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Sparkling, splashy, swimming movie star!

Esther Williams

By David Wolfe

Judy Garland sang like nobody else, Ann Miller tapped, Joan Crawford emoted, Sonia Henie skated, but there was only one Hollywood star who swam her way to fame. Esther Williams, born in 1921, was a competitive swimmer in her youth. She was National AAU champion in the 100 meter freestyle. Because Esther also happened to be the very picture of health and beauty, that led to a starring role at the San Francisco World’s Fair 1939-41 in Billy Rose’s “Aquacade.” Her swimming co-star was Johnny Weismuller, the movies’ “Tarzan.” Esther’s dazzling smile, sparkling eyes, brunette hair and perfect body attracted the attention of M-G-M talent scouts and the “million dollar mermaid” plunged into movies.

In more than twenty-five films during the 1940s and ‘50s, Esther Williams swam like a fish, water-skied like an athlete, soared from high diving boards, performed underwater ballets and when dry, adeptly handled romantic comedy roles. She made her movie debut in 1942 with “Andy Hardy’s Double Life,” but it wasn’t until “Bathing Beauty” in 1944 that she locked-in her iconic image of a happy, healthy, absolutely gorgeous goddess. Her body, a specimen of glorious physicality, was considered the measure of perfection: 34-24-34.

An Esther Williams movie never really got off the ground until she got in the water. M-G-M built a special glass-sided pool to film her breath-defying numbers. The plots were sometimes more than a bit contrived to get her wet, but audiences didn’t care. Some of her biggest hits were: “Fiesta” 1947 (she was a swimming bullfighter), “On an Island with You” 1948 (a swimming movie star), “Easy to Wed” 1946 (a swimming heiress), “Jupiter’s Darling” 1955 (a swimming Roman patriot), “Pagan Love Song” 1950 (a swimming Tahitian), “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” 1949 (a swimming baseball coach), “This Time for Keeps” (type-cast as what else but a swimming star!). Although she made a movie called “Dangerous When Wet,” she was beloved when dry. Many of her hits were the top-grossing films of their year. Her rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” turned that ditty into an Academy-winning song in the 1949 film, “Nepture’s Daughter.”

Always smiling blissfully, she swam with her leading men (though she had to hold some up to keep them afloat), with amphibious chorus girls galore, with “statues” and even with cartoon characters. In “Texas Carnival,” special effects allowed her to swim without water! One of her biggest hits was the aptly titled “Million Dollar Mermaid,” a screen bio of Channel-swimming champ, Annette Kellerman. Some of the movies’ most amazing production numbers are to be seen in this film, breathtaking displays that combine spectacle with athletic ability. Esther Williams, rising miraculously from the water, surrounded by twinkling sparklers is a vision never to be forgotten. (The film was run backwards to get the effect; Esther actually sank!) While making that film, she was injured performing a 50-ft. dive and forced to spend months in a body cast. She very rarely used a stunt double and suffered a variety of health problems as a result of oxygen-challenged underwater sequences.

Later in her career, she attempted to switch to land-locked acting, but audiences didn’t buy her totally dried-out. She’s synonymous with swimming and it’s no surprise that Esther Williams swimwear and Esther Williams swimming pools carry her name. She was the subject of two paper dolls books when her career was at its peak. This reprint, originally a combination coloring book as well as a paper doll, was published in 1953. In fact, some of the original black-and-white pages have been especially colored for this edition by Marilyn Henry, famed paper doll artist.

However, Esther Williams’ private life was not as happy as the star’s lighthearted films. She married four times, had three children by second spouse Ben Gage and detailed her difficult love life in a tell-all autobiography published in 1999. She told of her dominating fourth husband, Fernando Lamas, and shocked readers with the revelation that her lover Jeff Chandler was a cross-dresser. With a penchant for polka dots, no less. Esther Williams, a bathing beauty with talent and a winning screen presence, was truly one-of-a-kind, the only swimming movie star in Hollywood history.

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