to be discreetly held up by her during Thrill of a Romance before he got better for their subsequent films. Others, like Victor Mature and Gene Kelly, didn't even try. However, there were two guys who made great swimming partners: Fernando Lamas and Ricardo Montalban. Is it a coincidence that they are also two of Esther's best screen partners? I think not.

In On an Island with You, Esther and Ricardo are movie stars who are engaged to each other. (This is before an obsessed Peter Lawford kidnaps Esther and she falls for him... Yeah, it's problematic.) After a long day of shooting, the lovebirds go for a late night swim, creating a sweet, "impromptu" routine. Dancing in the water has never looked more romantic.









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On an Island with You: Filming Poolside
This movie is filled with meta moments about Hollywood and one of my favorites is this number. It's funny to think that there is a crew of actors "filming" Esther while a real crew is actually filming it. The gold swimsuit and headpiece that Esther wears is one of her best costumes and the synchronized swimmers are wonderful. You can see bits of the routine here, but I should warn you that the video's creator put in different music and the ballet's ending is cut off. They also edited in other shots of Esther from the film and shots of Xavier Cugat's band taken from another movie.









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Dangerous When Wet (1953): Swimming with Tom and Jerry
One of Esther's best is also one of her most famous. Eternal frenemies Tom and Jerry join the mermaid for an exciting animated adventure under the sea. While rigorously training for swimming the English Channel, Esther's character goes to bed one night and dreams up this sequence, which reflects the film's plot. There's a seahorse version of her family, a fish imitation of her friend and competitor Gigi, and, best of all, a handsy octopus with the voice of the love interest played by Fernando Lamas. Over 60 years later, this scene is still vivacious, fun, and technically astounding. Watch it here, and check out my review of Dangerous When Wet here.






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Dangerous When Wet: Duet with Fernando Lamas
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Esther Williams and Fernando Lamas were perfect screen partners. Out of all of her leading men, he was without a doubt the best swimmer, having been a champion swimmer back in Argentina. While changing into bathing suits, Esther and Fernando sing the charming tune "Ain't Nature Grand?" We cut to other characters crooning the song, but the film takes us right back where it started as our leads jump into the water. Sexy and mischievous, this duet exemplifies the couple's chemistry beautifully. See part of it here.








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Neptune's Daughter (1949): The Finale
Despite being a film about a swimsuit designer played by Esther, there are shockingly few moments in the water. (Mainly because second leads Betty Garrett and Red Skelton get plenty of screen time to be their goofy, funny selves.) The one real routine in this movie comes at the end and it's a doozy. What makes this number different, though, is that Esther's big finale is shared with her love interest, played by Ricardo Montalban. Truly one of her best. Watch it here.










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Jupiter's Darling (1955): "I Had a Dream"
This film gets a bit of a bad rap. All of Esther's films made money, except for this one and The Hoodlum Saint, a rare straight drama for the actress. This is a shame because Jupiter's Darling was the last movie she made for her home studio, MGM; it also became the last aqua musical. I'm not saying that Jupiter's Darling is a masterpiece, but it has a lot going for it. Howard Keel and George Sanders are perfectly cast as the men in Esther's life; Marge and Gower Champion add some vitality; the costumes are absolutely magnificent; the color is gorgeously rich.

This film also provides us with one of Esther's more bizarre ballets. Lamenting her bland engagement to Sanders, Esther slinks around her massive pool and sings "I Had a Dream." (Actually, Jo Ann Greer is singing, even though Esther had a lovely voice.) As she sighs over the handsome statues surrounding her, she dives underwater and is surprised to find statues on the pool's floor. She is doubly surprised when they come to life. This is one you'll have to see to believe, so check it out here.










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This Time for Keeps (1947): "Ten Percent"
What pushes this number into being one of my favorites is the delightful presence of Mr. Jimmy Durante. The raspy-voiced rascal is such a joy to watch and he was a fabulous screen partner for Esther. The set in this scene is also amazing to behold. It gets a little creepy when Esther goes underwater and there are smiling chorus girls just waiting for her, standing in front of these white columns... But other than that, it's pretty dandy.












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Million Dollar Mermaid (1952): A Red and Yellow Spectacle
If you're not an Esther fanatic like I am (um, WHY NOT), chances are good that you've at least got glimpses of this ballet from Million Dollar Mermaid. It's quintessential Esther Williams, with lots of colored smoke, dozens of swinging men and women, water slides, and hypnotizing visuals. If you can't tell that Busby Berkeley created this, you don't know Busby Berkeley. Watch it here. By the way, if you saw Hail, Caesar! this routine will look mighty familiar to you.












 To close out this post, I think it's only fitting that I include Esther's segment from That's Entertainment, introduced by Donald O'Connor and featuring many of the routines I discussed:


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This post is my first of two for En Pointe: the Ballet Blogathon, co-hosted by Christina Wehner and myself. Please check out the incredible roster here.

Comments

  1. Oh, this is perfect! It has been a hot day with no AC and I think an Esther Williams movie might be the perfect thing for tonight. Just watching these clips makes me feel cooler. :)

    I so agree about Montalban. I think he's actually my favorite of her partners (though I'm biased because I have a bit of a Montalban crush).

    Just looking at these images, you can tell what a beautiful swimmer she was!

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    1. Oh yes, an aqua musical is just the thing to make you feel better!

      I have a major crush on Montalban myself. He was such a handsome and suave man. And he could sing and dance! Swoon!

      The images Esther created while swimming are breathtaking, aren't they? I couldn't take a bad screenshot of her if I tried.

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  2. You have done the world, and me personally, a great service with your writing on Esther Williams and her films. I grew up enjoying them, but now I have a greater appreciation for them. Thanks.

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    1. Your comment is incredibly sweet and thoughtful. It's honestly made my day. :)

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  3. Gorgeous, gorgeous. I still haven't seen Jupiter's Darling or This Time for Keeps, but those sequences look mighty impressive. I'm not a fan of Texas Carnival, but Howard's Wet Dream is amazing! I always love seeing Esther in the water. I'd love one (or all) of her bathing suits! A wonderful tribute to my favorite mermaid.

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    1. Thanks, Simoa! I'll admit, I've got a problem with This Time for Keeps and his name is Johnnie Johnston. He has got to be my least favorite partner of Esther's. So smug and rude, in the film and in real life. That being said, I wouldn't pass up on any of Esther's films, so I'd still encourage you to check it (and Jupiter's Darling!) out.

      Texas Carnival is one of her weaker films, that's for sure. The best part of it is definitely the scene in Keel's hotel room.

      Aren't those suits incredible? I wish her swimsuit company made replicas of them! I'd be so broke.

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  4. Love all the screenshots! The one with the floating flowers and the one with the statues look so cool!! Thanks again for hosting!!

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    1. Thanks! Just looking at those screenshots brings a smile to my face. (Because of Esther, not because I took them, haha.)

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  5. The sequence from Million Dollar Mermaid is my favorite from waht I've seen - and her bright pink outfit in bathing Beauty is stunning! And now I've got to see Texas Carnival - a dream sequence featuring water ballet? OMG!
    Thanks for co-hosting this fun blogathon!
    Kisses!
    Le

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    1. Thanks for participating! It's been a great blogathon!

      That Million Dollar Mermaid sequence is pretty jaw-dropping. I hope you enjoy Texas Carnival whenever you see it!

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  6. This is so much fun. What a marvelous review, and so many great images demonstrating just why you appreciate her so much.

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    1. Thanks, Leah! She was a pretty special woman. Sadly, I don't think we'll ever see the likes of her films again, but at least we have what we do!

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  7. I haven't seen this one -- I just added it to my "must-see" list. BTW, nice screenshots!

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