Wednesday, October 21, 2009

ESTHER WILLIAMS VOL 2 (MGM 1945-53) Warner Home Video

A little over two years ago Warner Home Video, in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies, released Volume One of Esther Williams; a mixed blessing, since none of the 5 films included in the set had been restored and two in particular (Easy To Wed, and, Bathing Beauty) were in pretty rough shape. Hence, the celebratory tribute was somewhat blunted by a less than stellar visual presentation. Even more curious for fans was the fact that many of Esther's better screen efforts had been omitted - most noticeably Easy to Love and Million Dollar Mermaid. Perhaps the most promising feature of Volume One was that it was clearly marked as 'volume one' - with the commitment to more volumes to follow in the future.

Now, Warner Home Video and TCM have lived up to that promise with their Spotlight edition of Esther Williams Vol. Two - an all together more satisfying launch of America's mermaid. The films in this set span Esther's career from 1945 to 1953 - the flourishing years of the MGM musical and Esther's career as one of the studio's most popular and bankable stars.

Richard Thorpe's Thrill of a Romance (1945) kicks off Volume 2's selections; an all together enjoyable and light hearted romp. Williams is Cynthia Glenn, a swimming instructor living blissfully with her slightly obtuse and loveable Uncle Hobart (Henry Travers) and Aunt Nona (Spring Byington). After spying Cynthia poolside, an improbable romance ensues with uppity business tycoon, Robert Delbar (Carleton G.Young). Cynthia quits her job and the couple retreat to a fabulous country resort for their honeymoon - one of MGM's implausibly lavish concoctions that makes even the Beverly Hills Hotel look second rate by comparison.

Unfortunately for Cynthia, Bob gets called away to D.C. almost immediately, leaving Cynthia with nothing to do but mingle with the other hotel guests; these include world-renown opera star Nils Knudsen (Lauritz Melchior) and returning war hero, Major Thomas Milvaine (Van Johnson). A comedy of errors has mantrap Maude Bancroft (Frances Gifford) erroneously assuming that prize fighter, K.O. Karny (Donald Curtis) is Milvaine, leaving Cynthia wide open to pursue a platonic relationship with the real Major. They share long walks through the country and pleasant enough turns in the pool as Cynthia teaches Milvaine to tread water.

There's really not much more to the story, as Bob remains respectfully out of view long enough for Cynthia to realize what a mistake their whirlwind marriage is. What makes Thrill of Romance so enticing is therefore not so much plot as it is presentation , with MGM pulling out all the stops via glamour and gaiety to really package up a neat entertainment. At 105 minutes we get Helena Stanley (as Susan Dorsey) playing The Man with The Horn - a sort of fractured classical meets swing tribute to Tommy Dorsey, as well as Buddy Rich performing a mean drum solo. And Melchior is in fine voice, belting out a series of favourites including Viva La Company. All in all then, Thrill of a Romance scores as effortless entertainment, charmingly put forth by MGM's dream factory at the height of its producing powers.

Far more curious is the next film in Volume 2, Richard Thorpe's Fiesta (1947); arguably not an Esther Williams vehicle at all, but rather a launching pad for the careers of Ricardo Montalban and Cyd Charisse. Cast as twins, Williams and Montalban are Maria and Mario Morales - heirs to their father Antonio's (Fortunio Bonanova) estate. Mario's love is music, but Antonio believes that his son's future is in the arena as a great bullfighter. A father/son rift develops after Antonio deliberately sabotages Mario's chances of meeting famed Mexican conductor, Maximino Contreras (Hugo Haas) to further his music career, forcing Mario to flee amongst the people. Bitter and forsaken, Mario accidentally hears one of his own compositions 'Mexican Fantasia' played on the radio while in a street cafe. Rushing into Contreras' office, Mario learns that it is Maria who has arranged for his composition to be played. In the implausible finale that ensues, Maria bribes one of her father's servants, Chato (Akim Tamaroff) into taking Mario's place in the arena and is nearly skewered by the bull for her efforts.

Assuming that it is Mario in the ring, Antonio realizes that his son's true passion is music - not bullfighting - and gives his blessing. Somewhere in between this implausible plot line, a budding romance develops between Mario and Conchita (Cyd Charisse); tapped out to electrifying perfection in 'The Flaming Flamenco'. There's also a rather tepid relationship in store for Maria and milquetoast Pepe Ortega (John Carroll). None of these subplots seems to gel however, but the musical numbers, including 'La Bamba' keep the pace lively enough.

Next up is typical Esther fare with Richard Thorpe's This Time For Keeps (1947); a frothy, tune filled escape that MGM so readily excelled at in its heyday. The son of famed opera star (Lauritz Melchior), Richard Herald Jr. (Johnny Johnston) is a returning GI who is expected to join his father's opera company and marry Frances Allenbury (Mary Stuart); a high society gal. Tragically, young Herald has other plans - set to jazz and the thrill of another romance with lusciously leggy, Aquacade star Nora Cambaretti (Esther Williams).

Richard attempts to get a job with the Aquacade as a means to procure their romance. However, Nora's accompanist Ferdi Farrow (the ever-loveable Jimmy Durante) keeps the young Locinvar at bay by arranging work for Richard with Xavier Cugat's orchestra instead. Pursuing Nora to Mackinaw Island, Richard ingratiates himself with Nora's grandmother (Dame May Whitty), a retired circus performer. Unfortunately for Richard, the jilted Ms. Allenbury arrives to threaten his budding aspirations on both fronts.

The film clings together, precariously so, with some truly lush photography and winning musical performances by all concerned. Threadbare on plot, This Time For Keeps maintains a momentum that producer Joe Pasternak was generally famous for - mixing the light, the heavy, the implausible and the down right fantastic into an intoxicating blend of good cheer.

Robert Alton's Pagan Love Song (1950) is perhaps the only dud in Volume 2's canon. At 76 minutes, it's one of the shortest films in Esther's canon and one of the most unrelentingly dull.

Rich baritone, Howard Keel is cast as Ohio school teacher cum coconut plantation owner, Hap Endicot. After initial disappointment at discovering that the plantation is virtually in ruins, Hap becomes inspired and rallies the locals into helping him rebuild. The only excitement on the island materializes in the sultry form of half Tahitian/American Mimi Bennett (Williams), who is slated to depart for New York unless Hap can get his romantic game on.Inconsequential to a fault, Pagan Love Song's nimble plot is fleshed out by a few moderately enjoyable musical numbers: none that are enough to distinguish this musical as anything but largely forgettable. Alton's camera work is commendable and the Hawaiian locales (subbing for Tahiti) are sumptuous to be sure - but it somehow doesn't seem quite enough to hold the audience's interest.

Next up in Esther's best film, Mervyn LeRoy's Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) - a largely fabricated out of thin air bio pic reporting to be the life and times of aquatic sensation Annette Kellerman. Australian born to doting father, Frederick (Walter Pigeon), as a sickly child the young Annette (played by Donna Corcoran) strengthens her polio-crippled legs by learning to swim in the pond not far from the Kellerman's Conservatory of Music. Fast tracking through a series of competitions, Kellerman (now sufficiently aged to be played by Williams) becomes a champion swimmer, only to learn that Frederick's finances have been bankrupted.

Selling the conservatory on the promise of employment in London, Frederick and Annette board a luxury liner where they meet James Sullivan (Victor Mature) and Doc Cronnal (Jesse White); a pair of shameless charlatan promoters whose latest act is Sidney - the boxing kangaroo. Sullivan is convinced that Annette has a future as an aquatic star and offers to help promote her when they arrive in London - an idea immediately shot down by Frederick who believes that swimming should remain Annette's hobby rather than her career.

Unhappy circumstance for the Kellermans, who arrive in London to learn that Frederick's new place of employment has closed, leaving Annette and Frederick penniless. Desperate for cash, Annette catches onto Sullivan's plan to swim the English Channel, thereby attracting instant media attention. Sullivan convinces the Kellermans that America is where they belong, with Annette headlining New York's gargantuan Hippodrome. Although the theatre's manager, Alfred Harper (David Brian) agrees that Annette would be a sensation, he cannot promote a virtual unknown along with the other big acts and quietly turns Sullivan down.

However, after Annette makes headlines for appearing in a scandalous two piece bathing suit off the Coney Island pier, she once again garners media coverage. Sullivan crafts his own modest showcase for her to appear in and eventually the management of the Hippodrome decide to give Annette her big break. She appears in several spectacular ballets and Harper, who has by now developed a romantic yen for her, proposes marriage. He even sweetens the deal by hiring Frederick to conduct the Hippodrome orchestra. Tragedy strikes, however, as Alfred dies of a heart attack.

Annette attempts to convince James that he should settle down, but the wayward Sullivan has his own plans to be the first man to fly across the United States in his homemade plane. A tiff leads to a break up and Alfred moves in with designs on making Annette his own. Romantically torn between James and Alfred, Annette leaves the Hippodrome for a movie deal in California. But the glass in Annette's swimming tank breaks, flooding the set and damaging her spinal cord with the very real threat of lifelong paralysis.

Million Dollar Mermaid presents Esther Williams with the first genuine acting assignment of her career - a challenge she admirably rises to with dramatic perfection. Busby Berkeley's inventive Smoke and Fountain sequences, presumably taking place in the Hippodrome's tank, are the musical highlight in an otherwise largely musical free drama that miraculously retains both our admiration and respect.

Charles Walters' Easy To Love (1953) rounds out Volume 2's offerings on a spectacular - if ultra-fluffy - note with Esther cast as Julie Hallerton; a Cypress Garden aquacade star under the guiding hand of Ray 'Cash Register' Lloyd (Van Johnson). Ray knows how to market his bevy of beauties to the public. He also knows how to play fast and loose with Julie's romantic affections.

Presumably to make Ray jealous, Julie begins dating Hank (John Bromfield); a buff Texan who co-stars with her in several water spectaculars. Julie tells Ray that Hank is about to propose to her; a move that leads Ray to pack Julie off to New York - but not because he's jealous. Only because he believes that marriage to anyone - least of all him - will ruin her career. The plan of escape backfires when Julie catches the eye of nightclub crooner Barry Gordon (Tony Martin) who promises marriage, money and a life for Julie away from Cyprus Gardens. So, what is Ray to do?

For starters, he recalls Julie to Florida, believing that the separation will make her forget about Barry. Unfortunately for Ray, Barry isn't one to so easily give up. He pursues Julie to Cyprus where a curiously unromantic menage a trois ensues with Ray, Hank and Barry all attempting to procure grand overtures to win Julie's affections.

The film's strengths are obvious; the lush Florida locations captured in brilliantly saturated hues of Technicolor, plus the beautifully staged climactic water ski finale, shot from every conceivable, and occasionally, seeming logistically impossible angle. Also soothing is Cole Porter's title track and the less than memorable Didja Ever - sung by Martin as part of Barry's nightclub act. The chief misfire is arguably casting. Van Johnson's Ray is so unappealing in his scheming and lack of genuine affection for our Julie that it's difficult to understand why she would prefer him to either Hank or Barry - except that both are about as animated as wet paint of a horizontal surface.

All the films in Vol. Two are presented in 4:3 aspect ratio and Technicolor. Of the lot, Fiesta's image is the most problematic with bumped contrast levels and a rather unhealthy reddish hue cast over almost the entire camera negative. The most perfectly realized transfer in the bunch is Easy To Love with eye-popping colors and a startling amount of fine detail evident throughout. A close second is Thrill of A Romance - though there are several glaring instances of Technicolor mis-registration that create annoying halos and blur the overall sharpness of the image. This Time for Keeps delivers a pleasing enough transfer, though it's color seems slightly less saturated than it ought to be. Pagan Love Song's image is not quite as sharp as the others and exhibits some rather obvious fading of the original film elements. Million Dollar Mermaid's transfer is solidly average with several sequences looking fairly impressive by comparison - most noticeably, the fountain and smoke water ballets.

The audio on all films is mono as originally intended, but Easy to Love's audio appears slightly more strident in spots than the rest; particularly during the orchestrations for the climactic water ski finale. Extras are superfluous at best, with several musical outtakes being the highlights. There are also short subjects and theatrical trailers to indulge in. Bottom line: recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Thrill of a Romance 3.5
Fiesta 3
This Time For Keeps 3.5
Pagan Love Song 2.5
Million Dollar Mermaid 4
Easy to Love 4.5

Thrill of a Romance 3.5
Fiesta 2.5
This Time For Keeps 3
Pagan Love Song 3
Million Dollar Mermaid 3.5
Easy To Love 4.5


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