Who could ever forget Esther Williams? Well, as it turns out, there are a lot of people that could easily forget about her — and some probably did. And so, in order to put a stop to this, the devoted cinephiles at Turner Classic Movies saw fit to assemble a collection of five classic Esther Williams films in a box set. Released in 2007, the set received rave reviews from young and old critics alike, and helped introduce a new generation (or two) to the aquatic charms of America’s musical mermaid.
Yes, you read right: Esther Williams made aqua-musicals. Therefore, it’s easy to see why the star is straightforwardly looked over — especially when you stop to consider how modern filmgoers practically shun the musical in general.
Well, obviously the world must’ve been set to forget about poor Esther once again, so the folks at TCM have put together another beautiful box set. Entitled TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams, Vol. 2, this collection brings us six more Technicolor antiquities from the MGM archives.
Disc 1 features one of the best from the entire lot (in my opinion), Thrill Of A Romance. The 1945 spectacle tells the story of young swimming teacher, Cynthia Glenn (Esther), who catches the eye of a rich businessman Robert Delbar (Carleton G. Young) one day as he’s driving around. Wooing her to the nth degree, Delbar soon persuades Cynthia to marry him, and they take residence up at a secluded lodge in the Rockies (several exterior shots give us a few gorgeous views of Yosemite Park). In no time at all, the “all-business, all the time” Delbar is rushing off to Washington — leaving the post- nuptial bride all alone for several days! Fortunately, Cynthia’s beauty and charm attracts the attention of everyone around her, from a kindly Metropolitan Opera star (Lauritz Melchior, who is absolutely perfect in his role), to handsome, down-to-earth, and equally lonely World War II vet (Van Johnson). It’s only a matter of time before love begins to fill the air — but how well will it all work out, especially considering Cynthia’s already married? Big band legend Tommy Dorsey and Henry Travers co-star.
Next up is Fiesta (1947), on Disc 2. Sure, modern audiences may have a hard time swallowing whiter-than-white stars like Esther Williams, John Carroll, Mary Astor, Cyd Charisse, and Akim Tamiroff portraying Mexicans, but it’s a delightful movie nonetheless. And, in order to give the movie that authentic Mexi feel, it was filmed in Mexico (somebody probably figured out how cheap it was to do so and said “What the hell!”) and co-stars Fortunio Bonaonva (who was actually Spanish-born, but most Americans wouldn’t know the difference anyway) and the great Ricardo Montalban. In the film, twin siblings Maria (Williams) and Mario (Montalban, making his official American debut) are the offspring of Mexico’s great (retired) matador, Don Antonio Morales (Bonanova). While Don Antonio raises his son to be the next greatest bullfighter, Mario grows up to be an accomplished composer as well — and yearns to pursue music instead of following his father’s dream. As is typical in a case like this, the son becomes thoroughly disgusted with his father when he learns Mexico’s greatest composer wants him to come study music under him — and promptly walks out of the ring during a fight. Newspapers across the country brand Mario a “coward,” something his feisty sister Maria will not tolerate. Unable to find her now-missing brother in time, Maria dons Mario’s clothes, and passes herself off as him in the ring.
This Time For Keeps (1947) didn’t fare as well with me as the previous two, but it’s always a delight to see Jimmy Durante hamming it up. Disc 3’s main feature brings us the tale of another post-war soldier (this time played by singer Johnnie Johnson) who falls madly in love with a dynamic swimmer (Esther). The son of famous opera legend Richard Herald (Lauritz Melchior again), Dick Johnson (played by, um, Johnson) has dreams of being a jazz singer and marrying famous swimmer/performer Nora Cambaretti (Williams). Unfortunately for him, his father wants him to be an opera star, and he’s engaged to marry another girl: a boring member of society at that. As Dick struggles to leave his old life behind and get in good with Nora, he’s finds himself at odds with Nora’s over-protective friend, Ferdi (Durante). A creepy kid (Sharon McManus) and the always entertaining Xavier Cugat (and orchestra) round out the cast.
Moving on to Disc 4, we find ourselves at 1950’s Pagan Love Song, the shortest (and probably weakest) entry in the collection. This time ’round, it’s not Esther’s swimming talents that take center stage — it’s big-star-on-the-rise Howard Keel and his incredible voice. Actually, if you were to omit all of Keel’s musical numbers, Pagan Love Song would be come out even shorter than its already brief 76 minute runtime. Story-wise, ex-schoolteacher Hazard Endicott (Keel) arrives in Tahiti to take over his late Uncle’s plantation (which he just inherited). There, he falls in love with a half-Tahitian beauty (Williams, in “brownface”) and decides to adopt the “pagan” lifestyle of Tahiti. Rita Moreno co-stars in this song-filled extravaganza.
Disc 5’s Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) is one of Esther’s better-known features to be included in this set, and is a halfway decent (if highly inaccurate) account of the life of Australian swimming star, Annette Kellerman. Confined to leg braces as a child, Annette (Esther) overcomes her handicap and grows to be a star swimmer in Australia. In England, Annette swims the English Channel (ew), prompting a lot of media attention in the UK — which in-turn prompts her manager/love interest James Sullivan (Victor Mature) to pack up and move to New York. There, Annette and James — as well as Annette’s father (Walter Pidgeon) and James’ assistant (Jesse White) — set up shop to make Annette the biggest name in aquatic show business. While the movie provides us some memorable moments, the fantastical Busby Berkeley numbers (which are breathtaking in their own right) really take away the “real life” effect of this biopic.
Lastly in this set, is 1953’s Easy To Love, which reunites Esther with her Thrill Of A Romance co-star, Van Johnson. Easy To Love is indeed a standout entry (aside from Esther's scary-ass number in clown make-up!), as it gives Esther a chance to play a much meatier and feistier part than in her previous roles. Ray Lloyd (Van) is the slave-driving manager of Florida’s Cypress Gardens, marketing his army of shapely beauties all across the country, as well as at the Gardens. Ray’s star attraction, Julie (Esther), works live skiing shows and numerous modeling gigs daily, playing Ray’s part-time secretary in the process. It’s clear that Julie loves Ray, but the relationship is a complicated and practically non-existent: he’s too involved in his work, and firmly believes that a romance between the two will cause dissension amongst the other women in his employ. A trip to New York introduces Julie to famous crooner Barry Gordon (Tony Martin), which ignites a few sparks between the singer and the model. Naturally, that’s when Ray figures out he lovers Julie!
While the movies contained in TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams, Vol. 2 have not been remastered, the overall presentations are pretty good. These Technicolor gems show a bit of wear, and some portions of the films looks a bit out of whack (imagine watching a 3D film without the glasses, and that should give you an idea of how bad the movies can get — but it doesn’t happen all that often). The movies are presented in their original 1.37:1 aspect ratios and are quite vibrant at times. Some signs of debris are apparent throughout, but when you consider the age of these films, it’s understandable. All six films contain the original mono soundtracks, which are presented here in Dolby Digital sound. English (SDH) subtitles accompany, and are quite amusing at times (especially when the captions read something like “[Speaks Spanish],” causing one to wonder if anyone at Warner actually speaks Spanish and was just too lazy to translate).
Like the first collection, TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams, Vol. 2 is loaded with some great special features. Each set includes a vintage short (e.g. John Nesbitt’s Passing Parade, Pete Smith’s Specialty Shorts), and a classic color cartoon (any Tex Avery, Droopy, Tom & Jerry, or Barney Bear fans out there?). Most discs also include some rare musical outtakes (extended or altogether deleted numbers) and the original theatrical trailer of their respective film. Million Dollar Mermaid also includes an audio-only recording of the original Lux Radio Broadcast version.
OK, so not every classic film is good by default. It happens. Hell, some of these films weren‘t necessarily considered good when they first premiered. But, when you compare the positively great entries in this set with the slightly mediocre ones, the TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams, Vol. 2 still weighs in as a winner in my book. This is another great look at a bygone motion picture genre and the classical special features are a real kick, too. Plus, it’s always fun to watch Esther do her famous backstroke, clad in waterproof make-up, and trying her best to smile directly at the camera with all that water splashing into her mouth.