The 1930s and 40s saw Hollywood elevate several prominent, real-life swimming champions to stardom. Johnny Weissmuller won five Olympic gold medals between 1924 and 1928 and became a movie Tarzan in 1932 and Jungle Jim in 1948. Buster Crabbe won the gold in the 1932 Summer Olympics and became a movie Tarzan in 1933 and Flash Gordon in 1936. Then came Esther Williams, a teenage swimming champion summoned to Hollywood in 1942 and starring in her first aquatic movie, "Bathing Beauty," in 1944. She went on doing films for the next twenty years, formally retiring from the business in the early 1960s.
Williams did most of her work for MGM, and Warner Bros. are issuing it in several volumes, the first of which we'll look at here. "TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams, Volume 1" contains five films spanning her most-productive years from 1944-1953. Let me tell you briefly about four of them, and afterward I'll go into more detail about the one I like best.
Chronologically, things start with her first starring role in "Bathing Beauty" (1944). Directed by George Sidney, it costars Red Skelton, Basil Rathbone, Bill Goodwin, Ethel Smith, Jean Porter, Harry James, and Xavier Cugat, the latter two with their orchestras. It's a big, colorful, silly musical with plenty of underwater work from Williams and plenty of zaniness from Skelton as a songwriter engaged to her. Mostly it's a series of skits looking for a plot, but it can be fun in spots. 5/10
Next is "Easy to Wed" (1946), directed by Edward Buzzell and co-starring Van Johnson, Lucille Ball, Keenan Wynn, Cecil Kellaway, and Ben Blue. It's a rather lame comedy that barely gets off the ground. 4/10
From 1948 comes "On an Island With You," and Williams is on more solid ground as she gets back into the water more. Still, it's another lightweight affair with Peter Lawford, Ricardo Montalban, Jimmy Durante, Cyd Charisse, and Cugat and his orchestra again. Directed by Richard Thrope. 5/10
Things improve with the final two films in the set, "Neptune's Daughter," reviewed below, and "Dangerous When Wet" (1953). Directed by Charles Walters and co-starring Fernando Lamas (whom she later married), Jack Carson, Charlotte Greenwood, William Demarest, and Donna Corcoran, "Dangerous When Wet" finds an American family swimming the English Channel. Plus, its big number is a sequence with MGM's animated stars, Tom and Jerry. I mean, what more could you ask for? 5/10
But it's "Neptune's Daughter" from 1949 that is probably the quintessential Esther Williams vehicle in this collection. Directed by Jack Cummings, here she reunites with old film buddies Red Skelton, Ricardo Montalban, and Keenan Wynn, along with Xavier Cugat and his orchestra. It's a romantic comedy with music; call it a romantic musical comedy, if you will. Although it hasn't much story (or many good jokes), its characters and music are appealing.
The main thing the movie has to do is get Ms. Williams into as many bathing suits as possible and surround her with as much music as the listener can tolerate. On these counts, the movie succeeds. Williams plays Eve Barrett, an amateur swim star who turns professional by co-partnering a swimsuit company with a fellow named Joe Backett, played by Keenan Wynn. Eve designs and models the swimsuits; Joe takes care of business. It becomes quite profitable for both of them.
Enter the romantic angles, in the unlikely opposites of Red Skelton and Ricardo Montalaban. An all-star South American polo team comes to town for a big match against the U.S. all-stars, and it's Joe's idea to stage a swimsuit spectacle for the event in order to promote their product. Betty Garrett plays Eve's younger, airheaded sister, Betty (great casting for the name), who mistakes a moronic masseur named Jack Spratt (Skelton) for the captain of the South American team. Meanwhile, Eve gets involved with the real captain of the team, Jose O'Rourke (where do they get these names?), played by Montalban, not knowing who he really is.
The film flip-flops back and forth between the Skelton-Garrett episodes, which are quite slapsticky, and the Williams-Montalban sections, which are more romantic in a rocky sort of way. In between the gags and the romance, Xavier Cugat and his orchestra play some lively numbers, and various characters sing some Frank Loesser songs. As usual in these kinds of musicals, people break out into song and sometimes dance at the drop of a note. The musical highlight of the show is the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside."
Oh, and Mel Blanc (WB's voice for most of its animated characters back then) gives us his patented, Speedy Gonzales imitation as Julio, a South American character mysteriously identified as "Pancho" in the closing credits.
"Neptune's Daughter" puts plenty of other girls on display in bathing suits besides Williams, but it's Williams whom the film usually features. The odd thing is that Williams and her co-star Skelton (co-billed equally) have so very little screen time together. It's almost as though they were in two different pictures.
The movie ends with a big, splashy water show, and what else would you expect? 6/10
All five movies in the set are in a standard, 1.33:1 ratio and Technicolor, and they are all up to MGM's usual high standard for lightweight entertainment. Warner Bros. engineers transferred them to disc at a high bit rate, so you will not be disappointed by what you see. "Neptune's Daughter" is a good example. The color is quite realistic, if a tad dull, and the delineation and detailing are among the best we find in standard definition. Facial hues are particularly good, with none of the darkish, orangish, or purplish colorations we sometimes see in older films. Most important, the screen is clear and clear; there is hardly a trace of grain, certainly none that wasn't inherent to the original print, and not a single age mark in sight. In fact, it looks pretty much like a brand-new film.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack displays the limitations of the day, but, otherwise, is splendid. Backgrounds are dead quiet, and the midrange is well balanced and highly listenable. As we might expect, the dynamics and frequency extremes are somewhat limited, and rear-channel activity is absent, but I didn't miss it.
All of the films in the collection fit in a single, foldout, Digipak-type container, further enclosed in a cardboard slipcover. Five separate discs hold the films, and each includes its own extras, among which are TCM's "Private Screenings" hosted by Robert Osborne, various short subjects and classic cartoons, the occasional assemblage of outtakes, an audio-only bonus, scene selections, and theatrical trailers. English is the only spoken language available, with English subtitles.
For "Neptune's Daughter," the disc contains an outtake musical number, "I Want My Money Back," sung by Betty Garrett; a two-minute Esther Williams sequence from 1951's "Callaway Went Thataway"; the eight-minute, Oscar-nominated Pete Smith specialty short "Water Trix"; the Oscar-nominated Tom and Jerry cartoon "Hatch Up Your Troubles"; a promotional radio interview with Ms. Williams; and theatrical trailers for this movie and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
Taken as a whole, "Esther Williams, Volume 1" contains some of her better work, but that may not be saying much. Warner Bros. obviously intended this collection for the dedicated Esther Williams fan, and it might disappoint the casual viewer with some of the nonsense that passes for entertainment. However, as I've said, "Neptune's Daughter" is one of the better items, and the others are certainly not entirely without merit. They are all lightweight and colorful, with charming co-stars, and maybe those qualities are enough to attract a wider audience than fans alone.