BATHING BEAUTY (MGM 1944) TCM/Warner Home Video
“Let’s get one thing straight…I know I can’t act. I know I can’t dance…and I can’t sing, but I’m going to keep trying until I get it right!” – Esther Williams
All self-deprecating humor aside, this infamous quote from Williams, given to a reporter at the time she was shooting the second movie in which she was to receive co-star billing, 1945’s Thrill of a Romance, is likely the one piece of adlib nonsense the actress wished she could forever thereafter retract. Williams’ harshest critics were always ready to concur with this assessment, however, as New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, when assessing Esther’s successful run from 1944 to 1957, concluded: “I’m really lost about Esther Williams’ work in the movies…but if nothing else, they had to be extremely difficult and dangerous to shoot!” Williams’ tenure as America’s mermaid in 26 aquacade movies for MGM saw her through multiple pregnancies, and, as many physical injuries, from a fractured neck to a bruised ego and beyond; enduring ‘the rapture’ during an extended underwater sequence shot for 1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid. As Esther’s lungs compressed from holding her breath too long, she later recalled director, Mervyn LeRoy shouting 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!”
Exactly how did this little known 19-year-old hopeful, with barely enough experience as a sales girl at the posh I. Magnin department store, shift gears and her dreams of becoming an Olympic swimmer (delayed by the onset of WWII), to instead debut as one of the star attractions at 1939’s New York World’s Fair, and, winning the chance of a lifetime from talent scouts, who desperately wanted her to audition at MGM (an invitation she repeatedly refused before finally – and very reluctantly – acquiescing). That Williams went on to become a bona fide movie star, far more uniquely situated than most (there was only one Esther Williams) truly is the stuff from which dreams are made. And while Williams’ catalog of splashy Technicolor fantasies is rife with examples of truly inspired film-making, the one Esther Williams’ movie that belongs on everyone’s keepsake list, were they ever to become stranded on the proverbial desert isle, is 1944’s Bathing Beauty; her real/reel debut at MGM in the first of many lavishly appointed pieces of Technicolor escapism. Initially, L.B. Mayer’s reaction to Williams being put under contract was less than enthusiastic. “How the hell are we going to make a movie in a pool?” Mayer was abruptly informed by director, George Sidney, “The same way Darryl F. Zanuck does with Sonya Henie and ice skating rinks.”
Williams might have enjoyed the experience more, had her anxieties about co-starring opposite Red Skelton, who grumbled incessantly about having to shave his auburn chest hairs, had not been further exacerbated by the implosion of her own 4-year marriage to Dr. Leonard Kovner. Apparently, Mr. Kovner’s idea of ‘the little woman’ had Esther staying at home and knitting booties, although he was not above demanding Williams pay him $1500 to get out of the marriage; virtually the entire sum she had scrimped and saved from her year-long stint in Billy Rose’s Aquacade at the World’s Fair. Instructed by producer, Sam Katz to surrender the cash to her ex, under a provision in writing he would not ask for one penny more thereafter, Esther would be well rewarded in this leap of faith when MGM put her under contract, upping her weekly salary to $350 a week (she was only getting $75 a month in the aquacade), and affording her the plush accoutrements of a real star’s dressing room, redecorated to suit her tastes. To ensure Williams’ glycerin charms remained intact, despite being daily submerged in chlorinated water, Max Factor developed a new water-resistant makeup; Esther’s hair, gingerly saturated in a sticky confection of warm baby oil and Vaseline, braided, then augmented by artificial braids, held in place with heavy clamps and hairpins that left welts and indentations all over her scalp. Ah me…pain is beauty, I suppose.
Bathing Beauty was actually begun under the title, ‘Mr. Coed’ – as a star vehicle for Red Skelton (whom the studio was grooming as their response to Bob Hope) with Esther in support. Owing to her prowess in the pool, Sam Katz convinced Mayer to green-light a massive renovation of the studio’s largest sound stage; Stage 30, where a massive ninety-by-ninety indoor pool, twenty-five feet deep, was built with enough special effects engineering to make the likes of magician, David Copperfield blush. The pool contained hydraulic lifts, gently submersed fountains, enormous geysers, and, gas-lit pyrotechnics, its proscenium outlined in art deco columns capped by floral arrangements, and, situated between two gargantuan platforms where the likes of Xavier Cugat and his orchestra, and Harry James and His Band would later perform. At a staggering cost of $250,000, the water pressure alone, fed through needle nozzles, could envelope this entire set in a 60-foot curtain of sparkling mist. Given the extravagance of this undertaking, all in service to the film’s water-logged finale, Mr. Coed could no longer be the title. Indeed, what would finally rise from these ebbing tides was not a Red Skelton movie, but the first in a long line of Esther Williams’ aquacades, sending cash registers ringing around the world.
1944 marked another banner year for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, as it continued to acquire new talent the way you or I do paper clips – by the handful. Esther Williams’ arrival on the scene perfectly fit into Mayer’s notions of wholesome family entertainment, diverting from the rigors of war and carefully timed with an infectious blend of songs, good humor and never taxing storyline. The thimble of a plot, scripted by Dorothy Kingsley, Allen Boretz and Frank Waldman, is easily distilled into a single strand of consciousness: a mournful husband enlists in an all-girl’s college to win back the affections of his estranged wife, who just happens to teach there. Fraught with hilarious misdirection, superb casting, exceptional production values, and, an unabashedly playful score, Bathing Beauty is chiefly memorable, even iconic, because of its easily excised and predigested parts, rather than their total sum. Skelton (as Tin Pan Alley songwriter, Steve Elliot) tells jokes. Esther (his lovely young bride, Caroline Brooks) swims. In between, we have Basil Rathbone, as devious Broadway producer, George Adams, Jacqueline Dalya, as Maria Dorango (an unwitting accomplice in the break-up of Caroline and Steve’s marriage), and the electric fingers of former ‘Hit Parade’ organist, Ethel Smith – playing a college music teacher named (wait for it) Ethel Smith! Other bit parts are filled out by Jean Porter, as a plucky frosh, Janise Paige (a savvier school girl), Donald Meeks (lovable drunkard, Chester Klazenfrantz), Bill Goodwin (stuffy professor, Willis Evans, having set his cap for Caroline on the rebound), Ann Codee (humorously stern ballet master, Madame Zarka), Nana Bryant (as the clever, if compassionate, Dean Clinton), and finally, to satisfy the trending craze then for all things Latin American, Carlos Ramirez (as Steve’s baritone-warbling buddy, Carlos).
Bathing Beauty is a richly mounted uber-kitschy musical escapism that resplendently glistens from start to finish as the sun-lit ripples in a backyard pool. It is a summer movie to be sure, ironically photographed in January, partly on location at Lakeside Country Club in the San Fernando Valley; its turgidly brown rolling lawns dyed bright green for the Technicolor cameras, effectively ruining the sod and forcing MGM to cover the costs to re-seed it in the spring. Bathing Beauty’s prologue tells us everything we need to know about the next hour and forty-eight minutes: “We don’t know if this story actually happened, but if it did happen it couldn’t happen in a nicer place than California.” And thus, we are off on a pleasurable excursion into that fabricated and fanciful dome of oddities affectionately known to all toiling on the back lot at Culver City. Bathing Beauty is not a Joe Pasternak production, although in hindsight, it just as easily could have been; its lithe mixture of pop tunes (of which 1929’s ‘Te quiero dijiste’ – a.k.a. ‘Magic Is the Moonlight, once more became a huge hit, alongside Johnny Green’s ‘I’ll Take the High Note’) and re-orchestrated snippets from a more classical repertoire (everything from Strauss’ Die Fledermaus Overture to Jascha Heifetz’s Hora Staccato gets covered) proving irresistible to the masses.
Veering toward the more melodic, Helen Forrest’s syrupy rendition of ‘I Cried For You’; the exotic, fleshed out by Lina Romay, accompanied by Xavier Cugat and his orchestra, who open the show with the spirited and playful, ‘Bim, Bam, Bum’, center it with the extravagantly staged, ‘Alma llanera’, and close out the musical program with ‘The Thrill of a New Romance’ – kicking off Esther’s spectacular water ballet, interpolated with Harry James’ Boogie Woogie. Last but not least, Ethel Smith lent her dynamite fingering to two tour de forces performed on an organ, ‘By the Waters of Minnetonka’ and the electrifying ‘Tico-tico no fubá.’ We have to give it to Metro’s extraordinary ability in the forties in particular to throw everything but the proverbial kitchen sink at the movie screen and, more often than not, come up with one gorgeously sublime and towering musical achievement after another; perfect fodder for war-weary audiences desperate to set aside their woes for just an hour or two. “In those days we left MGM movies with a smile,” Ricardo Montalban later recalled, “If was fictious, let it be…it really relaxed you…it was wonderful.” And indeed, Bathing Beauty is a picture to leave even the most hardened cynic grinning from ear to ear, if only because of the audaciousness in the exercise itself; buoyed by oceans of love and effervescently held together by Metro’s uniquely branded ‘je ne sais quoi’ for a world perfectly re-conceived as idyllic, warm and full of most-welcomed surprises.
Bathing Beauty begins at the country club as pop tune writer, Steve Elliott makes his intentions known to New York producer, George Adams; he plans to give up songwriting and settle down with Caroline Brooks who has pledged to retire from her job as a college swimming instructor once they are wed. Exactly what the happy couple will live on after they find themselves unemployed is open for discussion. But hey – this is an MGM picture. What me worry for a trivial little thing like ‘money’?!? Naturally, Adams is gravely concerned. After all, he was counting on Steve to write the score for his new water ballet show. So, Adams enlists a former flame, Maria Dorango to pose as a Latin-American singer already married to Steve. Interrupting Caroline and Steve’s nuptials with the declaration Steve is her husband, and, producing three red-headed boys wearing sombreros besides, Caroline does not even give Steve a chance to explain, but rather rushes for the first plane back to Victoria College in New Jersey to resume her instructor’s career – the sadder, but none the wiser, girl.
Undaunted, Steve and his pal, Carlos Ramirez, tail Caroline to Victoria but are denied access at the gate as the college is strictly all-female. In despair, Steve’s resolve is given a badly needed boost when he accidentally bumps into the college’s inebriated attorney, Chester Klazenfrantz in a posh New York nightclub, managed by his good friend, Harry James. It seems Klazenfrantz has been hired to change Victoria’s charter as the college never was officially designated as all-female. Girding his loins, Steve returns to Victoria and insists on entering as a new applicant. Unaware of Caroline’s estrangement from Steve, Dean Clinton concurs, the college cannot deny him his application However, it can recommend expulsion after a two-week probationary period if the faculty can find reasons enough to give Steve 100 demerits. Newly enrolled, Steve makes valiant attempts to shore up his relationship with Caroline. She is hardly receptive to his explanations. Meanwhile, the other students, quite familiar with Steve’s reputation for writing pop tunes greatly valued on the hit parade, rally to his side. Thus, when stodgy music professor, Hendricks (Francis Pierlot) tries to discredit Steve by ordering him to re-orchestrate his own version of the Scottish ballad, Loch Lomond, Steve enlists not only the student body, but also the formidable talents of Carlos, Hendrick’s assistant (Ethel Smith) and Harry James and his orchestra. Steve and his entourage perform, ‘I’ll Take the High Note’ – a superb riff on this time-honored ballad. It brings down the house, even leaving Dean Clinton exuberant, and forcing Hendricks to concede defeat by affording Steve an ‘A’ for his efforts.
Later that evening, Steve launches into yet another reconciliation with Caroline at her house. Instead, he is discouraged to learn Caroline is entertaining Willis Evans (Bill Goodwin), a conservative botany professor who has always been in love with her. Realizing Steve is hiding in her closet to spy on them, Caroline commands Duke, Willis’ Great Dane to stand guard, at the same time reminding Steve if he is not back in his basement dorm by eight o’clock, he will be expelled for breaking curfew. Managing his escape in the nick of time, Steve is confronted by Adams who threatens to vilify him in the press unless he finishes the score for his big show. As yet unaware it was Adams who hired Maria to wreck his marriage, Steve vows to seriously hurt the person responsible for his present predicament. Meanwhile, as Parents Day is fast approaching, Dean Clinton raises concerns among the faculty. Steve cannot remain at Victoria or the college will be subject to grave ridicule. Henceforth, all of Steve’s professors are encouraged to find legitimate reasons to ascribe him enough demerits to recommend his expulsion. To this end, ballet instructor, Mme. Zarka forces Steve to appear in class wearing a pink tutu and dance with the co-eds. Once again, despite his misgivings and humiliation, Steve rises to the occasion.
In desperation, Dean Clinton encourages Caroline to go out on a date with Steve and make certain the two arrive back at the college too late for curfew. Caroline reluctantly agrees to this subterfuge, but later, regretting her deception, begins to fall in love with her husband all over again. Furthermore, Steve is finally successful at convincing his wife he is innocent of the charge of polygamy. Having renewed their faith in each other, the couple make plans to return to California together. Unbeknownst to anyone, Maria has arrived at Victoria, looking to exonerate herself and expose Adams as the deceiver. What follows is a calamity of riotous proportions, vaguely reminiscent of the infamous ‘state room’ scene from the Marx Bros. classic, A Night at the Opera (1935) as Steve’s campus sorority tries to initiate him. Maria is forced to hide in the closet, along with Adams, Carlos and the rest of the girls. Plucky pledge, Jean Allenwood (Jean Porter) arrives with devastating news. Dean Clinton and her parents are on their way to inspect Steve’s basement accommodations. All hell breaks loose as Caroline and Maria are forced to hide in the same closet, and Caroline, stubbornly refuses to accept Steve’s implausible – but nevertheless true – claim of innocence. Expelled from Victoria, Steve begrudgingly returns to New York to write the score for Adam’s show. However, Maria has finally intercepted Caroline with the whole truth. As Caroline prepares to star in the lavish aquacade (Williams was actually suffering from pneumonia at the time she shot these scenes), she informs Steve it was Adams who orchestrated the whole darn quagmire. Happily, reunited with Caroline, Steve nevertheless wants his revenge, diving into the pool after Adams and nearly drowning before being rescued by Caroline, the couple ecstatically slipping beneath the waves.
Bathing Beauty is a boisterous and blissful fantasy romance. And although Esther Williams would star in many more like-minded outings during her tenure at Metro (1952’s Million Dollar Mermaid and 1953’s Easy to Love the very best among them), none quite rival Bathing Beauty for its infectiously innocent blend of lithe charm and top-heavy musical talent, spellbinding, on tap and giving it their all. Bathing Beauty and Williams are also credited with virtually inventing ‘synchronized swimming’ as an Olympic event. Viewed today, the picture has everything one could hope for in a musical and has lost none of its youthful charm, as wholesome and unspoiled entertainment with the passage of time as the day of its premiere. Largely here, the credit must go to Esther Williams. Indeed, in only her third picture (her first as a leading lady), Williams is already a seasoned pro in front of the camera; kudos to Metro’s impressive roster of handlers and coaches who, under Mayer’s tutelage, could refine and transform a virtual unknown into a bona fide star of the first magnitude in record time; of course, provided the personality in question had what it takes to become a star.
And Esther Williams possessed this unerring, inimitable and intangible quality in spades. Williams, who left us in 2013, was a remarkable performer, one hell of a good sport, and a delicious raconteur; one of the last legitimate links to ‘old Hollywood’ who frequently, and with a genuine zest for living, could strip away its mask of faux incredulity, playfully to expose the ‘grand ole days’ for what they were. Case in point: all early Technicolor movies required their stars to appear in screen tests, holding a cardboard and metal plaque with a spectrum of colors to see how they would register on camera under the current lighting conditions. This gadget was known as ‘a lily’. “You know,” Esther mused decades later, “I often wondered what Lana Turner was doing while I was holding that goddamn lily. (pregnant pause) I know what she was holding.” Despite having to deal with some fairly temperamental ‘artistic types’ during her years in the biz, Esther Williams remained circumspect and exceedingly grateful for the opportunities that had come her way. Labeling MGM as her ‘university’, in which she received a ‘diploma’ as a much-beloved Hollywood icon that continues to endure, Williams would acknowledge, “I came to the studio as a swimmer and left it as America’s mermaid. For some reason, people still tend to remember me that way.”
We sincerely wish the Warner Archive would get busy remastering at least four or five of Esther’s aquacades for Blu-ray, starting with Bathing Beauty. The movie received a photochemical ‘restoration’ in 1992 for its MGM/UA LaserDisc release but with questionable results that have remained intact on Warner Home Video’s farming out of Bathing Beauty as part of the TCM Spotlight Collection Vol. 1. Given Bathing Beauty’s stature as ‘the first’ in Esther’s long line of aquacade classics, it is rather appalling it learn it has never been released as a proper and deluxe stand-alone by the studio – even through its own Archive. Bathing Beauty on DVD sports an inconsistently rendered image. At times, the Technicolor really looks snappy, with bold and richly saturated hues that come close to rekindling the sparkle of the vintage 3-strip process. At other intervals, colors are so muddy one wonders if the sources used in the restoration were so severely damaged as to not allow any further clean-up at that time. What ought to have happened in 1998 – the year Warner farmed out Bathing Beauty to TCM – was a complete digital remastering of the original Technicolor negative. Presumably, this has survived although, judging by the current results on DVD, it was never consulted.
Apart from the inconsistent color, we also have some dirt, nicks, chips and scratches to contend with; anomalies that could have – and should have – been corrected in the digital world. Contrast is weaker than anticipated too and there are also traces of Technicolor mis-registration. Again, this too ought to have been fixed. The 2.0 mono audio is adequate for this release. We also get a few short subjects. But Bathing Beauty on DVD is a complete fail. Disappointingly so, given the reputation Esther Williams continues to hold as America’s mermaid. Will the Warner Archive ever get around to remastering this one on Blu-ray? We sincerely hope so and will champion the studio to do better by this fun and fabulous flick. For now, the only way to appreciate Bathing Beauty is to buy TCM’s Spotlight Collection, which also includes the rather forgettable, Easy to Wed, On an Island with You, Neptune’s Daughter (whose one claim to fame is the Oscar-winning ditty, ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’) and Dangerous When Wet (co-starring Fernando Lamas, and, the one that sports an animated sequence where Esther swims with Metro’s resident cat and mouse team - Tom and Jerry). ‘I got outta bed on the right side’ this morning, only to discover Bathing Beauty still needs a better release than this! In Blu-ray from WAC and soon…pretty please.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)