It’s Day Eight of my favorite time of year on TCM: Summer Under the Stars! If you’re not a Turner Classic Movies connoisseur like myself, Summer Under the Stars honors a different classic film star during each day in August by showing a twenty-four hour marathon of their films! When I found out that one of my favorite actresses of all time would be honored, I was thrilled and knew that I had to write about it, especially for all of you who have never witnessed Summer Under the Stars and find watching all twenty-four hours of one person’s films daunting. So, if you don’t know where to begin or simply want to see my top picks for what to watch on Esther Williams’ birthday, keep reading!
5. Dangerous When Wet (1953) On TCM at 4:15pm EST
Esther shows her competitive swimming chops in this captvating picture when she plays Katie Higgins, a perserverant farm girl who hopes to become the first woman to cross the English Channel. Of course her journey to the finish line comes with its fair share of trials and tribulations including a face-off between her manager Windy Weebe, played by Jack Carson, and charming Frenchman André Lanet, played by Fernando Lamas, who would become Esther’s real life husband a full sixteen years after the completion of this film. In fact this picture is perhaps known as the most famous that she made with an offscreen love, as much as it’s known for the iconic dream sequence in which Esther swims with Tom and Jerry and the black lace and rhinestone swimsuit that adorns her towards the end of the movie. A delightful afternoon treat, Dangerous When Wet (1953) has all of the great themes and tropes associated with a great women’s sports film.
4. Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) On TCM at 10:00pm EST
If Esther had to be defined by the title of one of her films, Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) would probably be it. It was the name of her 1999 autoboigraphy, after all, despite the fact that the film itself is a biopic of Australian swimming star Annette Kellerman. Kellerman herself had a great deal to do with the filming of the picture, and was initially pleased with the decision to cast Esther to portray her. Later on, however, the film’s subject found Esther to be “too beautiful” to play her and thought Victor Mature’s cheapskate depiction of promoter Jimmy Sullivan was “the antithesis” of his real life counterpart because “he never did anything cheap”. In addition, this film is one of many that put Esther Williams’ life at risk after the star broke her neck while diving off a fifty foot tower. She spent six months in a body cast before recovering to complete the film, but boy are we glad that she did. If you have the time to spare this evening, I certainly recommend that you check out this masterpiece of Technicolor and gold lamé swimuits.
3. Easy to Love (1953) On TCM at 12:30pm EST
It certainly is easy to love this star-studded vehicle set against the background of Florida’s Cypress Gardens amusement park. Williams stars as Julie Hallerton, a busybody aquatic performer who can do it all from waterskiing to modelling, from clowning to pageantry, except land the man she wants, her manager and agent Ray Lloyd (played by Van Johnson, who else?). When her swimming costar Hank (John Bromfield) and singer Barry Gordon (Tony Martin) start to pine for her as well, what was first a complicated relationship for two becomes an unbelivable love square. In fact, all three men hold their own so well that if you aren’t too familiar with Esther Williams’ vehicles like I wasn’t when I first saw this film, you might have no clue which man she ends up with until the very end! The true highlights of this film include a great glimpse of Esther’s waterskiing abilities in a fantastic number choreographed by the great Busby Berkeley as well as some lavish costumes and scenery including a Florida-shaped swimming pool made on location in Cypress Gardens just for the movie (which I was surprised to find out is now a part of Florida’s Legoland park and is currently filled in with thousands of Legos!). Outside of the pool, I also feel that crooner and husband of Cyd Charisse (watch out for my picks for her on the 14th!) Tony Martin stole the show, and I found myself rooting for him to end up with Esther in the end. All in all, I definitely suggest that you check out this midday extravaganza, and keep a sharp eye out for a cameo of Cyd Charisse in the flesh towards the end!
2. Thrill of a Romance (1945) On TCM at 4:00am EST
I know, I know. It really is cruel of me to recommend a film that will only be showing at four in the morning, but this wartime romance is without a doubt the film that I am
most excited for that I haven’t seen yet. Esther stars as swimming instructor Cynthia Glenn who marries businessman Bob G. Delbar (Carleton G. Young) almost as hastily as he ditches her on their honeymoon for a business deal. Of course, who better to distract the scorned newlywed than Major Thomas Milvaine (Van Johnson, again, who else?) as a slippery slope of a love triangle begins. Of course not knowing the ending myself, I find this film to be very intriguing because there are only two possible endings, and both go against the film codes of the era. Either Cynthia follows her heart and ends up with Thomas, resulting in an annulment which would leave Bob in the dust and be quite the scandalous move in 1945, or Cynthia chooses to stay with her husband and this could possibly be the first Williams-Johnson film that chooses not to pair the constant onscreen couple, also a very scandalous move in 1945. Either way this film promises to be entertaining and beautifully shot, and I know that I’ll be pulling an all-nighter tonight to see how it ends!
1. On An Island With You (1948) On TCM at 2:15pm EST
What couldn’t I say about this film? It’s my favorite Esther Williams picture that I’ve seen so far, and the fact that it was also the first one that I ever saw gives it a special place in my heart. It starts off as a movie within a movie when Esther plays Rosalind Rennolds, who in turn plays a native on a tropical island fighting with fellow native played by Yvonne Torro (Cyd Charisse) for the affections of a naval officer, played by Ricardo Montez (Ricardo Montalban). Lieutenant Kingslee (Peter Lawford) reports on the set as a technical advisor, but instantly forgets his duties and focuses all of his attention on Rosalind. Determined to make her remember the time that they spent together three years ago, he kidnaps her and whisks her off to the island where they first met. This film has everything, from exotic locales to delightful swimming sequences with Williams and Lawford (her most attractive costar, in my humble opinion), but the dancing sequences out of water with Montalban and Charisse are what truly set this film apart from most Esther movies in which all of the notable action is underwater. Jimmy Durante and Xavier Cugat steal the show a little more than most viewers would want, but despite the distraction I find the riveting plot, magnificently beautiful stars, and diverse characters make this film an absolute must-see.
Of course there are so many perfect Esther movies in her filmography that it was almost impossible to compile this list, and I definitely think that today’s Summer Under the Stars tribute will be one to remember! I’d like to thank Journeys in Classic Film from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to participate in this blogathon, and make sure to keep an eye out for my other two entries on the 10th and 14th!