Celebrating Esther Williams’ Centennial with 10 Favorite Swim Spectaculars

Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood is hosting a blogathon in honor of one of my favorite stars and people, the Million Dollar Mermaid, Miss Esther Williams.

August 8, 2021 will mark the Centennial of Esther’s birth and while she is no longer with us, what she left behind is an incredible legacy full of cinematic treasures and a life story that continues to delight and inspire.

I could write endlessly about Esther because she means so much to me, but today I decided to talk about my favorite swim spectaculars. Summer is in full swing here and I can’t think of a better way to cool off than taking a dip with Esther, especially on her birthday.

1. Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949) – Title song

This film is near and dear to my heart because it was my first Esther Williams movie. As a little girl I imitated this scene whenever I went swimming and Esther became a role model for me from then on. You can read more about my admiration for Esther here.

2. Bathing Beauty (1944) – The finale

If there ever was a definition for showstopper – this is it. Fountains, fire, a bevy of swimmers, dancers and Esther like Venus rising from the water. The result? Over the top beauty on screen in the film which made Esther a star.

3. Neptune’s Daughter (1949) – The finale

The finale of this fun movie is colorful colorful and creative. I believe there is a Greek theme going on (correct me if I’m wrong, her headdress certainly gives me that vibe), and some impressive underwater choreography, but my favorite part is Esther’s intro as she gleams and shines in the spotlight. Absolutely stunning.

4. Bathing Beauty (1944) – “Magic is the Moonlight”

Esther’s opening routine in Bathing Beauty is special because this was her first foray into the Technicolor dream world that she became well known for. I love it because the number appears to be so natural, not in the least bit staged. It’s as if you had a pool party at your house and invited Esther Williams – these are the moves i imagine she would be doing. As it turns out Esther wrote in her autobiography that she choreographed this charming routine herself.

Fun fact: “Magic is the Moonlight” became Esther’s trademark song that nightclub orchestras would play upon her arrival.

5. Pagan Love Song (1950) – “Pagan Love Song”

I could watch this water ballet on repeat. Esther glides elegantly through the underwater landscape as fish swim calmly around her. Beautiful colors fill the eye as Howard Keel serenades us with the hypnotic title song. Ultimate escapism in the tropics with Esther and Howard.

6. Dangerous When Wet (1953) -“Ain’t Nature Grand”

Esther and future husband Fernando Lamas take to the water for a breezy duet in Dangerous When Wet. Like Esther, Lamas was a champion swimmer and as such he was able to match her stroke for stroke (a feat not usually accomplished by her leading men).

Fun fact: Lamas kept this a secret while at MGM for fear of being cast in all of Esther’s movies.

Many factors contribute to this making my list of favorites. The catchy song, the wonderful chemistry between the swimmers, and the light romantic mood that permeates the scene.

7. This Time for Keeps (1947) – “Ten Percent Off”

Esther and Jimmy Durante made an unlikely, but adorable team. They would star together again the following year in On An Island With You (1948), but in this film they performed a song and dance routine which ended with Esther diving in. The clever choreography (both dance and water ballet) for the film was done by Stanley Donen.

If Esther doesn’t look like a Mermaid Princess in this ensemble, then I don’t know what does. The sparkly silver suit and crown is gorgeous and is my favorite of her swim costumes.

8. Dangerous When Wet (1953) – Tom and Jerry Sequence

Talk about iconic. Esther’s dip with the famous cat and mouse is a pure delight to watch and even today with all our technical wizardry the effects hold up marvelously.

Esther recalled in her autobiography that upon previewing the film the audience didn’t believe she was underwater. The animators Hanna and Barbera proceeded to draw bubbles around her costing the studio $50,000. Upon hearing this Esther said, “I could have blown those bubbles for free. All you had to do was ask.”

9. Jupiter’s Darling (1955) – “I Have a Dream”

At first glance this appears to be an underwater noir where Esther gets kidnapped by some creepy dudes disguised in white. Nope. Try again.

This time Esther is in ancient Rome dreaming of her true love when suddenly she is startled by a series of statues that come to life and playfully flirt with her in her pool.

I have a fascination for all things Greek and Roman so I was bound to love this one. Once again Esther’s costume and crown are lovely. Her pool, surrounded by statues, pillars, and Greek key is to die for and the water ballet is completely over the top and a whole lot of fun.

Filming the “I Have a Dream” Water Ballet

10. Duchess of Idaho (1950) – “Melody in Swimtime” finale

Don’t you just love that cheeky play on words? Like the title says, Esther gets plenty of swim time in this number. Lucky for us because nothing is worse than a too short swim scene starring Esther Williams. Dancers surround the pool as Esther leisurely floats with male swimmers in this relaxing, romantic number. You can watch this sequence above. 

Esther was a natural. Her success was based on talent, hard work, and determination – the traits she learned as a champion swimmer. She had the right combination of sincerity and appeal that continued to capture the hearts of the public even after her career in movies ended.

Esther Williams was completely unique. Perhaps that’s why watching her is so special – because you know you’ll never see anything or anyone like her ever again.

This post is my contribution to the 100 Years of Esther Williams Blogathon hosted by Michaela at Love Letters to Hollywood. Thanks for hosting and letting me participate, Michaela! Grab your swimsuit and dive in to the rest of the posts celebrating Esther by clicking here.

Happy 100th Birthday to America’s Mermaid!

Thank you for reading!

5 Reasons Why I Admire Esther Williams

My love for Esther Williams began when I was about ten years old while watching Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949), the one movie my family owned starring Esther. Although Esther had only one very short and simple swimming sequence, I was enraptured by her. As a girl who loved everything to do with mermaids (and to be honest, still does), I would then pretend I was Esther in our family swimming pool, mimicking her routine as best I could.

Esther was everything my ten year old self wanted to be – talented, beautiful, intelligent, and strong.

As a teenager I had the opportunity to rent more of scoured the shelves for Esther’s movies from my local library. Dangerous When Wet (1953) particularly stands out in my mind with the unforgettable Tom and Jerry sequence. Others included Neptune’s Daughter (1949), Pagan Love Song (1950), and Bathing Beauty (1944).

A few years ago I purchased a set of Esther’s movies distributed by TCM. Upon viewing these films again I discovered the magic had not faded. I was still captivated by Esther – her grace, style, and the amazing ballets. Wanting to to learn more about the making of these films led me to Esther’s delightful and eye-opening autobiography, Million Dollar Mermaid.

In these pages I discovered that Esther was not only an athletic, glamorous movie star who exemplified an unshakable work ethic, she also had the courage to match it.

5 Reasons Why I Admire Esther Williams

1. Her ability to find a constant in times of trouble

In Esther’s book she recounts a time in her teenage years when she was sexually abused by a trusted, adopted member of the family. Frightened to reveal his identity because of his threats, she kept this to herself for two years. Having been chosen to be part of a prestigious athletic club, she used her practice and training time to escape from reality. In the water, she found her source of comfort. Dominating the water also gave her a sense of control and a semblance of strength.

Here, at least in the pool, knifing through the water, I could be in control, I would be safe – for the moment.”

2. She was the catalyst for the creation of a genre

The Aquacade at the 1939 New York World’s Fair

In the 30’s and 40’s, synchronized swimming gained popularity due to Billy Rose’s Aquacade, a water show that drew in huge crowds and dazzled the public (in which Esther once was the lead female swimmer).

In the movies, a few musicals featured synchronized swimming, such as the Busby Berkeley sequences in The Kid from Spain (1932) and Footlight Parade (1933). But with Esther came the addition of Technicolor and the birth of the aqua musical.

Bathing Beauty (1944)

When Esther Williams signed a contract with MGM in 1941, the studio welcomed their new star with her own stage, Stage 30, and a twenty foot deep swimming pool equipped with a hydraulic lift. Little did Esther know that during her career at MGM she would become a top box office attraction in the 40’s and 50’s, earning the title America’s Mermaid.

3. She loved what she did

Although her job was not an easy one and required hours upon hours of being in the water, insane preparations to make her “waterproof,” and dangerous on-screen stunts, you would never know it for Esther always had a huge smile on her face. Despite the difficulties, she wouldn’t have traded it for the world.

I genuinely loved swimming and being underwater. It appeared as if I had invited the audience into the water with me, and it conveyed the sensation that being in there was absolutely delicious.”

4. She became an advocate for her sport

Bathing Beauty (1944)

According to Esther, “a year after Bathing Beauty (1944), the first synchronized swimming meet was held in Chicago. Then, in 1955, synchronized swimming became a recognized event, and was named a demonstration sport in 1956.” After that it was a struggle for the sport to be accepted into the Olympics. For years it was looked on as nothing more than a showbiz act.

Finally, in 1984, synchronized swimming made it to the Olympic games, and NBC called upon Esther to be a commentator.

I was touched to realize how these girls had seen those movies and gotten together in their little groups and wanted to swim pretty and not fast. They created a sport and went all over the world to teach it and sell it. I was proud to be there when it came into the Olympics. I was proud to be an inspiration, a godmother to a sport.”

5. She never quit the race

While her onscreen persona was one of scrupulous perfection, her real life was far from it. Despite troubled marriages, several on-set life threatening incidents, and criticism from those who did not appreciate Esther’s hard work and dedication to her art and sport, she never gave up.

During some periods in her life she doubted her own importance and abilities. To be a respected actress was something she craved as she was constantly berated about her acting. Over time she realized her unique talent, embraced it, and looked back fondly on all the life experiences she had been given as a result.

I guess that’s what I was trying to tell those Olympic champions when I told them that when they ran into life’s problems, they should never despair, even after temporary discouragement or defeat. I told them they should call upon their inner spirit to see them through. We can’t all win Olympic gold medals. Even I never won one. But the message applies to all of us because each of us in our own way has races to run or swim. And with sufficient endurance and courage, we all can achieve some kind of victory in our lives.”

Please forgive the awful quality of the video, otherwise it is simply delightful!

Thanks for reading and for visiting The Classic Movie Muse!

The 12 Days of Christmas Movie Tag

Deck the halls with lots of movies…Hamlette’s Soliloquy has created The 12 Days of Christmas Movie Tag for adding to the festivities of the season. Check out her awesome blog and her answers here.

For my edition of the tag, I’m choosing Christmas movies (or movies tied to Christmas in some fashion) for the answers. This was not mandatory or specified in the rules but I have enjoyed the addition and the challenge it provided!

The rules of the tag:

  1. Use a different movie for each prompt
  2. Add photos and/or explanations of how your choices fit the prompts
  3. Tag a few friends to play along

Here we go…

#1. A Partridge in a Pear Tree – a movie that involves agriculture

Holiday Inn (1942)

Jim (Bing Crosby) is sick of show business and buys a farm in Midville, Connecticut for a complete change of pace. Dreaming of “no work to be done,” he quickly realizes he had no idea what he signed up for. Jim returns to the showbiz scene by turning his farm into an inn that is open only on holidays. Romance falls into his lap, but trouble ensues when Ted (Fred Astaire) shows up, the guy who usually steals Jim’s girl.

#2. Turtledoves – a movie about a long-lasting relationship

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

In this beloved and timeless film, we follow the life of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) who comes to realize that “no man is a failure who has friends.” Perhaps his best friend is his wife, Mary, (Donna Reed) who has had a crush on him every since she was a young girl.

#3. French Hens – a movie that takes place in France

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Not gonna lie, this one took some digging! A tale of young love set in 1950’s France, this French New Wave musical features an entirely sung script, Catherine Deneuve in her star making role, and the most poignant ending of any film set on a snowy Christmas Eve.

#4. Calling Birds – a movie where people talk on the phone

Lady on a Train (1945)

Deanna Durbin plays Nikki Collins, the title character who witnesses a murder while traveling to visit family for Christmas. Curious as can be, she enlists the help of a mystery writer to help her solve the caper. When Nikki’s father calls to wish her a Merry Christmas, he pleads with her to sing for him. She performs a simple but touching rendition of “Silent Night” over the phone (which even delays the thug who sneaked into her room from completing his dastardly plan.)

#5. Golden Rings – a movie with multiple romances

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

There are a few romances going on in this candy confection of a film: Esther and the boy next door, Rose and Warren, and Lon and Lucille. Additionally, this movie is centered around the love that the Smith family has for each other, as well as the romance of days gone by.

#6. Geese A-Laying – a movie with a birth or that features babies

3 Godfathers (1948)

An interesting spin on the three magi, John Wayne heads up this moving western as the leader of a band of outlaws who honor the wish of a dying woman (Mildred Natwick) – to raise her newborn child and bring him to safety.

#7. Swans A-Swimming – a movie where someone goes swimming

Neptune’s Daughter (1949)

A Christmas movie? Hear me out. This film introduced the world to the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” which won an Oscar that year. While the song does not actually mention Christmas, it has been tied to the holiday in reference to the cold weather. Since Neptune’s Daughter is an Esther Williams movie, you can bet there’s a swan-a-swimming.

#8. Maids A-Milking – a movie with cows

Remember the Night (1940)

In this bittersweet drama/romantic comedy shoplifter Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) and her prosecutor John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) venture to Indiana for Christmas. Along the way, they find themselves in a pasture of cows and its Fred who does the milking and the cow that decides Barbara’s hat makes a tasty morning snack.

#9. Ladies Dancing – a movie with a dance scene

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) is a fake Martha Stewart who needs to cook up a farm, a husband, and a baby (and quick!) when she hears that a sailor is being sent to her home for the holidays. This film is full of Christmassy imagery, over-the-top scenarios, and a Christmas Eve dance that I want to attend every year.

#10. Lords A-Leaping – a movie about athletes

Melody Time (1948)

This animated collection of stories from Disney contains one of my favorite pieces of animation done by the studio – “Once Upon a Wintertime.” I pull it out this time of year because the sleigh ride, ice skating, and snowy scenery inevitably remind me of Christmastime. I love everything about this segment: the song; the characters and story; and the gorgeous design by Disney artist Mary Blair.

It makes me smile every single time.

The original recording of the song by Frances Langford.
A preview of the animation. The song is in French in this recording.

#11. Pipers Piping – a movie with someone playing a musical instrument

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Dudley the angel (Cary Grant) is on a heavenly assignment to bring a couple back together who have drifted apart. He charms nearly everyone he meets (this is Cary Grant we’re talking about) but doesn’t plan on falling in love with the bishop’s wife (Loretta Young) himself.

Every angel worth his mettle knows how to play the harp.

#12. Drummers Drumming – a movie with characters in the military

White Christmas (1954)

No stranger to the Christmas canon of films, White Christmas is more than a “let’s put on a show” movie. Although it contains some of the most dazzling musical numbers in film history, it’s really a story about two ex-Army buddies (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) joining forces to remind their beloved army general (Dean Jagger) that he is not forgotten.

And there you have it! This was a blast (and a half) to write. Thanks again, Hamlette, for this super fun tag!

I won’t be tagging anyone, but feel free to write your own 12 Days of Christmas on your blog or share them in the comments below…I can’t wait to see which movies you would pick for these categories!

Thanks for reading and for visiting The Classic Movie Muse!