Outside of their historical perspective (and, some would say, overall better quality than contemporary cinema), studio era films are worth exploring for a lesson in the differing depictions of celebrity. In our current world where we turn our nose up at singers transitioning to acting, what would we say if someone was a world-class swimmer…turned celebrity? An actress like Esther Williams will grace on our screens again, unless portrayed by someone like Scarlett Johansson in this week’s Hail, Caesar. So, in honor of the Coen brothers depicting Williams’ patented brand of aquatic acting on the silver screen again, let’s look at the diving dame’s best work, both in and out of the pool.
Katie Higgins (Williams) would rather learn about farming, unlike her severely athletic family who enjoy exertion and sunshine. When salesman Windy Weebe (Jack Carson) arrives to town selling a tonic called “Liquapep” he thinks the Higgins family would be perfect spokespersons. Weebe enlists the Higgins clan into swimming the English Channel as the “Liquapep family,” but when Katie turns out to be the strongest one in the group it’s all up to her.
In her autobiography, Esther Williams says her film plots were rather generic. (I’m paraphrasing but she mentions playing a character named Katie, with similar sounding last names, more than once.) For the most part, they are but Dangerous When Wet is pure escapism and it’s hard finding the escape in most movies without losing something in the entertainment; Dangerous When Wet accomplishes both tasks.
The entire Higgins family is introduced through a humorous song, “I Got Out of Bed on the Right Side,” one of the catchiest movie tunes I’ve heard. (I saw this six months ago and I still find myself singing this when I wake up in the morning.) Like the best musical moments it explains what we need to know about the characters as the group troupes out in a line, prepped for their exercises while Williams’ Katie blindly walks behind them reading a book. In fact, Katie’s complete antipathy for swimming seems to poke fun at Williams’ persona.
When the Higgins’ are recruited to swim the English Channel the plot goes from bouncy fish out of water story to fish in the water. Esther Williams is beautiful, of that there’s no doubt, but what shines through is her energy. Katie is determined and ambitious, but unwilling to step on others to further either. The films doesn’t have the grandiose theatrical swimming scenes Williams became famous for in the likes of Bathing Beauty (1944) or Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), which lends an authentic mien to proceedings. There’s no detour into spectacle nor are there interruptions for performances by the likes of Xavier Cugat.
The swimming of the Channel itself is riveting, if only because of how real it feels (despite being filmed in a backlot water tank). A montage shows the strength training that takes place to do endurance events like this, and in the finale you are left wondering if she’ll make it.
Jack Carson as Windy, William Demerest as Pa, and Charlotte Greenwood as Ma are great, but it’s hard taking your eyes off Williams and her soon-to-be husband, Fernando Lamas. The opening indicates an attraction between Windy and Katie that’s one-sided on his part. When Williams runs into Lamas’ Andre, the sparks start flying – and it’s not surprising that, 16 years later, they’d marry. Originally conceived for Williams’ previous co-star, Ricardo Montalban, Lamas was also a world-renowned swimmer which lends his swims with Williams an additional romantic air. The chemistry between these two is clear, and the film’s best scenes involve them together.
I’d be remiss in not mentioning Williams’ famous swim with Tom and Jerry. Boy, those two got around, swimming with her and dancing with Gene Kelly! Before the big swim Katie ends up having an extended dream sequence of swimming with the dynamic duo complete with a Lamas-like octopus (subtle!). This is the perfect blend of cartoon and live action, 35 years before Who Framed Roger Rabbit would be considered the benchmark. Williams seamlessly appears as if she’s inhabiting the same space as the cat and mouse pair.
Dangerous When Wet didn’t turn the world on its ear, but it sealed my adoration for Williams! I also have to give a shout-out to director Charles Walters. I loved the recent biography out about him, and this proved that he’s an unsung director worth singing about!