Million Dollar Mermaid: Starring Esther Williams and Victor Mature

Actress and champion swimmer Esther Williams starred in spectacular and splashy MGM musicals of the 1940s and 1950s.

Williams swam her way to stardom in such pictures as Bathing Beauty (1944), Neptune’s Daughter (1949) and Million Dollar Mermaid (1952).

The audience response to the athletic All-American girl was phenomenal as MGM put Williams’ career into high gear. For a decade, she reigned in a new Hollywood genre created specifically for her: The Aqua Musical.

A special 90-foot-square, 20-foot-deep pool was built at Stage 30 on the MGM lot, complete with hydraulic lifts, hidden air hoses and special camera cranes for overhead shots. Over the years, MGM concocted dozens of pretenses for getting her in water. Busby Berkeley designed lavish production numbers to show off Williams’ assets.

“No one had ever done a swimming movie before,” she once said, “so we just made it up as we went along. I ad-libbed all my own underwater movements.”

Bathing Beauty, a Technicolor that co-starred Basil Rathbone and Red Skelton, was the most successful film of 1944.

Million Dollar Mermaid is renowned for its spectacular sequences that include fountains, flames and a spewing volcano. She learned to water-ski for the film, which was directed by Mervyn LeRoy.

Throughout her career, Williams swam more than 1,250 miles in 25 aqua musicals for MGM and continually proved that she was a champion in the pool and at the box office. Her name is synonymous with swimming.

“Esther Williams did more for a bathing suit than John Wayne ever did for a cowboy hat, Tom Mix for a horse, Errol Flynn for a sword, Ronald Colman for a pith helmet, or Cary Grant for a tuxedo,” the Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray once wrote.

Like the Norwegian ice skater Sonja Henie before her, Esther Williams was one of the few female athletes to cross over to widespread entertainment success.

In Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams plays Annette Kellerman, a fictionalized biopic of the Australian swimming star who took up the sport as a child to strengthen legs that were damaged by birth defect.

Growing up, Annette becomes champion swimmer, though she prefers to follow her dream of becoming a ballet dancer.

When Annette’s father Frederick (Walter Pidgeon) accepts a position in London teaching music, Annette joins him. Along the way she meets James Sullivan (Victor Mature) and Doc Cronnol (Jesse White), the joint-owners of a boxing kangaroo they intend to exhibit in London.

Aware of Annette’s skills as competitive swimmer, James offers to be her manager and help her earn a living from her aquatic skills.

When her father’s job falls, and she can’t find work as dancer, Annette reluctantly agrees to work with James. He arranges a publicity stunt in which Annette swims 30 miles at the Thames River, attracting the British press and winning her work as a dancer.

James persuades Annette to travel with him to the U.S., where she creates a scandal in Boston by staging another long swim in one-piece bathing suit, then considered to be shocking. The stunt nearly lands Annette in jail, but she escapes the law and becomes the star of a water ballet revue.

Arguments cause James’ resignation as her manager and Annette takes up with Alfred Harper (David Brian), the male lead in her show. Annette and Alfred agree to marry while working on a movie together, but James returns on the last day of shooting, determined to win her back.

The legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley had staged the film’s elaborate water-ballet sequences, which are the best thing in an otherwise conventional and clichéd picture.

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Esther Williams Career

Williams became a pin-up favorite with G.I.’s and played a USO hostess in A Guy Named Joe (1943).

For Bathing Beauty, she stole the show in the finale, in an elaborate water ballet amid fountains, blazing fires and scores of scantily clad swimmers.

She appeared on the covers of as many as 15 fan magazines a year, and in 1953, the foreign press voted her the most popular actress in 50 countries.

In the late 1940s, she starred in a series of hugely popular movies. Most adhered to the boy-meets-girl, girl-swims-away, boy-catches-girl formula, including Thrill of a Romance (1945), Ziegfeld Follies (1945), Easy to Wed (1946), On an Island With You (1948), Neptune’s Daughter, Pagan Love Song (1950) and Duchess of Idaho (1950).

In some of the films, such as Pagan Love Song, water performances were included in order to fulfill her audiences expectation.

Her last big-budget aquatic musical was Jupiter’s Darling (1955), starring opposite Howard Keel, who played the conqueror Hannibal, and swimming with animals.