Esther Williams Says No to MGM For A Year, Revolutionizes Synchronized Swimming, Looks Perfect Underwater, And Can Light the Pool On FIRE!
Esther Williams and Bathing Beauty (1944)
1944’s Bathing Beauty didn’t win any awards for its screenplay or acting. (And rightly so!) But this implausible little film is a pioneering work of art in its own right: Bathing Beauty introduced the world to the unique and graceful aquatic talents of Esther Williams. And, as Esther herself would say, Bathing Beauty showcased synchronized swimming in ways it had never before been seen on film.
Bathing Beauty: The First Aqua Musical
With the undertaking of this, the first full-scale “aqua musical,” Esther and her team at MGM took on the exciting and completely unprecedented task of how to make swimming pretty on film. Behind the scenes of Bathing Beauty, new makeup techniques, hairstyles and products, swimming choreography, camera work, and even pool engineering and plumbing, were all experimented with for the first time.
The result was a resounding success, and the film was a hit at the box office, ushering in a whole new genre of films that no one but Esther Williams could star in. Esther herself would be just a crucial to the successful formula of these swimming musicals as any other element.
If you haven’t seen Bathing Beauty, you can rent or purchase the film here on Amazon [aff. link].
To the plot!
Within minutes of the film’s start, we’re treated to our first, magical Esther Williams swimming number. Esther is Caroline Brooks, a New Jersey college professor vacationing in California. Caroline just happens to be a beautiful swimmer, and as she gracefully makes her way to the pool, Caroline is naturally serenaded by the Columbian baritone, Carlos Ramirez, who’s singing poolside with Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra.
Hey, this is a 1940’s musical. Anything is possible, and the quicker we accept it, the more fun this film will be.
Caroline and Steve
After a beautiful swan dive and swimming number that enthralls the rest of the pool guests, we meet Caroline’s fiancé, Steve Elliot (Red Skelton), a songwriter whom she’s met on this trip. Caroline and Steve plan to marry and quit their respective jobs—don’s ask me how that’s supposed to work, but Steve’s boss, water ballet producer George Adams (Basil Rathbone)—yes, apparently that is a real job—overhears the lovebirds making their plans, and vows to find a way to keep Steve in show business, as he’s depending on Steve to write the score for his latest water ballet.
The plan George comes up with to keep Steve with the show is simple: hire a girl to pretend to be Steve’s wife, then, have said girl show up at Steve and Caroline’s wedding, insisting that Steve is the father of her three children. Since Steve has red hair, and this woman’s pretend children will also have red hair, it’s clearly a fool-proof plan. There’s no way Caroline will doubt this pretend story, and then she’ll leave Steve.
And that’s exactly how it all plays out. Just after Steve and Caroline say “I do,” actress Maria Dorango (Jacqueline Dalya) and three random red-headed kids crash the wedding and make a scene, with Maria falsely claiming that Steve deserted his family. Caroline believes it all, and catches the next plane back to New Jersey and Victoria College, where she now plans to continue with her teaching career.
A heart-broken Steve follows Caroline back east, and begins working on his own plan to win her back. Since Caroline won’t speak to Steve, and Steve can’t even get on to Victoria’s all-female campus, he’ll have to get creative.
But hey! At the bar where Steve attempts to drink his worries away, he meets a loose-lipped attorney who just so happens to be the guy Victoria College has hired to officially make the school an all-girls university. As the charter currently stands, Victoria must admit both male and female students, even though the school has never actually had a male student.
You can probably guess what Steve’s thinking just about now…
Yep, he applies to Victoria College so he can can get close to Caroline.
And…he’s accepted! Just for a two week probationary period, as none of the faculty—Caroline most of all—really want Steve there. And as per campus policy, if they can find a way to give Steve 100 demerits, he’ll have to leave Victoria even sooner.
So it’s Steve against the faculty as each professor tries to think of ways to give him a demerit.
Dirty broom closet Steve’s assigned to live in looks too filthy on a surprise inspection?
Steve can’t dance ballet as gracefully as the other students?
How about a few demerits??
Well, it’s almost Parent Day at Victoria College, and the faculty really doesn’t want to have to explain Steve’s presence to an auditorium full of parents who think their daughters attend an all-girls school.
So Dean Clinton asks Caroline to take Steve out on a date, and keep him out late enough to break curfew. That way, the dean can give Steve the remaining demerits needed to expel him. Caroline agrees, but while out with Steve, she remembers why she fell in love with him in the first place…
The Truth Comes Out
Caroline’s warm feelings towards Steve don’t last long however, for once they get back to school, Maria, the woman pretending to be Steve’s wife, is waiting in his closet-turned-dorm room!! Caroline storms out before Maria has a chance to tell her the truth.
Steve leaves Victoria College for good, still unaware that it was George Adams who concocted the whole fake-wife-plan that ruined his chances with Caroline. Steve makes a deal with Adams that he’ll still write the score for his water ballet as long as Caroline is the star of it. Adams agrees to the deal, and on opening night, Caroline finally discovers the truth from Maria, and Steve finds out it was all George’s fault.
After a grand water ballet—complete with water fountains, FIRE, Caroline in a sparkly swimsuit, and Harry James and Xavier Cugat BOTH playing poolside—Steve and Caroline reunite in the water with a kiss so dizzying, Steve goes under. Caroline dives down after him, and we’re to assume from here that they’ll live happily ever after.
Esther Says No to MGM
If you remember from my introduction post on Esther Williams, she said no to MGM’s offers of a studio contract and stardom for a full year:
“’I don’t think so,’ I would tell them.
They said, ‘But it’s MGM!’ As if this would make a big difference to me.
It didn’t. I had a husband, a career at I. Magnin to look forward to, a whole new life. That would be enough for me….
It was so easy to say no…I wasn’t going to subject myself to studio bosses, whatever they promised. I was going to be the good doctor’s wife.”
But after finally agreeing to meet with L.B. Mayer, and seeing the grandeur of the star dressing rooms, Esther began to think that giving MGM a try maybe wouldn’t be so bad. At the very least, she’d make enough money to put husband number one, Leonard Kovner, through medical school. But little did Esther know, her desire to sign with MGM would bring out a vicious side of her husband she’d never seen before, and spell the end of their marriage.
Against Kovner’s violent objections, Esther did sign with the studio in October of 1941, and began her training at MGM. Esther’s family hadn’t been able to afford tuition at USC, so Esther would call MGM her “finishing school”:
“MGM University—that’s what I called my apprenticeship on the studio lot, the college education my family couldn’t pay for. The studio groomed their discoveries for stardom….I was immersed in acting lessons, singing lessons, dance lessons, diction lessons…
…If the studio changed its mind and decided not to make that swimming movie, I’d still have my diploma.”
Besides her aquatic abilities, there was another thing about Esther Williams that set her apart from the other contractees at MGM: her contract itself. Before signing, Esther negotiated a proviso in her contract guaranteeing a nine month period to basically get herself camera ready before she appeared in a single film. Young Esther was wise enough to know that if she didn’t shine in her first film, there likely wouldn’t be a second. Esther brought with her to MGM the mentality of championship swimmer:
“The studio executives thought the nine-month clause was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. They all laughed and winked at each other and said, ‘Isn’t she cute, and naive, and insecure!’ But you don’t call it insecurity when you’re trained to be a champion—you call it reality. I knew that if I didn’t show promise from the beginning, the studio would close me down in six months. I would hedge my bet, give myself enough room to breath (or enough rope to hang myself), and grab a nine-month shot at success…”
Smart move Esther. She may have had to turn down a role opposite Clark Gable in the process, but by the time Esther made her film debut, playing supporting roles in Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942) and A Guy Named Joe (1943), she was comfortable in front of a camera, and it showed. So much so that MGM was ready to base a whole swimming musical around her.
Creating the First Swimming Musical
Bathing Beauty (1944) was originally titled Mr. Coed, referring of course to Red Skelton’s Steve Elliot character. There’s no question who the star of this picture was initially intended to be. And according to Esther, the original script was “dry,” with the swimming “added pretty much as an afterthought.”
There would be a lot to learn as Esther and her crew embarked on creating the first swimming musical.
For Esther’s introduction in the film, her first big swimming scene on camera, she was left completely to her own devices. The scene was shot at the beautiful Lakeside Country Club in Burbank, and when Esther asked director George Sidney what he wanted her to do for this precedent-setting swimming number, Sidney merely replied,
“Just do what you do, Esther.”
Can you imagine?? A multi-million dollar film, her first starring role, and the choreography of a big swimming number all rested on the shoulders of twenty-two-year-old Esther.
Champion that she was trained to be, Esther rose to the challenge, and improvised the number on the spot. And in this, her swimming musical debut, that classic Esther Williams smile and grace are already apparent in spades, and would only get more polished in her films ahead.
The Grand Water Finale
Esther got the surprise of her life when the time came to film the big water extravaganza number at the end of Bathing Beauty:
“They told me to report to Sound Stage 30, and when I got there, my mouth dropped open. What had been a dry stage was now a ninety-by-ninety-foot pool. Twenty-five feet deep. It had all kinds of special effects equipment for underwater fountains and geysers and fireworks, not to mention a central pedestal on a hydraulic lift. They could raise me fifty feet up out of the water like Venus on the half shell. I was…in shock…”
Esther’s new pool cost $250,000 for MGM to construct. By today’s standard, that’s a $3.8 million pool! If that wasn’t a show of faith on MGM’s part that Esther and her water ballets were going to be huge, I don’t know what is.
John Murray Anderson, who choreographed Billy Rose’s Aquacade, was brought in to choreograph this final number, which would consist of not just Esther, but 150 other swimmers either in or around the pool. What Anderson did with these swimmers was nothing short of magnificent.
A fan illusion was created by having the swimmers dive into the pool one after another in quick succession, which created a ripple effect. The move would come to be known as “the tiller.” This and “the porpoise dive,” or “the dolphin,” small dives which start in the water, with the swimmer re-emerging in her original location, were both used to great effect in Bathing Beauty, and would become staples of synchronized swimming in the years to come.
And then of course there was beautiful Esther, looking radiant in perhaps the most glamorous swimsuit moviegoers had ever seen, with panels of small mirrors sewn into the suit, which sparkled on camera, and looked ethereal underwater.
Esther begins the number majestically on a seahorse-throne-lift before descending into the water. Once swimming, a graceful flip of the wrist as Esther swims by those 150 other swimmers brings surprising spouts of colored water up out of the pool. Another flip of her wrist, and FIRE blasts up and out of that water. Yet another little command from Esther at the end of the finale, and a curtain of water rises six stories high from a set of needle jets, surrounding the circumference of the pool! As Esther would say in her autobiography [aff. link]:
“The engineering department adored me because they got to play with all this innovative equipment. Never had plumbing been put to a more glamorous use.”
So true, Esther, perfectly said.
Esther Takes One for the Team
The intricate number took ten weeks to rehearse, and by the time filming began, Esther had come down with pneumonia. You’d never guess from her radiant beauty and seemingly effortless swimming that our girl was working through “a throbbing head and wheezing chest.” Feeling as rotten as she did at the time of filming, Esther would later marvel that they got that finale number shot at all:
“Watching videos of that scene now, I can’t believe that big smile I manage…I rise up out of the water on the hydraulic pedestal, an Aphrodite-like Venus, rising from the sea—weak from pneumonia.”
The swimming and pool effects weren’t the only things that required experimentation. To give Esther her signature, perfect underwater look, the hair and makeup departments at MGM were also exploring new territory. The creation of makeup and hairstyles that would last a full day in the pool was absolutely necessary.
Underwater Makeup and Hair
The heavy pancake makeup worn on film that was so typical of the era just wouldn’t cut it in an Esther Williams swimming musical: in the water, pancake makeup just washed off. It was discovered that a cream makeup with an exceptionally thick base worked best for Esther’s days in the pool. According to Esther, for the days of water filming, every inch of her was “slathered” in this cream makeup, followed by a layer of powder. Then it was off to the shower for Esther, which would help the body makeup set for the day.
That just sounds like the most uncomfortable thing ever, but boy did it give Esther a flawless glow on film, even underwater.
Hair was a whole other story. A concoction of warm baby oil and Vaseline was invented to keep Esther’s hair perfectly in place while she swam.
How’d you like to have that goop on your head??
MGM hairdressers would work the mixture into Esther’s hair, which she would say “looked suitable for lubricating cars.” In her book, Esther joked that as the hairdressers
“…patted the mixture onto their hands, and said, ‘Come here, Esther.’ I always thought there was a little too much glee on their faces when I arrived for my morning session.”
Once her tresses were sufficiently gooped, Esther’s hair was braided, with artificial braids woven in next. According to Esther, the giant hairpins used to keep these braids in place
“…looked like crowbars—and felt like them, too. The pins created massive welts in my scalp, but even when I dove off a high platform, those braids stayed put. They became my trademark underwater ‘do,’ and I still have an indentation down the middle of my head as a souvenir.”
The old adage “pain is beauty” has never seemed more appropriate.
Every once in awhile, after getting into her full body makeup and having her crowbars put in, Esther would arrive on set only to be told that the filming schedule had changed, that they would be staying dry that day instead, and she could just go change.
Just go change??? After all that discomfort and goop, I’d have been SO mad. !
From Mr. Coed to Bathing Beauty
There’s no arguing that the plot of Bathing Beauty was anything short of fantasy. But the film, particularly Esther Williams and her water ballets numbers, was a resounding success with moviegoers.
Oh yeah. Red Skelton was in the movie, too.
Did you forget? I almost did.
Despite the fact that Red had some amazing comedy routines in the film—one, the ballet sequence, was even choreographed by the legendary Buster Keaton—there was no doubt that this was Esther Williams’ picture. And after the film previewed with audiences all over Southern California, the universal praise for Esther led to the film’s title being changed from Mr. Coed to Bathing Beauty.
Bathing Beauty. ALMOST as Good as Gone With The Wind!
Bathing Beauty premiered at the Astor Theater in New York City, with a six-story tall billboard of Esther diving into Times Square that read “Come on in! The Show’s Fine!”
And that’s just what audiences did. The escapist fair Bathing Beauty offered was exactly what WWII audiences needed. The film would earn $3.3 million domestically, and would be a huge success abroad as well, earning $3.6 million internationally. According to Esther, Bathing Beauty earned more with international audiences at the time than any film besides Gone with the Wind (1939).
Esther Williams was officially a star. After Bathing Beauty, she even earned that star dressing room at MGM to prove it. And with each new swimming musical she made, Esther cemented her status as the only star who could do these amazing aquatic films.
Esther Williams was irreplaceable, and she’d enjoy being a top Hollywood star for the next decade.
More Esther Next Week!
And that wraps it up for Bathing Beauty!
Join me next week as I cover one of my favorite of Esther’s films, Duchess of Idaho (1950), and the tragic circumstances that kept two of Esther’s co-stars in the film, Paula Raymond and Lena Horne, from superstardom.
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