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In the mid 1940s, Esther Williams was being given the full star buildup by MGM. She was first billed above the title in Fiesta (1947), and followed that film with This Time for Keeps (1947). By that time she was one of the top ten box office stars.
Williams plays Nora, the star of an aquatic show and comedian Jimmy Durante is her friend and co-worker. Nora encounters a former GI, Dick (Johnnie Johnston), whom she met during the war, and the two fall in love. He's a pop singer, but his father (played by operatic legend Lauritz Melchior) wants him to become an opera singer like himself. Nora takes Dick home to picturesque Mackinac Island, Michigan to meet the family. The plot is of little consequence in this Technicolor confection produced by master of schmaltz Joe Pasternak; it's the music, the water ballets, the comedy, and the spectacular locations that are the main attractions in this slight but pleasant film.
This Time for Keeps was the third of four films Williams would make with director Richard Thorpe. Williams disliked Thorpe from the start, and the feeling was mutual. Thorpe was fast and efficient, which pleased MGM executives, but he was "cranky," Williams wrote in her autobiography. "Dick didn't like people who were too cheerful, which meant that he took an instant dislike to me." During production of their first film together, Thrill of a Romance (1945), Thorpe humiliated her in front of the crew and made her cry. Although she protested, he was once again her director for Fiesta, shot under difficult circumstances on location in Mexico. She was furious when she found she would have to work with him again on her next film, This Time for Keeps. After the usual hostility between them, Williams writes, she confronted Thorpe and they finally achieved detente when she agreed to be less cheerful and not talk to him in the morning.
Williams also had few kind words for her co-star, pop singer Johnnie Johnston. She called him "a bit of a con man" who used to make money doing golf tricks, and recalled that he "invited his fan club, consisting of ten giggly teenagers, up to visit him on location at Mackinac." While on location, Johnston was having what Williams called "a torrid long-distance romance" with MGM singing star Kathryn Grayson, whom he would soon marry. "She wrote Johnnie almost every day. One evening after dinner he gathered all his dewy-eyed groupies around him and began reading them Kathryn's most intimate letters aloud, including the all-too-graphic details concerning what she liked about his lovemaking."
Williams had no problems with her two veteran co-stars, Melchior and Durante. The Danish-born Melchior had been the most famous Wagnerian tenor from the 1920s through the mid-40s. As his operatic career wound down, he turned to Hollywood. His first film was Thrill of a Romance, and Williams was immediately charmed by his warmth. She was happy to work with him again in This Time for Keeps.
Vaudeville comic Jimmy Durante had been making movies since 1930, but his film career had been hit-and-miss. He had been appearing mostly on Broadway when MGM producer Joe Pasternak convinced him to give movies another try in the mid-1940s, offering him a five-year contract for two films per year. Durante appeared in several MGM musicals, including two with Esther Williams, This Time for Keeps and On an Island with You (1948).
The film crew went on location for This Time for Keeps to a beautiful resort, the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. The unique little island between Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas is only accessible by boat, and was then, and still is, a car-free island. Only service vehicles are allowed. People either walk or ride bicycles or horse-drawn carriages. The island has a timeless quality that made it the perfect setting for the time-travel film romance Somewhere in Time (1980).
To convey the sense of outdoorsy, country small town life in This Time for Keeps, costume designer Irene decided to use a lot of plaid in the costumes. She designed a swimsuit for Williams made out of lumberjack plaid flannel. But as Williams recalled, "It absorbed water like crazy. I dove into the pool and tried to swim, but the suit just dragged me to the bottom. It was like trying to swim while wrapped in an old army blanket." So she took it off and it sank to the bottom of the pool. There were a lot of tourists on the set, and she was completely nude. Finally, the wardrobe woman brought over a large towel, cut a hole in it, and dropped it over Williams' head like a poncho. She exited the pool to applause. From then on, Williams always took part in swimsuit design meetings - the beginning of her career as a swimsuit designer. Irene made a lighter version of the flannel suit, with the same plaid, but lighter fabric.
As usual for an Esther Williams movie, reviews for This Time for Keeps were tepid: praise for the color, music and swimming, yawns for the story, acting, and direction. Time magazine's was typical: "Just one more of the standard brand which contains the following standard ingredients: amphibious Esther Williams, Jimmy Durante, Xavier Cugat, Lauritz Melchior, a juvenile who weighs less but can also sing...[and] what seems an enormous amount of dull new popular music...Luckily, Jimmy Durante is a lovable performer and blooming Miss Williams is as easy to like as she is to look at." The public agreed, and continued to like her in a dozen more MGM films through the mid-1950s.
Producer: Joe Pasternak
Director: Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: Gladys Lehman; Lorraine Fielding, Erwin S. Gelsey (story); Hans Wilhelm (uncredited)
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Art Direction: Randall Duell, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Calvin Jackson, George Stoll (both uncredited)
Film Editing: John Dunning
Cast: Esther Williams (Leonora 'Nora' Cambaretti), Jimmy Durante (Ferdi Farro), Lauritz Melchior (Richard Herald), Johnnie Johnston (Dick Johnson), Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra (Themselves), Dame May Whitty (Grandmother Cambaretti), Sharon McManus (Deborah Cambaretti), Dick Simmons (Gordon), Mary Stuart (Frances Allenbury), Ludwig Stossel (Peter), Dorothy Porter (Merle), Tommy Wonder (Himself).
by Margarita Landazuri