The All-American Aphrodite: Remembering Esther Williams

My cinema relationship with Esther Williams helped shape my film interests.

I didn’t full watch any of her films until 2003 when my film appetite craved musicals.

A swimming scene from "This Time for Keeps"

A swimming scene from “This Time for Keeps”

As I gorged on her candy-colored, aqua musical extravaganzas, I couldn’t wait until I could see another film. Each of her musicals brings back memories of spending weekends endlessly watching her movies.

When I was 15 I read her autobiography, “The Million Dollar Mermaid.” It’s my favorite film autobiography that I’ve read so far.

When I was 17, I bought one of her Esther Williams bathing suits.

Williams inspired me to practice swimming strokes and try to learn how to swim (I failed swimming lessons when I was five years old. How embarrassing).

I remember in 2004 when she was highlighted during TCM’s August Summer under the Stars series. I wasn’t looking forward to going back to school in August but my excitement of Esther Williams’ day out-weighed my dread.

Esther Williams and frequent co-star Van Johnson in "Easy to Wed"

Esther Williams and frequent co-star Van Johnson in “Easy to Wed” dressed for the number “Bonecu de Pixe.” Carmen Miranda helped them with the Portuguese lyrics.

But it’s not just how she affected my every day actions, but my film knowledge that makes her important to me.

To date, I have seen all but two of Esther Williams’ films: “A Raw Wind in Eden” and “The Big Show.”

Esther Williams’s films are a textbook example of the mid-1940s to early 1950s MGM musicals: brightly colored, beautiful clothing and lavish musical numbers that may include Williams swimming, Xavier Cugat and his band shaking maracas or opera singer Lauritz Melchior belting a tune.

Her films also introduced me to my biggest film crush- Van Johnson.

Something I have always found appealing about Williams is that she is very attainable.

Her beauty is natural and girl-next-door like and her figure is athletic, rather than actress anorexic. In her 1996 Private Screenings Interview with Robert Osborne, she said becoming a star was all an accident.

Her stardom was a “consolation prize” when all she had wanted was an Olympic gold medal for swimming.

Williams qualified for the 1940 Olympics, which were canceled when Poland was invaded by Hitler. She felt her career as a swimmer was over when the Olympics were canceled and she didn’t receive a swimming scholarship to the University of Southern California, she wrote in her autobiography.

The road to stardom

With Mickey Rooney in "Andy Hardy's Double Life"

With Mickey Rooney in “Andy Hardy’s Double Life”

She took a job at I. Magnum department store until producer Billy Rose called her at the store asking if she wanted to audition for the Aquacade- a show of music, dancing and swimming in San Francisco.

“You swim very fast,” Billy Rose said when she auditioned.

“That’s what I do, Mr. Rose,” Williams said. “I’m a sprint swimmer. The U.S. 100-meter freestyle champion.”

“I don’t want fast,” he said. “I want pretty.”

Williams swam with Johnny Weissmuller, Olympic swimmer turned actor, and had to escape from him after every performance, because he would try to get her out of her swim suit. The Aquacade was not a happy experience. Because of that she repeatedly told MGM that she wasn’t interested in a film career, she said in her autobiography.

“If my experience at the Aquacade with the dingy dressing room and the grabby hands was any indication, they could keep their stardom,” she wrote.  “I had a husband, a career at I. Magnin to look forward to, a whole new life. That would be enough for me.”

Williams was doubtful of the success of swimming musicals. She told producer Jack Cummings that they would make one swimming musical and never make another.

Hollywood’s mermaid

In 1947 in Biscayne Key, south of Miami, Fla., while on location.

In 1947 in Biscayne Key, south of Miami, Fla., while on location.

MGM was looking for an American Aphrodite-a tall, wholesome American girl and that was Williams.

Once Williams signed with MGM in 1940, she was molded from an athlete into a starlet- taken to speech coaches, movement coaches, acting coaches and singing coaches. She wrote she had a nagging suspicion she didn’t belong at MGM.

Something that cemented this was how Williams and acting coach Lillian Burns butt heads.

At five-foot-eight-inches, Williams wasn’t your average petite actress.

“Even though Lana Turner, Donna Reed, Debbie Reynolds and Janet Leigh swore by her, Lillian Burns and I were a mismatch,” Williams wrote. “I knew instinctively that a five-foot-eight-inch girl could not behave like a feisty, indignant little poodle with quick, jerky movements.”

Clark Gable was the first to call Williams a mermaid.

Lana Turner married Artie Shaw without consulting Louis B. Mayer and as punishment, Williams was told to make a screen test with Gable for the film “Somewhere I’ll Find You.”

Gable brought his wife Carole Lombard to the screen test and unexpectedly kissed a very nervous Williams three times-catching her off guard and ruining the screen test.

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As they left he said to Lombard, “Well, baby, I told you I was gonna kiss me a mermaid today.”

After the screen test, Williams went on to film “The Double Life of Andy Hardy” (1942) and caught everyone’s attention as she languidly swam through the water.

Then Williams swam her way to stardom with Technicolor swimming musicals such as “Bathing Beauty,” “Thrill of a Romance” and “Easy to Wed.”

Swimming musicals presented challenges for makeup and wardrobe departments. A thick cream based makeup was “slathered” on to Williams head to foot. Hairdressers used a mixture of warm baby oil and Vaseline to keep her hair in place.

“I always thought there was a little too much glee on their faces when I arrived for my morning sessions,” she wrote. “They smeared this gooey mess that looked suitable for lubricating cars into my hair and made tiny braids all over my head…By the time I made it out of hair and makeup, I was as waterproof as a mallard.”

From all the swimming scenes, Williams once broke her back and busted her ear drums countless times. She was also pregnant in two of her films: Pagan Love Song and Easy to Love.

The end of stardom

But after over 10 years of success, MGM started to change as new MGM production head Dore Schary began to “kill off what was left of MGM glamour.”

Lana Turner and Esther Williams were named has-beens by Time magazine in 1955 and Clark Gable, Van Johnson and Greer Garson were leaving MGM.

The last straw for Williams was when she was called to play the Norma Shearer role in a remake of “The Women” called “The Opposite Sex.”

“There was nothing wrong with the group of actresses chosen, but they were certainly second string compared to the originals,” she wrote. “The studio was also going to add men to the plot, an unfortunate decision since the most intriguing thing about The Women was that it was a magnificent film without men.”

Williams refused to do the picture and realized Schary was feeding her lousy scripts to force her to leave MGM.

Williams redid her dressing room to suit a star like Grace Kelly who was up-and-coming at MGM, packed her bathing suits and wax gardenias she wore in her hair in films and drove out of MGM one night without saying goodbye to anyone but the man at the gate.

Much loved star

Williams looks over a Cole of California bathing suit. She allowed the company to use her name for a bathing suit line in 1951. (LIFE/Edward Clark)

Williams looks over a Cole of California bathing suit. She allowed the company to use her name for a bathing suit line in 1951. (LIFE/Edward Clark)

But even after her career ended, Williams wasn’t a has-been star. She was a successful business woman, with her line of Esther Williams bathing suits, and helped bring synchronized swimming to the summer Olympics.

My favorite Esther Williams films are “Duchess of Idaho,” “Thrill of Romance” and “Easy to Wed”- a remake of “Libeled Lady,” this is one remake I enjoy.

Williams always makes me happy. Her smile is genuine and watching her swim through the water can soothe a worried soul.

“My life as a child, woman, lover, wife and mother-has been more than public events. Some of it has been lived on the heights of personal happiness and passion. Some of it has been filled with terrible conflict and anguish,” Williams wrote. “Yet somehow I kept my head above the water. I relied on the discipline, character and strength that I had started to develop as a little girl in her first swimming pool in southwest Los Angeles. With sufficient endurance and courage, we all can achieve some kind of victory of our lives.”

Rest in peace, Esther Williams. Thank you for bringing my family and your fans so much happiness.

Esther Williams in Swimming Pool

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7 thoughts on “The All-American Aphrodite: Remembering Esther Williams

  1. Jessica, I very much enjoyed your fascinating and affectionate tribute to the late, great Esther Williams! I never knew how much work it took to make her films look so effortless. Wow, I guess Johnny Weissmuller thought he was Tarzan in real life, too; guess there were some wolves in the Hollywood jungle after all! 🙂 The line about Esther being “as waterproof as a mallard” cracked me up! I applaud Esther for her talent and intelligence both in and out of the water! Great post!

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    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Dorian!
      I thought how they waterproofed her was pretty funny as well and pretty yucky!
      Thank you for reading 🙂

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  2. She was expecting her son Ben during the filming of “Neptune’s Daughter”. Her first child was lost during the filming of “This Time for Keeps”. After that, she insisted on using a double for the diving scenes while expecting her children.

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    • I see, I’ll have to look back in the autobio. I know there is a picture of her in both Pagan and Easy to Love where she says she was pregnant, but I’m sure she mentioned those two pieces as well.

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  3. I read her autobiography too, and I really enjoyed it! She was very honest and a great storyteller. Her movies always make me happy – they’re so colourful and vibrant! I’m sorry that she’s gone, but she really *did* live an incredible life, didn’t she? Bless her.

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  4. I enjoy your blog very much, a long time. Congratulations and I’d like to help you as Carmen Miranda helped EW back there with the Portuguese, the name of the number is “Boneca de Pixe”, it’s a nickname for any little black girl, the translation for “pixe” is “tar” (nice at that time, not today of course).
    Best
    Caulos, from Rio de Janeiro.

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  5. Pingback: Musical Mondays: “Thrill of a Romance” (1945) | Comet Over Hollywood

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