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In 1952, Esther Williams showed her true colors in Skirts Ahoy!, and they were red, white and blue. The star of MGM's unique series of aqua musicals top-lined this Technicolor recruiting poster for the U.S. Navy at the military's request, as MGM sought to counter stories of Hollywood blacklisting with this unimpeachably patriotic picture.
With the U.S.'s involvement in the Korean War, all three military branches were desperate to acquire female enlistees to take the place of men who had been transferred from administrative jobs to combat duty. As a result, they encouraged MGM to make this story of three women who enlist in the Navy for a variety of personal reasons only to find love, glamour and a new sense of self-respect. Williams was a natural choice to star in any film closely linked with the water. The former Olympic hopeful (the year she made the U.S. team, the games were cancelled because of the outbreak of World War II) had headlined a series of musicals highlighting her swimming and diving prowess while not noticeably stretching her limited acting abilities. Even more important, there had never been a hint of subversion in her past.
The script was assigned to writer Isobel Lennart, who had recently named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, a move she would almost immediately regret. At the time, however, she was convinced it was the only way to avoid the blacklist and keep her career. She would later say that she carefully named only those she knew had been named before. Nevertheless, some of the friends she had made during her early involvement in union causes and brief membership in the Communist Party refused to speak to her afterwards.
Williams only had one problem with the script: It didn't have enough swimming sequences. At her request, a scene in which she performed calisthenics on an athletic field was moved to a swimming pool where she helps her friends learn to swim. That created another problem, however, when she got a look at Naval regulation swimming suits. The drab suits were far from flattering dry and looked worse wet. In particular, they offered no support for an adult woman, flattening even the most impressive breasts. Williams knew Secretary of the Navy Dan Kimball and arranged to meet him during a publicity junket to Washington. In his office she modeled the official suit, then tried on a suit she had had specially built by Cole of California, the company that made and distributed the Esther Williams swimsuit line. He quickly agreed to make the new model the official swimsuit of the U.S. Navy. Then she got him to place an order for 50,000 of them.
Williams's on-screen partners were Joan Evans, a young actress soon to give up the screen for family life, and Vivian Blaine, who had recently scored a hit on Broadway as Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. That stage success, after years of lesser Hollywood films, may have inspired director Sidney Lanfield's dislike of her. He browbeat her mercilessly on the set and almost destroyed her confidence. After trying to bolster Blaine's spirits, Williams took a more direct course. She confronted Lanfield and threatened to have him removed from the picture if he didn't take it easy on Blaine. Having been bullied herself by directors when she was just starting out in films, Williams wasn't about to tolerate such behavior now that she was a star.
Skirts Ahoy! emerged as a moderately successful aqua musical, greatly overshadowed by Williams' next picture, Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). It was helped greatly by a spirited score from Harry Warren, who had previously written "Lullaby of Broadway" and "You'll Never Know," and Ralph Blane, who had written the lyrics for Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). As with many of Williams's films, the musical chores were shared with a series of guest stars. In this case, Debbie Reynolds and Bobby Van took time from other films to do a number, and jazz great Billy Eckstine made his only appearance in a Hollywood film.
Producer: Joe Pasternak
Director: Sidney Lanfield
Screenplay: Isobel Lennart
Cinematography: William Mellor
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Daniel B. Cathcart
Music: Georgie Stoll
Cast: Esther Williams (Whitney Young), Joan Evans (Mary Kate Yarbrough), Vivian Blaine (Una Yancy), Barry Sullivan (Lt. Comdr. Paul Elcott), Keefe Brasselle (Dick Hallson), Billy Eckstine (Himself), Margalo Gillmore (Lt. Comdr. Staunton), The DeMarco Sisters (The Williams Sisters), Jeff Donnell (Lt. Giff), Thurston Hall (Thatcher Kinston), Roy Roberts (Capt. Graymont), Hayden Rorke (Doctor), Debbie Reynolds (Herself), Bobby Van (Himself), Whit Bissell (Mr. Yarbrough), Madge Blake (Mrs. Vance), Mae Clarke (Miss LaValle), Byron Foulger (Tearoom Manager), Juanita Moore (Black Cadet), Henny Backus (Nurse).
C-110m. Closed Captioning.
by Frank Miller