Say what you will about the great movie moguls of Hollywood’s Golden Age (and sure, they were horrible men—cruel, ruthless taskmasters), they were also visionaries with a deep and a real passion for moviemaking. There was a lot of money to be made, true, but they didn’t need it; long after they had made their fortunes, they continued to crank out, with amazing speed and dexterity, picture after picture, a few of them clinkers but most of them wondrous entertainments, and a lot of them pure gems, classic tales of lovers and dreamers, gangsters and pirates, heroes and louts and schemers. Their creations continue to shine, now 60, 70, even 80 years later. In the 1940s, MGM Studios, helmed by the powerful Louis B. Mayer, delivered, time and time again, to the American culture glorious Technicolor dream fantasies to combat the drab, pedestrian, provincial struggles and tediums of a country weary of war, nearly brought to its knees by conflict and loss and by a megalomaniacal dictator hell-bent on eating the world alive.
Arguably the grandest of all studios, Metro Goldwyn Mayer redeemed the nation and the world—with vibrant color, jaw-dropping vitality and talent, tales only a storyboard imagination could concoct, with acting and directing and cinematographic feats that lit up the screen with the fireworks of invention. MGM’s movies raised a nation up, carried it through one of the worst periods in the history of the 20th century, or of any century, with the sheer power of creation. To this day, I know when I and so many others find ourselves in the dumps, all we have to do is pop in a Judy Garland, Eleanor Powell, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly all-dancing, all-singing musical and we are instantly uplifted. Reverence for old movies lies in our gratitude for what they did and do to help us survive.
Esther Williams, in her time, one of the brightest lights on the MGM tree, is one of these go-to panaceas when you’re feeling the blues. A bright, young Olympics hopeful—she was set to compete in the 1940 Games until the outbreak of WW II made that dream impossible, Williams rallied by joining storied showman Billy Rose’s popular Aquacade reviews, watery, circus-y cavalcades comprised of gorgeous, athletic guys and dolls in pretty settings performing aquatic escapades. (Esther was paired with Johnny Weismuller, the star of the studio’s “Tarzan” movies). Few could resist Esther’s luminescent, non-threatening beauty, her Pepsodent smile, her legs “to there” and stunning aquatic skills. Mayer, seeing her perform, said, “I couldn’t take my eyes off her” and signed her immediately to a contract. He and his people groomed her into one of the most unique movie stars in his MGM pantheon. There was and has been in movie history no one quite like Esther Williams. She became an instant hit. For Mayer had his pulse on the Zeitgeist, an almost magical knack for divining which stars in which films would deliver thrills to a starving audience. He knew what the public wanted before it did. The war continued to drag on, killing spirits on the home front, as well as on the battlefield, and Mayer, by God, was going to counter it with dazzling, unsinkable stars and movies. Mayer and others of his kind used films as weapons, their secret to success being that they fed a happy public the fantasies so sadly missing from their daily lives. No wonder Hollywood was called The Dream Factory; it turned out with almost assembly-line precision, one delicious movie confection after another. If ever you puzzle over why stars like Williams continue to be lionized, adored—they helped millions of people make it through some very hard times They were, and remain, angels of deliverance, make dull existence easier to take. Movies can literally alter the way we think, feel and deal with Life’s disappointments and cruelties. They transport us, as do sports, music and art, outside of ourselves so that senses must re-focus, process the story and characters we are watching, causing us to forget, if only for a little while, our own story and the people in it. They give us permission to spend some time in a better place.
Nothing could be more transporting than an Esther Williams movie. The plot of NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER is beside the point, really, a jazzy romp involving mistaken identities, it pairs Esther once again with Hispanic hearthrob, Ricardo Montalban—they also made Fiesta and On an Island with You. This time around, Montalban is trying to romance Esther but she rebuffs him; adding to her distaste for him because he is an unapologetic womanizer, she also believes (wrongly) that he is dating her sister (played by the always entertaining movie and TV veteran Betty Garrett). Betty is seeing Red Skelton who she thinks is the character Montalban is playing. Oy! It’s all sort of wonderfully silly, yet serves only as a setting for the sparkling jewels the movie showcases—peppy, energetic song and dance numbers (the Academy Award winning now-classic “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Frank Loesser was first introduced in this film), Skelton’s and Garrett’s brilliant slapstick foolishness, Xavier Cugat’s bumpy, jazzy, hopped-up orchestra and best of all—the leggy effervescence of Esther Williams diving and breast-stroking her way into our hearts. She is enchantment itself, in this and in every movie she made for MGM. It is easy to see how she became an overnight sensation.
Interesting aside—Williams became pregnant after signing on for NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER. The costume department had to make customized swimsuits to hide her baby bump. Mayer told her to “take it slow” but, pro that she was, Esther gave the action and swimming scenes her all, refusing a stand-in. It was at this time that she also volunteered as a coach teaching blind children how to swim and dive. After her movie career ended, she created a line of Esther Williams swimwear, using many of the same designs she wore in her films.
We perhaps look with scorn nowadays on Mel Blanc (who acted the voices of so many Warner Brothers’ cartoons—Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, etc.) and his racist caricature of a Mexican, Pancho, in this film (the only worse one that comes to mind is Mickey Rooney’s deplorable aping of the Japanese neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) but Blanc’s mimickry is spot-on and full of innocent humor. He was a world-class impressionist.
I thought you might like this personal story—I was browsing in The Brattle Bookshop in Boston many years ago when a very tall, very distinguished gentleman, impeccably dressed, standing next to me saw I had The Education of Henry Adams in my hands. The man said, “That’s a good one. No! Not a good one. A GREAT one!” and something in the little laugh he gave off—a silly twitter, really—made me do a double take and gulp. I was talking to Red Skelton! He was so sweet and kind and smart during our chat. I don’t know how many people today know his work—he was a one-of-a kind performer. He had the gift of being able to imbue abject silliness with tenderness and a palpable pathos. I like him better than I like Danny Kaye who always seemed to me to be mugging, trying too hard. Skelton was all the Marx Bros. rolled up in one—his comic energy was bottomless, his cast of made-up characters (Klem Kadiddlehopper, Lump-Lump, Bolivar Shagnasty) came to be familiar friends to those of us who loved his special brand of ingenuity and ease with improv. One of the great clowns of all time. (Check out his many videos on YouTube!)
With NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER, the Brattle has chosen the perfect Technicolor splashfest to cool you off during this impossibly torrid Summer 2016. You can almost smell the chlorine! Almost feel the Coppertone soothing your sun-baked skin!