August 8, 1921 – Esther Williams:
“By the time I got home at night, my eyes were so chlorinated I saw rings around every light.”
Through the decades that Saturday Night Live has been on the air, one of the most hilarious was in 1984 with the deliciously daffy Harry Shearer and Martin Short pursuing their dreams of Olympic gold in men’s synchronized swimming. For me, it stands the test of time as one of SNL‘s very best sketches.
Synchronized swimming is a sort of hybrid of swimming, dancing, and gymnastics, with set people performing a synchronized routine, either duet, trio, mixed duet, free team, free combination, with elaborate moves in the water, accompanied by music. Also called “Artistic Swimming”, the sport is governed internationally by FINA (the part of the International Olympic Committee for administering international competition in water sports), and it has been part of the Summer Olympics since 1984.
Though denied an Olympic appearance herself, Esther Williams helped to inspire the development of synchronized swimming as an Olympic discipline. She was at those 1984 Games in Los Angeles as a commentator on the event for those fans watching on television.
Williams was dubbed “Hollywood’s Mermaid”. She swam her way through more than a dozen splashy MGM musicals in the 1940s and early 1950s. While still smiling at the camera, she would do a combination of crawl, breast and backstroke, and was forever blowing bubbles under water, seemingly having an inexhaustible supply of air.
Like Lana Turner, Kathryn Grayson and Donna Reed, she started out at MGM working in an Andy Hardy film, Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942) – though she did get to swim with star Mickey Rooney.
After a small role in A Guy Named Joe (1943), she shot to stardom in her third film, Bathing Beauty (1944). It started out as an average Red Skelton vehicle, first titled Mr. Coed, then Sing And Swim, but Williams’ superb athletic physique and lovely features were heightened by the Technicolor format to such an extent that her role was built up and the title changed. A special 90-foot square, 20-foot deep pool was built at Stage 30 on the MGM lot, complete with hydraulic lifts, hidden air hoses and special camera cranes for overhead shots.
“No one had ever done a swimming movie before, so we just made it up as we went along. I ad-libbed all my own underwater movements.”
In the movie, Williams plays a swimming instructor at a women’s college and the film ends with a spectacular water-ballet set to Johann Strauss‘s Blue Danube, with alternating jets of water and flame bursting from the pool. Variety, the showbiz daily. wrote that William was: “pulled to stardom by her swimsuit straps“.
Almost all the film’s posters featured Williams in a bathing suit, though the swimming sequences make up a small part of the film. For the premier, the MGM publicity department set up a six-story-tall billboard of Williams diving into Times Square with a large sign that said “Come on in! The story’s fine!”
Bathing Beauty was bigger at the box-office than anyone at MGM had imagined, and the studio spent the next 10 years paying screenwriters to come up with plots that found ways to get Williams wet. Williams:
“My pictures were put together out of scraps they found in the producer’s wastebasket. All they ever did for me at MGM was to change my leading men and the water in the pool.”
She sold herself short; her films were sparkling entertainments and the water ballets (the most spectacular were staged by Busby Berkeley) were breathtaking.
Next was the musical Thrill Of A Romance (1945) with Van Johnson as a decorated war veteran who falls in love with Williams while on her honeymoon. Williams had to help Johnson learn to swim, and she placed her hand under his back to keep him afloat. MGM’s publicity department tried to put the two stars together in public as much as possible in the hopes of encouraging a romance even though Johnson was gay. When asked why they didn’t date, Johnson replied:
“Because I’m afraid she can’t get her webbed feet into a pair of evening sandals.”
An Island With You (1948) and Pagan Love Song (1950) are both set on South Sea islands, giving Williams the frequent chance to strip down to her stylish swim suits and take the plunge.
She plays a bathing suit designer in Neptune’s Daughter (1949). The character is keen to demonstrate her creations herself and she is the last woman to give into the advances of a handsome polo player, played by Ricardo Montalbán. Together they sing Baby, It’s Cold Outside. The great Frank Loesser wrote the song in 1944, and he would perform it with his wife at their home as a cute party favor. The song won an Academy Award, eventually becoming one of the most famous Christmas songs in the USA, until cancel culture found it and mistakenly took it as “rapey”.
In Dangerous When Wet (1953), co-starring her future husband Fernando Lamas, is ostensibly about her character preparing to swim the English Channel. It has a nutty dream sequence in which Williams anticipates the crossing with the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry, while trying to avoid an octopus in a beret who gropes her with eight hands. It’s trippy. Williams did not give in to groping very easily on screen. Williams:
“My movies made it clear it’s all right to be strong and feminine at the same time.”
She played roles that were progressive for the era; in Fiesta (1947), Williams proves herself the equal of any male as a matador, and in Take Me Out To The Ball Game (1949), she plays the rather icy owner-manager of a baseball team, whose interest in Gene Kelly lies in his ability to play ball. Inevitably, she thaws (after a swim) and falls for his obvious charms.
Williams portrays Annette Kellerman, the real life Australian swimming champion who was one of the first women to wear a one-piece bathing costume, instead of the then-accepted pantaloons, and inspired others to follow her example in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). The climax of the film is Berkeley’s elaborately staged aquatic production number where Williams rises like Aphrodite from the water surrounded by nymphs, and dives from a tremendous height into the center of a kaleidoscopic pattern formed by the other swimmers.
Williams costar was Victor Mature, who played Kellermann’s husband/ manager. The two stars enjoyed a passionate affair during filming.
She makes an even bigger splash in the insane water-skiing ballet that ends Easy To Love (1953), one of Berkeley’s last and most spectacular sequences. Filmed on location at Cypress Gardens, Florida, it has over 30 waterskiers towed in a V formation with Williams at the tip. They jump and slalom around the beautiful star before she grabs a trapeze dangled from a helicopter, rises 500 feet, and dives into the tropical lagoon.
After the costly belly-flop of Jupiter’s Darling (1955), a Roman romp in where Williams as Amytis prevents Hannibal (Howard Keel) from sacking Rome, MGM, the studio she helped gross over $100 million in ticket sales, sacked her without even so much as a thank you.
Born in Los Angeles, Williams grew up swimming in local pools and surfing. At 16 years old, she was a member of the Los Angeles Athletic Club swimming team and had won three national championships in both the breaststroke and freestyle. Her specialties were “male only” strokes like the butterfly. A year later, she was on the 1940 U.S. Olympic team headed for Tokyo when World War II broke out, cancelling the Games along with her hopes for international fame.
Showman Billy Rose noticed a photo of her and starred her as Aquabelle opposite the Olympian Johnny Weissmuller as Aquadonis in his San Francisco Aquacade review. MGM scouts saw her in the show and signed her to a contract. Her contract had two special clauses: the first, she must receive a guest pass to The Beverly Hills Hotel where she could swim in the pool every day, and the second that she would not appear on camera for nine months to allow for acting, singing, dancing, and diction lessons.
After MGM cut her loose, Williams took dramatic roles at Universal, including The Unguarded Moment (1956), where she plays a schoolteacher sexually attacked by one of her pupils. Her final movie appearance came in Fuente Magica (1963) directed by Lamas, whom she married in 1969.
Her first marriage was in 1940 to Leonard Kovner, a doctor. On their split she said:
“I found, much to my relief, that all I needed for my emotional and personal security was my own resolve and determination. I didn’t need a marriage and a ring. I had come to realize all too quickly that Leonard Kovner was not a man I could ever really love.”
They divorced in 1944 and the next year she married radio singer Ben Gage. She and Gage had three children, whom she taught to swim soon after they were born.
In 1976, she sued MGM for $1million, claiming they had no legal right to use sequences from her films in That’s Entertainment (1974) without consulting her or offering to share profits. The matter was settled out of court.
Lamas died in 1982, and six years later Williams married a professor of French Literature, Edward Bell. Together they made profitable businesses of Esther Williams Swimming Pools and the Esther Williams Collection, one of America’s most successful swimwear brands. Her rather fanciful memoir is inevitably titled The Million Dollar Mermaid (1999).
Williams left this incarnation on dry land, dying the best way: in her sleep in her home in Beverly Hills in 2013. She was 91.