powered by AFI
Esther Williams gets swept away by the tropical splendors of Hawaii (courtesy of the MGM back lot and locations in Florida) in the 1948 musical extravaganza On an Island with You that marked her only film opposite the studio's juvenile British heartthrob, Peter Lawford. In a plot that would never fly in more enlightened times she is typecast as a famous swimmer/movie star kidnapped to a remote island by her film's technical advisor (Lawford) when she refuses his advances. At one point he even advises her "it's about time you quit being an actress and start being a woman!" For '40s audiences, still a few decades away from the feminist revolution, there was no hint that his behavior might be considered inappropriate, offensive or even mildly deranged. Besides, the whisper-thin plot was simply a way of stringing together Williams' by then famous water ballets, musical numbers from Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra and comedy from Jimmy Durante, cast as a hapless assistant director.
The film was very much in the formula of most of Williams' movies, particularly those made for producer Joe Pasternak, who supervised MGM's less ambitious musicals (i.e., those not produced by Arthur Freed). Williams swam, had a few laugh lines and figured in a romantic plot with one of the studio's good-looking young male stars. To shore up the flimsy affair, the studio surrounded her with guest stars and supporting comics. This was the second of two films in which Jimmy Durante provided comic relief and the third of five with musical numbers by Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra.
Much to Williams' consternation, it was also her third in a row with Richard Thorpe, a director with whom she had never gotten along. Thorpe hated all actors, considering them egotistical and overly concerned with their looks, but he always finished his films on schedule and under budget, so Williams' complaints about him went unheeded by studio brass. On their earlier films together, he had browbeaten her mercilessly, often leaving her in tears. When she emerged as a top box office star, she was at least able to get him to leave her alone. But that didn't protect the rest of the cast. With On an Island with You, his scapegoat was Ricardo Montalban, cast as Williams' fianc, whom Thorpe kept calling "that damned Mexican."
Williams also blamed Thorpe for an on-set injury. For a scene in which she falls into a hole hidden by jungle foliage, the crew forgot to put padding at the spot where she was to land. As a result, she sprained her ankle and had to finish the movie on crutches. In her memoirs, she asserts that it was his responsibility to check to make sure the stunt, which looked great on the first take, was safe.
That wasn't the only on-set injury. Cyd Charisse was always just on the verge of stardom during this period. She won smashing reviews for her role as Williams' best friend (Variety called her "an electrifying dancer") and had two memorable dance scenes with co-star Ricardo Montalban. But On an Island with You cost her a chance to move up at MGM. She was late the day they filmed her big dance number atop a pyramid. Because Pasternak had invited a group of exhibitors to watch filming that day, she raced to the set and did the number without warming up. On her third leap down the pyramid, she felt something tear. She had torn a ligament in her knee, which put her in a cast for two months. The injury cost her a major role as the dancing partner who leaves Fred Astaire to go solo in Easter Parade (1948), an assignment Freed had planned to move her up to stardom. The role went to Ann Miller instead, marking the beginning of her contract at MGM.
Van Johnson was the first actor announced as leading man, but by the time filming started, the role had been assigned to Lawford. The British actor had just broken up with Lana Turner and was still wearing the many pieces of gold jewelry she had given him during the affair. Adding to his depression, he didn't care for his part and found Williams' cheerfulness tiresome. According to his biographer, this led him to walk through the film, though most critics still noted that he looked appropriately dashing in his Navy uniform.
Like most of Williams' vehicles, On an Island with You made money, bringing in $3.2 million in rentals. It even won a Writers Guild Award nomination for its screenplay. In all, Williams' films made the studio $90 million. They remain one of the most fascinating footnotes on Hollywood history. Only ice-skater Sonja Henie, whose film career was nowhere near as lengthy or profitable as Williams', managed to build a starring career in musicals built around athletic prowess rather than any real musical talent.
Producer: Joe Pasternak
Director: Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: Dorothy Kingsley, Dorothy Cooper, Charles Martin, Hans Wilhelm
Based on the story by Martin, Wilhelm
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Direction: Edward C. Carfagno, Cedric Gibbons
Score: Albert Sendrey, George Stoll
Cast: Esther Williams (Rosalind Reynolds), Peter Lawford (Lt. Lawrence Y. Kingslee), Ricardo Montalban (Ricardo Montez), Jimmy Durante (Jimmy Buckley), Cyd Charisse (Yvonne Torro), Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra (Themselves), Leon Ames (Cmdr. Harrison), Marie Windsor (Jane).
C-108m. Closed Captioning.
by Frank Miller