Thursday, July 19, 2007

ESTHER WILLIAMS VOL. 1 (MGM 1944-1953) Warner Home Video

In a critique of 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid, a reviewer for Time Magazine once wrote, “I’m really lost about Esther Williams work in the movies…but if nothing else they had to be extremely dangerous to film.”

They were – as Williams herself has attested to in numerous interviews. At one point during the filming of an underwater ballet, the actress succumbed to ‘the rapture’ – a diver’s worst nightmare, her lungs temporarily collapsed from lack of oxygen. Director Mervyn LeRoy, who was overseeing Williams as she drifted into unconsciousness at the bottom of the pool, but oblivious to her plight, shouted at her using his underwater microphone – “Esther…what the hell are you doing? We can’t keep you in focus at the bottom of the pool, we’re not lit for that!”

Comedian Fanny Brice was even more glib in her snap analysis of Williams’ star power, saying “In the water she’s fabulous. On dry land she’s just a nice girl who should settle down and have children.” But perhaps Ms. Brice was a wee bit jealous of Esther’s formidable talents.

Besides having the face and figure of a goddess (both photogenic beyond compare to most contemporary starlets), Williams has proven, at least in retrospect, to have also been an adroit comedian, a competent singer and dancer and one hell of a dynamic swimmer. She’s also one of the most frankly honest raconteurs, capable of waxing affectionately about her days at MGM but with a razor sharp wit that cuts both ways.

Despite having her hopes for an Olympic medal dashed when the games were canceled because of WWII, Esther’s antics in the saucer pool at MGM directly led to the creation of synchronized swimming as an Olympic sport a decade later. One fact about Williams’ career is irrefutable: it remains resilient, unique and endearingly popular with audiences to this day.

When the idea of building an entire film around a swimmer was pitched to L.B. Mayer in the fall of 1942, Mayer reportedly said “How the hell do you make films in a pool?” He was told, “The same way Darryl F. Zanuck does with Sonja Henie and ice skates.” Much to Mayer’s fascination, finding ways of keeping Williams wet became a favorite past time for MGM’s writing department – the creation of 26 aquacade musical comedies making Esther Williams one of the most iconic superstars of the late forties and early fifties.

Now, TCM and Warner Home Video open the floodgates on Esther Williams Vol. One – a five film compendium that, unfortunately, isn’t as good at showcasing MGM’s underwater goldmine as one might expect. This collection includes Esther’s entrée into the aquacade; Bathing Beauty (1944), a remake of Libeled Lady in which Esther remains pretty much on dry land - Easy to Wed (1946); the rather lack luster – but glossy, On An Island With You (1948), the abysmally garish Neptune’s Daughter (1949) and almost low key, Dangerous When Wet (1953).

In Bathing Beauty (1944), Esther is cast as Caroline Brooks, a professor at Victoria; an all girls’ college. Caroline marries her dreamboat - composer Steve Elliot (Red Skelton) while on a vacation at Sun Valley. But she is erroneously led to believe that Elliot is already the husband of Spanish vixen, Maria Dorango (Jacqueline Dalya). The wrinkle; Elliot’s unscrupulous agent, George Adams (Basil Rathbone) has contracted Dorango to play the part so that Elliot will forget Caroline, give up on his plans for early retirement and continue writing scores for his new shows.

The rest of the plot is threadbare at best, with Elliot trying to convince Caroline that he is innocent. To that end, he registers as a student at Victoria resulting in some spectacularly riotous vignettes that are a high water mark in comedy. The plot is also immeasurably fleshed out by its musical program that includes Latin tenor Carlos Ramirez, organist Ethel Smith, Harry James and his Music Makers and Xavier Cugat with Lina Romay. Musical highlights include Cugie’s Bim Bam Boom, Smith’s electrifying Tico Tico, Ramirez’s Te Quiero Dijiste and James’ Hora Staccato – all taking a backseat to the lush and lavish aquacade finale featuring James, Cugat and, of course, Esther doing what she does best.

Easy to Wed (1946) is a rather lack luster remake of MGM’s Libeled Lady. Funny man Keenan Wynn is Warren Haggerty – an editor whose newspaper is about to be sued for slander by trite (and on this occasion, rather boorish) Connie Allenbury (Esther Williams). Complicating matters is the fact that Haggerty has broken his engagement to fiancée, Gladys Benton (Lucille Ball) for the umpteenth time. To resolve his issues with Allenbury, Haggerty employs lady’s man Bill Chandler (Van Johnson) to pursue the ice princess. 

But first comes the wrinkle: Bill must marry Gladys to make a charge of 'alienation of affection' stick against Connie – thereby getting his paper off the hook for false accusations. The script is fairly faithful to the original comedy classic, but with songs and dances inexplicably inserted. The best by far is Van Johnson and Esther William’s Bona Pixie – a Latin rumba that proves moderately infectious. For the rest, Easy to Wed is a standard musical with less than standard musical offerings.

On An Island with You (1948) is fluff to the ‘enth degree, immeasurably aided from succumbing to its own treacle by some truly glorious Florida everglade location footage (subbing in for Honolulu). The film stars Williams as a Rosalind Reynolds, a movie star in love with costar Ricardo Montez (Ricardo Montalban) – much to the great sadness of both supporting player, Yvonne Torro (Cyd Charisse) and Lt. Lawrence Kingslee (Peter Lawford), who has been hired as technical adviser on Rosalind's latest movie. 

To get Rosalind away from Ricardo, Lawrence decides to fly her to a remote isle – supposedly to scout locations. But his plan goes awry when their plane is damaged and grounded on the island. Once again, MGM packs the background with a lot of color to make us forget how contrived the plot is: Xavier Cugat is on hand, as is comedian Jimmy Durante, endearingly fracturing one of the best musical highlights in the film ‘I Can Live Without Broadway.’

The next film is Neptune’s Daughter (1949); an abysmally second rate offering from MGM – it’s one claim to fame being that it includes the Oscar winning song ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ sung by all the principles to either riotous or romantic effect. For the rest, the film stars Williams as Eve Barrett, the manufacturer of a trendy line of swim wear who finds herself staving off romantic advances from Latin playboy, Jose O’Rourke (Ricardo Montalbaun). In the meantime, love struck Jack Spratt (Red Skelton) finds himself in similar territory – beating off the ravenous libido of Eve’s sister, Betty (Betty Garrett). Short on its musical program, Neptune's Daughter lacks in almost every department. The plot is threadbare. The songs are few, far between and largely forgettable. The aquacade finale is pedestrian at best, with divers leaping from the stylized bow of a gaudy riverboat.

Finally, there’s Dangerous When Wet (1953) a sort of road show Million Dollar Mermaid. Esther is Katie Higgins – an all-around athlete in a health nut family, whose father (William Demarest) has gambled the family’s entire life savings on the prospect of Katie being able to swim the English Channel. To this end Katie is taken under the wing of Liquopep agent, Windy Weebe (Jack Carson), who wants to be more than Katie’s sponsor – only she seems to be developing grander amours for Parisian millionaire, Andre Lanet (Fernando Lamas) instead. Dangerous When Wet is charming enough, but not on par with Williams’ splashier aquacade spectaculars. In fact, apart from a rather dully animated sequence – Williams appears with MGM’s Tom & Jerry – the film does not contain any trademark swimming sequences.

So much for the films…what about the transfers? Well, those expecting quality or even consistency will be disappointed. Though On An Island with You and Dangerous When Wet both appear to have been the benefactors of some digital clean up and restoration somewhere along the way, the rest of the films in this collection vary greatly. The two aforementioned titles exhibit a sharp and nicely contrasted Technicolor image with deep solid blacks, clean whites and very bright colors. Age related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum. Flesh tones appear a bit too orange, but overall these transfers will NOT disappoint.

The worst of the bunch is easily Easy to Wed – it’s faded Technicolor marred with a very soft, grainy and age afflicted transfer that ought to have been cleaned up before being slapped onto disc. The overall experience is a real chore to get through. There is a considerable amount of age related artifacts and even a hint of edge enhancement. Not at all up to the caliber we've come to expect from Warner Home Video.

Working back in terms of overall improvements is Neptune’s Daughter. All the previous criteria apply, but to somewhat lesser degree on this title. Now, for the real slap in the face: Esther’s best film in this box – Bathing Beauty – has not been given a restoration of any kind since MGM/UA Home Video did a chemical Technicolor restoration back in 1995 to reissue the film on laserdisc. Unfortunately, someone was asleep at the controls then. Many scenes in Bathing Beauty continue to suffer from mis-registration of the original 3-strip elements and disturbing halo effects. Colors, on the whole, are slightly faded. Certain scenes appear to have been sourced from something other than an original camera negative with a considerable amount of gritty film grain, dirt and scratches evident. For shame!

The only extra of merit in this set is the inclusion of Private Screenings with TCM host, Robert Osbourne – a very concise but enjoyable interview with Esther Williams. The image quality on this interview is just fair – slightly faded and with a few choice film clips inserted. The rest of the extras boil down to several deleted songs, short subjects and cartoons and theatrical trailers for all the films in this box, as well as some that are presumably to be included as part of Esther Williams Vol. 2. 

None of these extras have been given consideration, clean up or restoration and all reflect a general state of disrepair. Overall, this is NOT the way I would have expected Warner Home Video to honor one of MGM’s biggest box office draws and one long overdue for her debut on DVD. It’s certainly NOT the way I choose to remember Ms. Williams work.

Not recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Bathing Beauty 5
Easy to Wed 3
On An Island With You 3
Neptune's Daughter 2.5
Dangerous When Wet 3

Bathing Beauty 3
Easy to Wed 1
On An Island With You 4
Neptune's Daughter 2.5
Dangerous When Wet 3.5


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