Friday, June 7, 2013

Wet She Was a Star: The Late Esther Williams

Esther Williams, champion swimmer and movie star, died yesterday at the age of 91.

Esther Williams was born on 8 August 1921 in Inglewood, California. Her older brother, Stanton Willliams, acted in silent films as a child. He died in 1929 from a twisted intestine. It was that same year that Esther Williams, then eight years old, learned to swim. She counted towels at the local pool to get the nickel a day it cost to swim there. The male lifeguards at the pool taught her swimming strokes, such as the "butterfly stroke", then generally taught to only men. As a teenager she competed as part of the Los Angeles Athletic Club swim team. In 1939 she won the Women's Outdoor Nationals title for the 100 metre freestyle and also set the record for the 100 metre breaststroke. It would have been more or less guaranteed that Esther Williams would have competed in the 1940 summer Olympics had the games not been cancelled due to the ongoing World War II.

Miss Williams was working at  I. Magnin department store when showman and impresario Billy Rose hired her for his Aquacade show, then part of the Golden Gate International Exposition. She remained with Billy Rose's Aquacade until it closed on 29 September 1940. It was while Miss Williams was performing with the Aquacade that she was discovered by MGM. It was in 1936 that 20th Century Fox had signed Norwegian ice skater Sonja Henie and turned the three time Olympic gold medallist into a film star. Wanting their own athletic star in order to compete with Fox, MGM offered her a movie contract in 1941.

Once signed to MGM Miss Williams was required to undergo nine months of diction, singing, acting, and dancing lessons. Miss Williams made her film debut in 1942 in Inflation. Like many starlets signed to MGM she was given a role in one of the "Andy Hardy" films starring Mickey Rooney to test audience reaction to her. MGM received an overwhelmingly positive response to their new star. Esther Williams appeared in a small role in A Guy Named Joe (1943) before she received her first starring role in Bathing Beauty (1944).  For the remainder of the Forties she appeared in such films as The Hoodlum Saint (1946), Easy to Wed (1946), Fiesta (1947), This Time for Keeps (1947), On an Island with You (1948), Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), Neptune's Daughter (1949), Duchess of Idaho (1950), and Pagan Love Song (1950). She also appeared in the water ballet segment of Ziegfeld Follies (1945). During World War II she was one of the most popular pin up girls

The Fifties saw Esther Williams' career at its peak. During the decade she made some of her best known films, including Texas Carnival (1951), Skirts Ahoy! (1952), Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), Dangerous When Wet (1953), Easy to Love (1953), Jupiter's Darling (1955), and Raw Wind in Eden (1958). She also appeared on television, in such shows as Lux Video Theatre, The Donna Reed Show, and Zane Grey Theatre. In the Sixties she appeared in the films The Big Show (1961) and La fuente mágica (1963), and on television in The Bob Hope Show.

Following her marriage to Fernando Lamas Esther Williams retired from film. She would later introduce a line of swimwear, as well as give her name to a line of above ground swimming pools.

Comedienne Fanny Brice once said, "Esther Williams? Wet, she's a star. Dry, she ain't."And while there are many who would disagree with Miss Brice's  assessment of Miss Williams when she was dry, there can be no doubt that it was in the water where Esther Williams really shined. No one could swim like Esther Williams could. It was not a simple case that she could swim faster and farther than the vast majority of people. Esther Williams could do so with such grace that few dancers could manage on dry land. Indeed, it was Esther Williams' skill and talent as a swimmer that would lead to the creation of a whole new genre of film, the aquatic musical. The centrepiece of these musicals was always Esther Williams, who was featured in elaborate water ballet sequences, some of which were conceived by the legendary Busby Berkeley.

Of course, if Esther Williams had merely been a great swimmer, even as great as she was, it is doubtful she would remain well known today. Other athletes also had successful careers in Hollywood, but have long since been largely forgotten. The fact is that Esther Williams was not simply a great swimmer, but she exuded the same sparkle and charm as many of the other great stars of the Golden Age. It was this, in combination with her swimming skill, that allowed her to have a career that lasted nearly two decades and has allowed her to be remembered to this day. Quite simply Esther Williams was a singular star, an incredibly talented swimmer could also light up the movie screen.

1 comment:

Jessica Pickens said...

Beautiful remembrance, Terry!
From her autobiography, it sounded like Fernando was very jealous of her success so the retirement was more his idea than her's.
She will be greatly missed