Esther Williams and the Canceled Olympics

What do you do when you’re an athlete and the Olympics are canceled? Become one of Hollywood’s top stars.

At least, that’s what Esther Williams did.

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17-year-old Esther Williams (third from left) with the Los Angeles Athletic Swim Club team in 1939.

In 1939, 17-year-old Esther Williams was the United States women’s 100 meter freestyle national champion at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Championship. She represented the Los Angeles Athletic Club with the winning time of 1:09, which was better than all but one of the swimmers for the next six years, according to the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

The AAU formerly worked closely with the United States Olympic Committee.

Williams was assured a spot on the United States team for the 1940 Summer Olympics which were going to be held in Tokyo, Japan. But the games were canceled due to the outbreak of World War II.

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 Million Dollar Mermaid.”

She said stardom was her consolation prize.

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Olympics to Hollywood: Bruce Bennett/Herman Brix

Bruce Bennett or Herman Brix? He went by either name

You may know him as actor Bruce Bennett who played Joan Crawford’s ex-husband in Mildred Pierce (1945) or perhaps as yet another actor who played Tarzan. Others know him by his birth name Herman Brix, which he was using when he won an Olympic silver medalist.

Before the Olympics and Hollywood, Bennett played football for the University of Washington when they competed in 1926 Rose Bowl Game against the University of Alabama. In that game he played against future actor Johnny Mack Brown, who was half back for Alabama. Alabama won the game 20-19.

In 1928, Herman Brix competed on the United States team in the Summer Olympic games in Amsterdam—also attended by Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe—and won a silver medal for men’s shot put in the track and field portion of the games. Brix threw the shot put 15.75 meters, breaking the world shot put record with his toss. But  then his teammate John Kuck followed with a throw that set a new world record. Kuck won the gold.

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Olympics to Hollywood: Buster Crabbe

Johnny Weissmuller wasn’t the only swimming Olympian to play Tarzan. There was also Clarence “Buster” Crabbe.

Crabbe and Weissmuller knew each other before their Hollywood days and were competitive.

Crabbe developed his swimming (and surfing) prowess while growing up on a pineapple plantation in Hawaii. His athleticism didn’t stop there. He was even the light-heavyweight boxing champion at the University of Hawaii, according to his Los Angeles Times 1983 obituary.

Buster Crabbe at the 1932 Olympics

Buster Crabbe at the 1932 Olympics

Crabbed competed on the United States Olympic team with Weissmuller at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam.  Crabbe won a bronze medal for the men’s 1500 meter freestyle.

But in 1932 Crabbe’s luck changed. He competed again at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and this time won a gold medal for the men’s 400 meter freestyle.

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Olympics to Hollywood: Johnny Weissmuller

Today, most Olympic fans in the United States are proud of Michael Phelps, who has broken records for both swimming and amount of gold medals won in one Olympic game.

But in the 1920s, the same pride and idolization was for another swimmer: Johnny Weissmuller, one of the first international swimming superstars.

Johnny Weissmuller in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris.

Johnny Weissmuller in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris.

Weissmuller is best known now for swinging through trees with his signature yodeling yell and speaking in broken English in the film role of Tarzan the Ape man. But his fame began as an Olympic swimmer.

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Review: Geordie (1955)

Never have I stumbled over a more delightful film.

While searching for films about sports, the 1955 British film “Geordie,” released in the U.S. as “Wee Geordie,” came up in the results. I hadn’t heard of this film or several of the stars, but I decided to give it a go and I’m glad I did.

Geordie is smaller than the other students and gets picked on.

Geordie is smaller than the other students and gets picked on.

Directed by Frank Launder, “Geordie” follows a young boy named Geordie MacTaggart (Paul Young) who is the smallest in his class and Scottish village. The “wee” boy is fed up with being picked on at school and harassed about his height.

Geordie spots an advertisement for a mail-order body-building course on the back of his father’s (Jameson Clark) newspaper. He orders Henry Samson’s (Francis DeWolff) exercise correspondence and continues to work through the course until he’s a tall, strong 21-year-old man (Bill Travers — who was 6′ 6″). Geordie’s girl Jean (Norah Gorsen) is aggravated by the exercises and feels like it takes up all of his time.

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Musical Monday: Sun Valley Serenade (1941)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

sun valleyThis week’s musical:
Sun Valley Serenade –Musical #539

Studio:
20th Century Fox

Director:
Bruce Humberstone

Starring:
Sonja Henie, John Payne, Glenn Miller, Milton Berle, Lynn Barrie, Joan Davis, Ann Doran (uncredited)
Themselves in Specialty Performance: Tex Beneke, Ray Anthony, Angela Blue, The Nicholas Brothers, Dorothy Dandridge

Plot:
A down on their luck band lands a Christmas Eve gig in Sun Valley, Idaho, after they hook up with temper mental singer Vivian Dawn (Bari). To help with publicity for the band, their publicist Nifty Allen (Berle) set up for pianist Ted Scott (Payne) to adopt a European war orphan. While Ted and bandleader Phil Corey (Miller) have prepared for a baby orphan, their adoptee is fully grown Norwegian Karen (Henie). When the band leaves for Sun Valley, Karen sneaks along, threatening a budding romance between Ted and Vivian.

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Musical Monday: Silver Skates (1943)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

Belita7This week’s musical:
Silver Skates” (1943)– Musical #518

Studio:
Monogram Pictures

Director:
Leslie Goodwins

Starring:
Belita, Kenny Baker, Patricia Morison, Joyce Compton, Frank Fraylen, Irene Dare, Danny Shaw
Specialty performances: Skating team Frick and Frack-Werner Groebli and Hans Mauch, Eugene Turner, Ted Fio Rito Orchestra

Plot:
Claire Thomas (Morison) owns an ice show that is financially on the rocks. The only thing keeping the show afloat is ice skater Belita (as herself). However, Belita is leaving the show to get married. Show member Eddie (Fraylen) starts a rumor that Belita is in love with the show’s singer Danny (Baker) so she will stay. However, Danny is engaged to Claire. Along the way, Claire meets a war orphan, Katrina (Dare), who joins the skating show and Claire would like to adopt. The only issue is, she needs to be married to adopt Katrina.

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