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Updated: June 20, 2013 18:57 IST

The bathing beauty

V. Gangadhar
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Esther Williams on location for the film, 'Pagan Love Song.' Photo: AP
Esther Williams on location for the film, 'Pagan Love Song.' Photo: AP

Esther Williams, Hollywood’s mermaid, passed away recently at 91. The films she made offered water ballet and spectacular aquatic thrills.

Can a Hollywood cinema fan imagine a John Wayne Western film without horses and guns? A Bob Hope movie without wisecracks ? Or an Esther Williams extravaganza without a swimming pool?

Esther Williams, Hollywood’s water baby, died in her sleep at her California home recently. She was 91. She enabled Hollywood discover the beauty and spectacle of technicolor, water ballet and aquatic thrills in around 30 movies. Her films raked in so much cash that she was ranked 24th in 1947, 8th in 1949 and 1950 on the box office list.

One of her movies was called ‘The Million Dollar Mermaid’ and no one could challenge it. Sometime in the early 1950s, I watched the ‘Bathing Beauty’, starring Williams and Red Skeleton. The glorious water ballet scenes, the fountains and the acrobatics by the trim swimmers are still fresh in my memory. The film had a long run in the Metro chain of theatres in India.

Esther’s father was a Los Angeles sign painter and mother, a psychologist. Esther, who was the fifth and last child, excelled in swimming even before she could walk properly. A swimming champion at 5, she broke national records excelling in diving, dancing and aquacade shows. At L.A. City College, she ventured into part-time modelling and was in the powerful U.S. swimming team for the 1940 Olympic Games at L.A., but then World War II intervened.

Water vs ice

MGM was on the lookout for a rival to Sonja Henie’s ice figure skating scenes in 20th Century Fox movies and Williams was a godsend. Ice baby vs Water baby! She was offered a contract in 1941.

Since swimming was a national American pastime, Williams’ movie roles, though small were well publicised. She replaced top star Lana Turner, who was getting married to musician Artie Shaw, in a movie with Clark Gable as the leading man. It could have been a great break for Williams, but as luck would have it, she had to quit the role in three months, because Lana Turner was back after a quick divorce!

MGM paired Williams with many of the studio heroes, Howard Keel, Ricardo Montalban, Gene Kelley, Ben Gage, Van Johnson and others. ‘Dangerous when Wet,’ ‘Pagan Love Song’ ‘Jupiter’s Darling,’ ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ and of course, ‘Bathing Beauty’ were all big budget films and fared well at the box office. Williams did attempt occasional films with straightforward themes but these invariably failed. She quit MGM following a contract dispute but continued to do films for Universal International and also freelanced. Never one to sign films in a bulk, Williams told Hollywood press, she was quite satisfied with around 30 films when she retired in 1960.

In phase two of her career she was quite busy, designing swim wear and getting involved in women’s issues and doing TV serials. Her personal life was often turbulent. Among her four husbands, two were actors Ben Gage and Fernando Lamas and the Hollywood media freely discussed her affairs with Victor Mature and Jeff Chandler, both macho heroes.

Her memoirs was called ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ and for that era, it was quite outspoken. One of her sons commented, “She was the best swim teacher and soul Mom,’’ - a sentiment which would have made the mother happy.

Keywords: Esther Williams

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