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Pagan Love Song (1950), based on the book Tahiti Landfall by William S. Stone (and re-named by producer Arthur Freed after a song he had written with Nacio Herb Brown for a 1929 Ramon Navarro film) was a film fraught with difficulties; including a change of director, unhappy co-stars, and a pregnant leading lady who nearly drowned.
Stanley Donen had directed Esther Williams in Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) which had proven to be such a bad experience for Williams that she simply refused to work with Donen again. Freed was forced to replace Donen with Robert Alton, a choreographer whose only other experience directing a film had been Merton of the Movies (1947). This would be his last movie as a director. Alton would return to choreography before his untimely death at the age of 51 in 1957.
Filming was to have taken place in Tahiti but had to be relocated to Kauai, at that time much more rustic than it is today. The New York Times reported in its May 7, 1950 edition that "Williams received a warm welcome in Hawaii. At least one of the leading causes for joy among the residents is Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's choice of Esther Williams as the feminine star of its locationing picture, Pagan Love Song. This being a land where swimming champions hold a special place in just about everybody's heart, she has been accorded a welcome given few visiting celebrities. At a press conference in Honolulu, she outdrew such tourist notables as Secretary of State George C. Marshall, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Clark Gable. Her arrival at the airport was met by an estimated 2,000 of the 3,000 residents of the island, including hula dancers and children bearing leis."
There was a downside to filming in such a remote location: the cast and crew only received mail once a month from a mailboat, conditions were fairly primitive, and the first week of filming was ruined by bad weather. Williams' co-star was Howard Keel, a casting choice that displeased her. Keel suffered a broken arm during production, which had to be obscured with a towel so he could film his musical number, "Singing in the Sun." In the middle of all this, Williams discovered that she was pregnant with her second son. She was only able to relay the news to her husband, Benjamin Gage, by a ham radio hookup borrowed by a local Japanese schoolteacher. The crew finally returned to the States in July 1950 and filming recommenced at the MGM Studios.
If her pregnancy (which was becoming more apparent as shooting progressed) wasn't enough, Williams had a near drowning while filming an underwater number. "One day I discovered the thing I'd always heard about underwater work and scuba divers talk about. It's called the rapture. The rapture is when you have more carbon dioxide in your body than what you've blown out. Because you're living on the oxygen you have left. And you're deflating. I never smoked, thank heavens because my lungs were very strong, but you're deflating those pontoons in there. And of course, the guys are filming me in an underwater window, in this diving bell that was in my underwater tank that was built for Johnny Weissmuller for the Tarzan movies. They're all sitting there drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and talking on the phone. And I'm drowning. And they're photographing the death of a champion. Because I'm beginning to float softly down to the bottom of this 25 foot pool in this rapturous thing that's like I can't keep my eyes open. And Mervin LeRoy who was shooting the sequence, said on a microphone, because they had an underwater speaker, said, 'Esther, what the hell are you doing? We can't keep you in the camera lens at the bottom of the pool. We're not lit for that.' And I awakened and I didn't know where the top was. And I sat in the bottom of the pool and looked up and I said, 'This is what my mother talked about survival. There has to come a time when you know more about what you gotta do than anybody in the world. And I didn't have a friend out there that could save me. I had to get to the top. And I never did that again."
Pagan Love Song cost MGM almost $2 million, and was nearly $400,000 over-budget. It would gross over $3.2 million, which was less than previous Williams pictures. The critics didn't like the film. The New York Times mentioned that "Williams looked pleasant to contemplate and she is wonderfully graceful in performing various aquatic exercises. And Howard Keel is a big, strapping fellow with a mellow baritone which he uses frequently and well. That about does it, folks. Everything else this corner thinks about Pagan Love Song, is decidedly unflattering. Presumably there is a story somewhere in the picture, but all we can recollect is a series of incidents, some eye-filling and slightly amusing, others rather pointless and tedious."
Producer: Arthur Freed
Director: Robert Alton
Screenplay: Jerry Davis; Robert Nathan; William S. Stone (novel)
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Direction: Randall Duell, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Alexander Courage, Sidney Cutner, Adolph Deutsch, Roger Edens, Conrad Salinger, Leo Shuken (all uncredited)
Film Editing: Adrienne Fazan
Cast: Esther Williams (Mimi Bennett), Howard Keel (Hazard Endicott), Minna Gombell (Kate Bennett), Charles Mauu (Tavae), Rita Moreno (Terru).
C-76m. Closed Captioning.
by Lorraine LoBianco
The New York Times Film Review, December 26, 1950
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