DVD Review: TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams, Vol. 2

Now Available on DVD

Photo Slideshow

Titles Included:
Thrill of a Romance; Fiesta; This Time for Keeps; Pagan Love Song; Million Dollar Mermaid; Easy to Love

“I think the joy that showed through in my swimming movies comes from my lifelong love of the water. No matter what I was doing, the best I've felt all day was when I was swimming.”
– Esther Williams
(As Quoted by Harold Johnson)

Although she may have missed the opportunity to compete in the Olympics when World War II canceled the 1940 games, when three-time national championship swimmer Esther Williams crossed over into Hollywood, her
grace and athleticism inspired a new genre and created a Golden Age of Aquatic Musicals.

Forever changing the way we viewed the sport of swimming and likewise-- mostly subtly due to her stunning and statuesque, tall, muscle-toned physique-- also fostering a genuine respect for female athletes, Williams' breakthrough film Bathing Beauty
was followed by more movies than even Williams herself imagined.

As she explained to Harold Johnson, logically Williams was wise enough to question even back back then just, "How many swimming movies could they make?" going so far as to ask department stores to hold her place as a model, assuming "this movie-making thing wouldn't last." However, her home studio of MGM proved their commitment to Williams in no uncertain terms, building "a special 90-foot square, 20-foot deep pool... complete with hydraulic lifts, hidden air hoses, and special cranes for overhead shots."

Yet admittedly the scripts being churned out by the "Dream Factory" fluctuated in quality as the pleasantly predictable Aqua Musicals primarily centered on light romantic comedy. Usually structuring the "boy meets girl" paradigm by adding in an extra love interest-- one recurring theme that permeates throughout was one of impossible romance as Williams' films evoked a (most likely unconscious) mermaid in love with a land-based man operatic feel that was sometimes enhanced by real live opera. However, despite some of the duds, Williams was always as "Easy to Love" as the song so often sang to her that ultimately resulted in the title of the final film included in the Turner Classic Movies/Warner Brothers Home Video release of the second volume of Esther Williams classics.

Although as a musical addict and classic film lover who had seen every title in the set before, I was a bit dismayed that I was missing out on the opportunity to savor Williams' finest films all in one edition. Nonetheless, this exquisitely designed, space-saving package delivered beautiful discs with vintage movie art and the type of extras that only TCM could find in the MGM archives.

Boasting classic live action and animated shorts (containing MGM's beloved duo Tom & Jerry), outtakes, lost footage and bonus musical sequences that weren't featured in the original films, the set more than makes up for its two biggest disappointments including Fiesta and Pagan Love Song via the above-and-beyond, more than just the requisite trailer bonuses that make the price-tag of the set worth it.

In featuring six "movies [that are] available only in this DVD collection," while the picture and sound quality of the dated prints depends on the title, overall, they still stun especially via the extraordinarily colorful yet downright dangerous aquatic choreography of the iconic Busby Berkeley. This is witnessed most notably in the Annette Kellerman biopic Million Dollar Mermaid, which incidentally is the same title that Williams used for her autobiography co-written with Digby Diehl.

With pyrotechnics, slides, lifts, and countless extras, Williams was an early stunt pioneer, pre-dating Jackie Chan for fearless reality by rarely using a double and spending seven months in a full body cast in Berekley's Mermaid choreographed 115 foot tower dive. Although audiences only saw the perfectly applied waterproof makeup and her megawatt smile beaming at the camera throughout, it's impossible not to applaud her work ethic, courage, and determination. In fact it's even more impressive when you consider that her career that consisted of so much time in the water that she napped in the pool with her feet on the deck throughout the intense productions in which she swam well over one thousand estimated miles, water-skied and dove while pregnant, and bravely returned despite headaches, ruptured eardrums, and several instances of nearly drowning.

Her endurance as both an athlete and especially a pioneering one for women of the time is what makes the lightweight cross-dressing and out-of-the-water film Fiesta bearable as Williams impersonates her twin brother to be a successful bullfighter while he studies music in Mexico.

While at times I couldn't help but wonder if classic movie lover Pedro Almodovar may have been slightly influenced by the gender role questions mildly posed in that film for his Oscar winner Talk to Her, it's otherwise forgettable yet at least more watchable than the scenic but shallow Pagan Love Song.
Strictly run of the mill and barely feature length, Pagan finds Tahitian islander Williams (filming in Hawaii actually) in a South Pacific-lite cringer opposite Howard Keel.

Popular leading man Van Johnson makes a nice romantic partner for Esther Williams in the bookend films included from the sweet comedy Thrill of a Romance wherein he falls for Williams while her husband of a few hours ditches her for a business deal on their honeymoon and when she does the chasing in the picturesque closing work Easy to Love filmed at Cypress Gardens.

In another love triangle picture that's a few scenes too long to fully hold our attention-- This Time for Keeps--Williams reunites with the renowned "Wagnerian Operatic tenor" Lauritz Melchoir. The singer, who had previously mesmerized with the power of his voice in his debut Thrill of a Romance appears in Time along with Jimmy Durante doing double duty as musical accompaniment and comedic cupids best appreciated in a bit involving a bicycle built for two.

However, easily it's Million Dollar Mermaid which will be considered the set's standout in this gorgeously transferred film that still excites (when you don't think about the injuries!) via the inspirational true-life story of an Australian girl's fight against the limitations of her disability to become a sensation at the Hippodrome.

Yet despite the popularity of Mermaid, you may be surprised to discover just how endearing and charming the others are-- in spite of some weaknesses-- such as my other set favorite, Thrill of a Romance. As enjoyable a way to unwind as backfloating under a moonlit sky in warm water, the medicinal powers of MGM musicals haven't dipped in more than five decades. Moreover, this Williams collection is inviting enough to make you want to turn that backfloat into strokes to retrieve the original volume and collect them both to see the Bathing Beauty in her most iconic roles.

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