Neptune’s Daughter: An Esther Williams Lookback

Never getting to compete for Olympic Gold, Esther Williams still accepted silver on the screen

When I heard the news that Esther Williams, MGM’s famed “Million Dollar Mermaid,” passed away Thursday, I was saddened by its inevitable symbolism of a fading Hollywood heritage. Personally, I never actually cared for many of Williams’ vehicles, usual Technicolor spectacles that her studio lovingly dubbed aqua-musicals. True, those big budget underwater ballets were entertaining in the way Busby Berekley could ventilate the smell of Gouda right off his chorus line and into the movie theater’s back row. But they all still suffered from a lead there to swim and smile with plenty of dead time in-between. Yet, the world she represented for millions of Americans was as sparkling as those waterfalls she constantly sprang from. As a product from the heyday of the studio system, Williams was discovered in 1940 at an Aquacade after being unable to compete in the Olympics. Only 18-years-old at the time, she was a thrice over National Swimming Champion from when she was only a minor, but the Second World War killed her chances of ever competing for the gold. Instead, she settled for the studio of Emeralds grooming her to be a movie star during a time when MGM musical extravaganzas were as American as baseball and hot dogs. And at the center of any involving a swimming pool floated Esther Williams and a sea of glistening synchronized legs twirling around her. She may have always considered it her consolation prize, but she was apart of that grand Hollywood tradition back when all their stars wore gold.  Thus, I decided to revisit this weekend one of her many successful trips off the big screen diving board. While not her most famous picture, Neptune’s Daughter (1949) seems tailor-made for the seaside beauty. Her character Eve Barrett is just a local city swimming athlete with big dreams for her amateur career until she gets picked from obscurity for her features by a local businessman to become the face and partner of swimming suit line. A story about a swimmer who became a symbol of marketing glitz? Plus, it stars, as her romantic interest, Ricardo Montalbán aka KHANNNNNNN!!!!!! Eve is a professional girl who doesn’t have time for romance. The co-owner of a swimsuit manufacturer, she tells her partner Joe Backett (Keenan Wynn) that the only interest she has in men is, “If they whistle at our bathing suits.” She also has to worry about her plucky and man-crazy sister Betty (Betty Garrett). Things are especially tense this week because the South American Polo Team is in town and Betty has a hankering for something South of the Border. But Eve just knows how Latin men are…So, when Betty begins mistakenly dating masseuse Jack Spratt (Red Skelton), who is posing as a polo-playing star, Eve tries to break it off only to be romanced by the real thing. José O’Rourke (Montalbán) proves to be a great seducer and before long she is swimming in a double’s lane.  Neptune’s Daughter is the kind of big-hearted and small-minded comedy of errors that would spellbind Mia Farrow’s character from The Purple Rose of Cairo. It is a loud and affectionate adventure where the leads break into serenading song for only two scenes and Skelton ends up both winning a polo match while riding backwards and swimming in one of Williams’ classes. But then simplicity works best when an entire continent of peoples is reduced to the “South American Polo Team.” I wonder which Canadians and Mexicans are allowed onto the North American one for the upcoming big match? Red Skelton’s specific brand of comedy is no longer that endearing, but the film still has its moments. Namely, when it introduced the world to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Yep, despite being set in a very sunny Floridian paradise, for Montalbán and Williams’ second romancer, the future M.C. of the nightmarish Fantasy Island breaks into the most adored Yuletide date rape song on record. Written by Frank Loesser in 1944, he and his wife Lynn Garland would often perform it during their house parties to signify the evening had come to an end. But in 1948, much to the chagrin and annoyance of his wife for giving away “their song,” Loesser sold the ditty to MGM. Originally written in printed sheet as a conversation between the “Mouse” and “Wolf,” there has always been an underlying criticism that the melody is about a the “Mouse” (nearly always the woman’s part) being coerced into spending the night with the “Wolf.” Lines like “Hey, what’s in this drink,” don’t exactly help fend off such speculative complaints. Yet, it is such a fun wintry duet that it can dissuade dark undertones when performed with the right levity and flirtation between singers. Like the Mouse, how can we resist?  It remains though a bit unnerving in this film. Not between Montalbán and Williams. The two athletic names were both known to enjoy the Hollywood inner-circles of the era and they have a nice speedy rapport here, as the song goes by much faster than most modern recordings. If Montalbán had only sung this to William Shatner in 1982, they might have called the whole thing off! No, things get a bit shady when Garrett ensnares Skelton to a reversal of the tune. To my surprise, they were already doing gender reversal in 1949 with the giddy sister as the Wolf and the hapless man as the Mouse. Red doesn’t stand a chance. The movie’s greatest value today is its cultural value as a study of gender politics circa ’49. Despite being incredibly successful at selling bathing suits, Williams’ Eve must choose between the affection of her South American lover and work in the office. The much older Keenan Wynn wants her to marry him, but if she chooses to marry anyone else, she must leave the business (which she of course happily does by movie’s end). Similarly, Betty’s only role in the story is to get hitched and she has no problem if that means to a hopeless liar who pretended to be someone else the entire time. A lousy plot, dated comedy from a so-so name and proud gender inequality all threaten to drown the movie. But when Esther Williams is allowed to do her thing, it still works on its own terms. Whether she is modeling one of her (many) swimsuits or, more appropriately, leading a closing synchronized number with the “Neptunettes” (the “Bathing Beauties of the Year,” according to the trailer), she is at her best in the water. With a spotlight overhead, she floats and swims around green streamers and even lets Montalbán join for the dip. Like almost all Williams movies, it is fluff that does not entirely hold up 60 years later. And still, there is an easygoing sweetness to it that feels like all of MGM’s other cinematic parties from a bygone age. Within many of those shiny marvels, Williams’ pools reflected brightly. They still do and can always be enjoyed by those looking for a swim in Hollywood’s streams of history. For that we can smile and be grateful for Williams accepting the silver of the screen. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!