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Esther Williams secured her status as "America's Swimming Sweetheart" with Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), a story loosely based on the real-life Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman. The movie, full of romance, music, and dazzling underwater spectacles, remains one of the definitive films of Williams' career.
The movie traces Kellerman (Williams) from her beginnings in Australia to a move to London with her father (Walter Pidgeon) and finally to swimming sensation in turn-of-the-century America. Along the way she meets talent manager James Sullivan, played by Victor Mature, who convinces her to wear a shocking -- for the time period -- one-piece bathing suit as she makes a long-distance publicity swim in Boston. Aquatic fame at New York's Hippodrome Theater and in the movies follow, along with a romance with Sullivan. But misunderstandings force the couple to part, only to be reconciled after an accident at the end.
Dominating the film are, of course, water extravaganzas orchestrated by the Million Dollar Dance Director himself, Busby Berkeley. To recreate one of the highlights of Kellerman's career at the Hippodrome, Berkeley masterminded a sequence involving massive water fountains and colored smoke streams. In The Busby Berkeley Book by Tony Thomas and Jim Terry, the choreographer-director revealed he "used one hundred boy and girl swimmers and for the background I had nothing but red and yellow smoke streams shooting up fifty feet. The effect was made by four hundred electrically controlled smoke pots. On each side of the pool, I had forty-foot-high ramps, from which the swimmers slid down at a terrific pace, standing up and carrying yellow lighted torches as they entered the water. I also had twelve long swings that swung down from high in the air through the smoke, and from which twelve girls and boys simultaneously dived into the water. Esther was also the center of attention in this number. I dropped her from fifty feet into the mass of swimmers below, which exploded into a Ferris wheel effect on the water. Then they all submerged, and gradually out of the water came Esther on a platform surrounded by beautiful girls. The closing effect was an array of five hundred lighted sparklers coming out of the water and forming a background around the whole group."
A long-time fan of Kellerman's, Williams used her considerable influence to get MGM to buy the rights to the story and to even hire Kellerman as a technical adviser on the set. Previously, Williams had starred in Neptune's Daughter, (1949), the same name as Kellerman's first big movie hit in 1914. But aside from the titles, the films had little in common.
Williams was no stranger to the talent and stamina required for the "aquamusicals" produced by MGM. By age 15, the swimming champion trained at the prestigious Los Angeles Athletic Club. An invitation to represent the United States in the 1940 Olympics followed a few years later. Williams' dream of becoming an Olympic champion, though, was cut short by World War II, when Olympic events were cancelled. Instead, she joined the famous Billy Rose Aquacade, a water stage show that included Gertrude Ederle, the first female English Channel swimmer, and Olympic champ and Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller. A short time later, Hollywood wooed her to the movies, creating a watery genre all for her.
Million Dollar Mermaid was made at the height of Williams' popularity, with trade publication Variety pointing out her "nautical prowess and swimsuit-wearing ability" as major assets in its review in 1952. First making a splash in 1944's Bathing Beauty, she was one of MGM's biggest box office draws through the late 1940s and 50s with such hits as Dangerous When Wet (1953) and Jupiter's Darling (1955). Her success also translated into the field of sports: Williams has been credited with popularizing competitive and synchronized swimming.
Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Everett Freeman
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Film Editing: John McSweeney, Jr.
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Jack Martin Smith
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Esther Williams (Annette Kellerman), Victor Mature (James Sullivan), Walter Pidgeon (Frederick Kellerman), David Brian (Alfred Harper), Donna Corcoran (young Annette Kellerman), Jesse White (Doc Cronnol).
C-111m. Closed captioning.
by Amy Cox