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Tag Archives: Esther Williams

Neptune’s Daughter (May 22, 1949)

Neptune's Daughter
Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
Directed by Edward Buzzell
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Neptune’s Daughter was the third and final pairing of Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban. The two previously starred together in Fiesta (1947) and On an Island With You (1948).

In Neptune’s Daughter, Williams plays Eve Barrett, a swimsuit designer, and Montalban plays a dashing South American polo player named José O’Rourke.

The film also stars MGM’s big comedic draw, Red Skelton, as masseur Jack Spratt, and the manic, wild-eyed Betty Garrett as Eve’s sister, creatively named “Betty Barrett.”

Neptune’s Daughter was the second time Skelton and Williams appeared together. The first was Bathing Beauty (1944). (They both appeared in the revue film Ziegfeld Follies, but in separate segments.)

I love Esther Williams. She’s beautiful, athletic, and charming. And the fact that she was a swimming star made her unique. I also like Betty Garrett, who plays essentially the same man-crazy role in Neptune’s Daughter that she played in Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949). And Ricardo Montalban is Ricardo Montalban. He’s the smoothest Latin lover in Hollywood history.

Williams and Montalban

But I’m not totally sold on Red Skelton. I just don’t find him that funny. Plenty of his bits in Neptune’s Daughter are amusing, but I didn’t find them particularly uproarious, and I really don’t enjoy all his mugging for the camera.

The musical high point of Neptune’s Daughter is the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” by Frank Loesser. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best original song, but there was some controversy over whether it should be eligible for the 1949 Oscars, since Loesser wrote it in 1944 and had performed it at parties with his wife, Lynn Garland. Since it had never been performed “professionally” until its appearance in Neptune’s Daughter, it was deemed eligible and went on to win the Oscar. Loesser’s wife, however, was furious that her husband had sold it to MGM, since she considered it “their song.”

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is first performed by Montalban and Williams; he sings the “wolf” part and Williams sings the “mouse” part. It’s performed later by Betty Garrett and Red Skelton with the roles reversed; she is the aggressor and he is the shy one.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was used in the film because MGM’s censors decided that the lyrics of Loesser’s song “I’d Love to Get You (On a Slow Boat to China)” were too suggestive. (Which explains its presence in a film that takes place in sweltering heat.)

This is ironic, since “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has lyrics that are more more suggestive than the lyrics of “I’d Love to Get You (On a Slow Boat to China).” Parts of the song even border on suggesting date rape, an aspect of the song that was recently satirized by Key & Peele.

I think some of the lyrics to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” sound worse now than they were intended to. For example, the line “Hey, what’s in this drink?” suggests roofies nowadays, but at the time Loesser wrote the song it was probably meant to imply the sentiment, “Oh my goodness this is a strong drink.”

I think it’s a playful and seductive song, and the fact that Skelton and Barrett reverse the roles when they perform the song adds to the acceptability.

What I found totally unacceptable in Neptune’s Daughter, from a gender standpoint, is the unquestioned assumption that Esther Williams’s character will have to give up her swimwear design business — which she built herself — if she gets married. The idea that she could remain head of a successful company and also be a married woman is unthinkable.

But for the most part, Neptune’s Daughter is a fun, vibrant Technicolor extravaganza. For my money, anything with Esther Williams is worth watching.

Neptune’s Daughter will be shown on TCM on April 6, 2014.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game (March 9, 1949)

Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
Directed by Busby Berkeley
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

By 1948, when Take Me Out to the Ball Game was filmed, legendary musical director Busby Berkeley was suffering from problems with alcohol and with his own temperament. No studio trusted him to both direct and choreograph a picture, so when he was given Take Me Out to the Ball Game to direct, the choreography was handled by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly.

Just judging by what’s on screen, Berkeley had no problem putting together a fun, well-made Technicolor musical for M-G-M.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game reunited Frank Sinatra with Gene Kelly. The two had previously starred together in Anchors Aweigh (1945). Sinatra’s career had hit a bit of a lull in 1948, and M-G-M thought it would be a good idea to pair him with his co-star from the most financially successful film he’d ever made.

Sinatra plays Dennis Ryan, the second baseman of the baseball team The Wolves, and Kelly plays O’Brien, the shortstop. When Ryan and O’Brien aren’t playing baseball, they’re one of the most popular Vaudeville duos in the country. Take Me Out to the Ball Game takes place in 1909, so the notion of two professional baseball players also working as Vaudevillians is only half as ludicrous as it would have been in 1949.

When Ryan and O’Brien report for spring training in Sarasota, they find out that a new owner — K.C. Higgins — has inherited the team. None of the players are happy about this, and they all assume that this Higgins fellow will be a fathead who doesn’t know the first thing about baseball. Unsurprisingly, K.C. Higgins turns out to be a woman (see also Major League).

Of course, K.C. is a baseball whiz, and since she’s played by swimmer Esther Williams, she gets some time in the water, too. The first time Ryan and O’Brien see her cavorting in the hotel pool, one of them remarks, “Not bad for a dame who can field a hot grounder.”

Sinatra and Kelly

The comedy in Take Me Out to the Ball Game is passable, but it’s the singing and dancing that make a musical, and the picture succeeds on both counts. Kelly isn’t quite the singer Sinatra is, and Sinatra isn’t quite the dancer Kelly is, but the same magic they worked in Anchors Aweigh is onscreen here, and it’s a joy to watch.

The songs are all pretty good. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is heard more than once, and there are also highlights like “The Right Girl for Me,” which Sinatra croons to Williams in the moonlight, and “The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore Upon St. Patrick’s Day,” which Kelly sings while doing a jig, wearing a battered green hat, and brandishing a shillelagh.

If you listen to the lyrics of “Yes, Indeedy,” which is about loving and leaving gals across the country, you’ll catch a line about a lovesick Vassar girl who committed suicide after Sinatra loved her and left her, and a Southern belle who turned out to be 11 years old, which is why Gene Kelly had to leave her. The risqué things you can get away with really change from generation to generation, don’t they?

Just like in It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), plenty of humor is wrung from Sinatra’s slender frame. We see him gorging himself on steak and buttered rolls to gain weight during spring training, as well as sucking down milkshakes like they’re water. But alas, he remains a beanpole, and the vivacious and lovesick Shirley Delwyn (played by Betty Garrett) is able to sling him over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry during one of their musical numbers together.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game is, by all accounts, not as good as Kelly and Sinatra’s next collaboration, On the Town (1949), which I haven’t seen yet. But I enjoyed the heck out of it.

On an Island With You (May 3, 1948)

On an Island With You was director Richard Thorpe’s fourth film to star the shimmering sea creature Esther Williams.

I didn’t get a chance to see the last film they made together, This Time for Keeps (1947), but I enjoyed On an Island With You a lot more than their second collaboration, the disappointing bullfighting drama Fiesta (1947), mostly because On an Island With You allows Williams to do what she did best — look stunning in and out of the water, and perform some spectacular water ballet numbers. (I’ve also never seen Thorpe’s first film starring Williams, Thrill of a Romance (1945) … what kind of an Esther Williams fan am I?!?)

In On an Island With You, she’s again paired with Mexican heartthrob Ricardo Montalban — her co-star in Fiesta (1947) — and also with Peter Lawford, who comes off as a real drip compared to the dashing Montalban.

This is too bad, since the audience is supposed to be rooting for Lt. Lawrence Y. Kingslee (Lawford), who fell in love with movie star Rosalind Rennolds (Williams) when he was serving in the South Pacific in World War II. Rosalind was doing a USO tour to raise the boys’ morale, and doesn’t even remember meeting Lt. Kingslee. She had too many brief romantic dalliances during the war to remember one more than any of the others, but for him it was the single most important event of his life.

As is all too common in movies from the ’40s, his romantic brio is so excessive it borders on stalking. During a break in the filming of Rosalind’s latest picture, Lt. Kingslee flies her away to the island where they met against her will. The rub is that real islands aren’t like islands in the movies. There are leeches and sinkholes, and when they’re away from the plane the natives steal the wheels. On the plus side, he remembers where he buried all the cans of Spam around the old Quonset hut where he used to bunk.

There’s a metafictional element to On an Island With You, since the film Rosalind is making with her fiancé, Ricardo Montez (played by Ricardo Montalban), is also called “On an Island With You,” and in all the spectacular dance numbers there are at least a few shots of the cameramen filming the action to remind you that they’re making a movie.

While I thought Lawford was miscast, there’s plenty of entertainment to be had in On an Island With You. Besides Williams’s luminescent screen presence and big water ballet numbers, Ricardo Montalban has some wonderful dances with Cyd Charisse — all high points of the film — and Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra are on hand for some good musical numbers. I especially liked Cugat’s tiny chihuahua.

Jimmy Durante has a big role in On an Island With You, too. He might even have more screen time than Lawford. I like Durante, but he’s not exactly the first person I want to see when I sit down to watch a Technicolor musical that takes place in the South Pacific.

Fiesta (June 12, 1947)

And introducing Ricardo Montalban.

When I sat down to watch Fiesta, those words in the credits floored me. I can’t conceive of what it was like to grow up in a world without Ricardo Montalban. His suave, white-suit-wearing Mr. Roarke, from Fantasy Island (1977-1984), is a mysterious character who was burned into my mind at a young age. Ditto for his insane and weirdly brilliant role as the villain of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Or his dapper and hilarious bad guy, Vincent Ludwig, in The Naked Gun (1988). Or his work as the pitchman for Maxwell House Decaf.

Maybe it was just the movies and TV shows that I watched, but Montalban seemed ubiquitous.

By the ’80s, he always appeared to be having fun with his “Latin lover” image, but he was never parodying himself. His smooth charm was undeniable, no matter what kind of ridiculous lines were coming out of his mouth. (Like claiming that decaffeinated coffee was “good to the last drop.”)

Richard Thorpe’s Fiesta wasn’t the first film to star Montalban. He’d already appeared in more than a dozen films in his native Mexico. But it was his first Hollywood film, and it was his introduction to American audiences. It was also an opportunity for Esther Williams to perform in a dramatic role that was very different from the roles that had made her famous in MGM’s “aquatic musicals.”

Williams and Montalban play twins, Maria and Mario Morales. Their father, Antonio Morales (Fortunio Bonanova), a former matador, always wanted a son to carry on his work in the ring. After confirming that he is indeed not going to have just a daughter, but rather twins, Morales proclaims his son “The future greatest matador in the whole world!”

Of course, things don’t work out the way Señor Morales expects. His son Mario is a gifted musician and composer who would much rather make music than wear the traje de luces (“suit of lights”) and fight bulls (even though he’s good at it). His daughter Maria, of course, is the one with the real desire to be a torero, but her gender makes such a thing unthinkable.

Mario is torn between his father’s plans for him and the interest that conductor Maximino Contreras (Hugo Haas) shows in his music. Eventually, Mario flees the ring when he finds out his father lied to him about a visit Señor Contreras made to their house. He does so out of anger, but his action is viewed as cowardice by the spectators. Naturally, Maria comes up with a plan to don the traje de luces and impersonate her brother in the ring.

Fiesta has the kind of shopworn plot and lifeless dialogue that one can suffer through if they’re merely the framework for a musical packed with great songs and exciting dance numbers. But while Fiesta is often classified as a musical, it’s not a really a musical. It’s a turgid, woodenly acted drama whose only high points are a handful of dance sequences.

If you like dancing, then Montalban’s numbers with Cyd Charisse (playing a character named Conchita) are worth seeing. (I especially liked the number they stomped out to “La Bamba,” the traditional Mexican song that Ritchie Valens later made famous.) The scene in which Mario hears one of his compositions played on the radio by Señor Contreras’s orchestra and listens in rapture before sitting down at the piano in the cantina to play along would be at home in a musical, but it’s an organic moment. There are no scenes in Fiesta in which the characters just break into song.

In short, it’s pretty lifeless, especially when compared with other Technicolor extravaganzas from MGM. Most of the cast isn’t very interesting to watch. The great silent star Mary Astor is wasted in a thankless role as Señora Morales. Montalban is enjoyable to watch, but Williams is terribly miscast. It’s not that she doesn’t look “Mexican” (you can see plenty of women who look like Esther Williams if you watch Spanish-language television). It’s that she looks nothing like Montalban, yet the audience is asked to believe that she is a convincing double for him when she dons the traje de luces and enters the ring. Her own stunt double is also a completely unconvincing facsimile of Williams during the bullfighting sequences. His muscular buttocks, lack of breasts, crotch bulge, muscular neck, and big ears are pretty difficult to confuse with Williams’s slightly different attributes.

I like Esther Williams a lot. She’s beautiful and appealing, not to mention a hell of a swimmer. But this was just the wrong role for her. Also, her “romantic” scenes with Jose “Pepe” Ortega (John Carroll) are dead on arrival.

Although the film begins with a statement of sincere thanks to the Mexican people, the production was a troubled one. The cinematographer, Sidney Wagner, and another crew member both died of cholera after eating contaminated street food. Esther Williams’s husband, Ben Gage, and makeup artist George Lane were both expelled from Mexico after a fight with a hotel employee. And a stuntman died of an infection he contracted after being gored in the groin by a bull.

The largest problem the production ran into had to do with bullfighting, which director Thorpe chose to depict in a sanitized fashion. For example, the first time we see Mario’s moves in the ring, he skirmishes with an uninjured bull who charges at him over and over as he dances around the ring and flourishes his cape, avoiding several near misses. Eventually the bull gets too tired to continue, and the fight is over.

During the bullfights in Fiesta, only the bullfighter’s life seems to be in danger. It is presented as a dangerous sport. In reality, the outcome of a bullfight is rarely in question, and it is less a sport than an artistic, ritualized slaughter in which the torero is judged according to his grace and style, not whether or not he kills the bull. (According to this article, which was published last year in The Guardian, only 52 matadors have been killed in the ring since the year 1700. There are myriad injuries, of course, which range from minor to spectacular. If you have a strong stomach, click here.) In Fiesta there are no banderilleros jamming spikes into the bull’s back, bleeding it out and tiring it. There is no taunting of the bull or clownish antics on the part of the other toreadors in the ring, like grabbing the bull’s tail and skiing through the dirt as the bull circles. And, most important of all, there is no killing of the bull with a single sword thrust — the estocada.

Bullfighting is inextricable from the national identity of most Spanish-speaking countries. The people of Mexico were already angry that their own toreadors could not star in the film, so the depiction of bullfighting as a bloodless spectacle added insult to injury. When Thorpe had finished shooting Fiesta, his unit manager Walter Strohm convinced him that the bulls used in the film should all be killed to assuage the anger of the Mexican people. Thorpe acquiesced, even though the bulls had cost $1,000 each, which is nearly $10,000 in today’s dollars.

Easy to Wed (July 25, 1946)

Easy to Wed is a remake of Jack Conway’s 1936 comedy Libeled Lady, which starred Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy. No actors of that caliber appear in Edward Buzzell’s update, which is a lightweight affair from start to finish.

I haven’t seen Libeled Lady, but it was nominated for an Oscar for best picture, and is generally well-regarded in the pantheon of screwball comedies. Easy to Wed is generally regarded as a crummy piece of fluff, and that’s exactly what it is. Like the last MGM Technicolor extravaganza I saw, Ziegfeld Follies (1946), this movie is too long, is jam-packed with everything but a compelling plot and interesting characters, and its humor is mostly of the “painfully unfunny” variety.

The plot can be synopsized on the back of a cocktail napkin. Warren Haggerty (Keenan Wynn), the publisher of the Morning Star, is all set to marry his girl, Gladys Benton (Lucille Ball), but he and his paper are being sued for $2 million by J.B. Allenbury (Cecil Kellaway) after a story they published insinuated that Allenbury’s daughter, Connie (Esther Williams), is a nymphomaniac who goes after married men. The soundest plan Haggerty can come up with is to finagle his star reporter, Bill Chandler (Van Johnson), into a compromising position with Connie so they can produce photographic evidence that she is, indeed, a nympho who goes after married men. The only hitch is that Chandler is single, so Haggerty needs to hand off Gladys to him for a sham marriage for the duration of his assignment. Ridiculous? Sure.

At the time of the film’s release, one of its biggest draws was its leading man, Van Johnson. His appeal mystifies me. There’s nothing wrong with him, but I find his blandness overwhelming.

It’s not that I don’t like movies he’s been in — Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), in which he plays a heroic bomber pilot, was one of my favorite World War II movies made during the war — but I’d never go out of my way to see a movie just because he was in it, which makes me different from approximately every single woman living in America in the 1940s. I mean, check out that poster above. “Van! … Van! … Van!” What?

Intellectually, I can understand his appeal for the distaff post-war zeitgeist. The metal plate in his head may have kept him out of the war, but he was in enough war movies to give the impression of a returning hero. And unlike the haunted, shell-shocked, sweaty protagonists of countless noirs, Johnson projects nothing but good-natured cheer. He’s the young man you want your daughter to marry, or the even-tempered buddy you introduce to your sister.

The main selling point of Easy to Wed for me was Esther Williams. There are none of her signature water ballet numbers, but she does spend a lot of time in the water. (Her first kiss with Johnson even takes place underwater.) She is beautiful and sexy, and emerges from the water many times in the picture, sleek and dripping, her makeup still perfect. But she’s beautiful on land, too, and looks great in Technicolor, whether she’s playing a board game by the fire or fully decked-out, singing and dancing in one of the film’s several passable musical numbers.

Besides Williams, the only thing I really liked about Easy to Wed was the crazily outfitted Ethel Smith, who performs a wild musical number at the organ. It’s a scene that borders on the surreal, and I loved it.

Ziegfeld Follies (April 8, 1946)

Ziegfeld Follies premiered in Boston on August 13, 1945. It was first shown in New York on March 22, 1946, and went into wide release on Monday, April 8, 1946. On some theatrical release posters, the film’s title was Ziegfeld Follies of 1946. The film is a lavish, old-fashioned musical pieced together from a big bag of spare parts. It was a pet project of producer Arthur Freed, and was originally intended to mark Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 20th anniversary in 1944, but it went through so many edits and revisions that it missed the mark by more than a year.

Despite the studio’s boast on the theatrical release poster that Ziegfeld Follies is the “greatest production since the birth of motion pictures,” I really didn’t enjoy it that much. The musical numbers are hit and miss, and the comedy bits all hit the ground like lead zeppelins. There are a lot of impressive set pieces, and the colors are really bright, but as far as plotless extravaganzas go, it just doesn’t have the latter-day stoner appeal of Fantasia (1940).

The film begins with little models of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, then P.T. Barnum’s big top, then Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.’s theater. That’s it, folks. The only three shows in the history of the world that matter. Clearly humility is not on the program for the evening.

William Powell, who played “Flo” Ziegfeld in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), reprises his role for the first segment of the picture. He’s on a set that looks like the kind of pad Liberace and Louis XVI might have picked out for themselves if they were roommates, talking a lot of nonsense about magic and the theater (it took me a little while to catch on to the fact that he’s supposed to be in heaven). We’re then treated to an elaborate stop-motion recreation of Ziegfeld’s 1907 opening by the Bunin puppets. All of his great stars are recreated as puppets; Marilyn Miller, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, and even Eddie Cantor in blackface.

Each segment that follows is introduced by a storybook page. Fred Astaire appears in the first, “Here’s to the Girls.” He acknowledges that “Ziggy,” as he calls him, never had much use for villains or plots, then sings an ode to the American girls who were Ziegfeld’s main attractions. Cyd Charisse dances a little solo and then Lucille Ball cracks a whip over eight chorus girls dressed as panthers. Finally, Virginia O’Brien hollers for some fellers, and then sings, “Bring on Those Wonderful Men.” It’s a punishing spectacle that sets the tone for what is to come.

In the next segment, Esther Williams appears in … surprise, surprise … a water ballet. It’s fine, and she spends a lot of time underwater, which is neat, but what is the sequence even doing in this picture?

Next, Keenan Wynn appears in the comedy short “Number, Please.” I found it completely unfunny, but maybe that’s because I can’t stand “frustrating” humor. Basically, all he wants to do is make a phone call, but he’s thwarted at every turn, until his face is red and steam is coming out of his ears. For me it dragged the movie to a halt like a sweaty punchline comic working the in-betweens at a burlesque strip show.

Next, James Melton and Marion Bell sing “La Traviata.” Yawn.

Ooh, goody, more comedy! Victor Moore and Edward Arnold appear in “Pay the Two Dollars,” in which a man spits on the subway and is trapped in a legal nightmare because his attorney won’t let him just pay the $2 fine. Again, what’s up with the horribly frustrating situational humor? Not only did this segment not make me laugh, it made me feel as if I was watching a stage adaptation of a Kafka story.

Next, Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer appear in a “dance story” called “This Heart of Mine,” with music by Harry Warren and words by Arthur Freed. It’s pretty good. It took me back to the days when lighting a girl’s cigarette and then dancing while smoking was still classy. On the other hand, no one glides across a ballroom like old Fred, so the rotating circular centerpiece seemed wholly unnecessary. Who did the director think he was dealing with, Clark Gable?

The next comedy segment is called “A Sweepstakes Ticket,” and for some reason it’s filmed on a regular set, not the impressionistic “stage” sets used in all the previous comedy bits. Hume Cronyn gives away a winning Irish sweepstakes ticket to make up the few bucks he was short on the rent, and he and his wife Fanny Brice try to get it back from their landlord. Again, it’s not at all funny, just frustrating.

The next segment, “Love,” with Lena Horne (R.I.P.), was a nice opportunity to see black people in Technicolor, and in a steamy tropical setting no less. It should have been longer.

Next, Red Skelton shows us all what will happen “When Television Comes.” He does a promo for “Guzzler’s Gin.” He drinks a whole bunch each take and acts more and more stinko. If you’re amused by cross-eyed drunkenness and double-takes, this will still do the trick. Although it’s possible audiences in 1946 were amused by this segment, I can’t imagine they were left with a very clear idea of what the advent of television would mean for the country.

Up next is “Limehouse Blues,” in which Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer return, only this time in yellowface. The Chinatown tropes are offensive, but the colors and imagery are quite beautiful and impressive, in a non-P.C. sort of way. Once we get to the actual dance number, however, the piece is hamstrung by its own ridiculous conceit. It doesn’t help that in all the medium shots, Astaire’s makeup makes him look a lot like Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932).

In “A Great Lady Has an Interview,” Judy Garland seems to be lampooning Katharine Hepburn or possibly Greer Garson. I got the feeling that there were a lot of industry in-jokes that I wasn’t getting. For me, Garland is always a treat, however, so I didn’t mind it that much.

And then, like a terrible party that suddenly becomes fun 20 minutes before the police arrive to break it up, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly appear in “The Babbitt and the Bromide,” by George and Ira Gershwin. Their dialogue is funnier than any of the “comedy” bits in the movie, and their side-by-side dance number is transcendent. Ziegfeld Follies is worth seeing for this sequence alone.

Finally, Kathryn Grayson sings “Beauty,” by Warren and Freed. It’s standard stuff, but there are enormous piles of bubbles that I thought were pretty cool.

In other news, the last living Ziegfeld Follies “girl,” Doris Eaton Travis, died yesterday at the age of 106. I hope it doesn’t seem as if I’m beating up on the Follies themselves. I’d love to go back in time and see a Ziegfeld revue on Broadway. This film just doesn’t really capture the magic.

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