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Based on Robert Sherwood's 1927 anti-war comedy play Road to Rome, Jupiter's Darling (1955) was a strange idea for a musical, especially one starring swimming star Esther Williams. The story revolves around Hannibal's march on Rome in 216 AD with Howard Keel playing Hannibal and Williams playing his love interest, a woman named Amytis who is also engaged to the Roman emperor Fabius Maximus (George Sanders). MGM knew exactly what they were making and had the moxie to state it at the beginning of the film. "The history which describes Hannibal's attack on Rome is very confusing; this story will do nothing to clear it up." The film had nothing to do with history, as the real Hannibal not only never attacked Rome; he never came anywhere near it.
Nor did Hannibal learn to swim from Esther Williams's Amytis, but as nearly all of Williams' films required scenes of her impressive, balletic swimming, they had to work it in somehow. Williams herself was no fan of the film or under any illusions as to the direction in which her career was headed in 1955. Films were changing, audience tastes (through social evolution and through the invasion of television) had changed as well. As she wrote in her autobiography, "Jupiter's Darling, I suspected, was not a problem in a vacuum. The Esther Williams swimming musicals had probably had their run. A great run, but all things have to come to an end. Broadway was already, or soon would be, turning out shows that would become the next generation of Hollywood musicals, My Fair Lady, The King and I, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Funny Girl - and there was no place in such properties for a mermaid." Dancing star Gower Champion knew things were changing, too. He and his partner/wife Marge were making their last film for MGM and the last film in which they would perform together. "Suddenly we were famous, but movie musicals were over. We finished off Betty Grable in her last film, then we finished of Esther Williams in her last film, and it was back to the closet for the old act again. We didn't care, because we never thought of ourselves as movie stars, anyway."
The taglines for the Technicolor and Cinemascope film were big, bold and brash, as always. "The Love Story of the Beauty and the Barbarian! Clash of Armies! Underwater spectacle! Never before such sights to see!" Behind the scenes was director George Sidney, choreographer Hermes Pan (best known for the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals), and costumers Helen Rose (a long-time veteran of MGM) and Walter Plunkett. Many of the Jupiter's Darling sets were recycled from MGM's 1953 film Julius Caesar. Shot on location at Silver Springs in Ocala, Florida, Wewahitchka, Florida, and Sky Valley Ranch in the Santa Susana Mountains of Southern California, the film was not without incident. Williams broke her eardrum for the fifth time on this film, necessitating latex ears and nose plugs. Jo Ann Greer dubbed Williams' voice for the musical numbers, but George Sanders did his own singing in a fine baritone voice. Sanders later released an album in 1958, The George Sanders Touch: Songs for the Lovely Lady and was set to star in South Pacific but his nerves got the better of him and he had to drop out of the project.
Williams' patience with the studio was tested for the last time on the publicity tour for the film. "When Jupiter's Darling opened, I was obliged by contract to trudge through another publicity tour, this time accompanied to several theaters by a baby elephant. Because there were elephants in the movie, the MGM publicity geniuses thought it would be a good gimmick to send me around with an elephant that did a few tricks and attracted attention. I was reminded of a bit of actors' wisdom: 'Never get on the same stage with animals or small children.' The Jupiter's Darling tour was to be my last obligation to MGM."
Jupiter's Darling was a financial and critical flop. Time magazine's assessment was especially harsh. "Esther Williams pictures are generally so much water over the dame. This one tries to be different. Esther even tries to act - a spectacle almost as alarming as that of the Burmese fish that climbs trees." The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther likewise panned it, "Esther Williams must be getting bored with water. She goes swimming only three times in MGM's Jupiter's Darling, which came yesterday to the Music Hall, and two of these times are forced upon her. She dunks only once for fun. And that, we might note, is the most attractive and buoyant thing in the film. It comes when Miss Williams, cast rashly as the fiance of Emperor Fabius Maximus of Rome, peels off her stola and tunic after a long hot day in town and goes swimming in the pool of her villa, which is fancier than any pool in Hollywood...it is significant that there are elephants in this film -- lots of elephants -- supposedly the creatures that transported Hannibal's troops. This may account for the picture's rather elephantine style and mood...The spirit of jest is indicated but barely perceptible in this musical film. Miss Williams had better get back in that water and start blowing bubbles again."
She wouldn't. Jupiter's Darling helped to end Williams' career at MGM. She still had a contract with the studio but the quality of the films they were offering was so bad that she walked out, which she realized in retrospect, was exactly what the studio wanted. In doing so, she forfeited $3 million dollars of her payment deferred contract, but Esther Williams refused to damage her image in inferior films, feeling it was a matter of principle.
Producer: George Wells
Director: George Sidney
Screenplay: Dorothy Kingsley (writer); Robert E. Sherwood (play "The Road to Rome")
Cinematography: Charles Rosher, Paul Vogel
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Urie McCleary
Music: David Rose (uncredited)
Film Editing: Ralph E. Winters
Cast: Esther Williams (Amytis), Howard Keel (Hannibal), Marge Champion (Meta), Gower Champion (Varius), George Sanders (Fabius Maximus), Richard Haydn (Horatio), William Demarest (Mago), Norma Varden (Fabia), Douglass Dumbrille (Scipio), Henry Corden (Carthalo).
C-97m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Lorraine LoBianco
Crowther, Bosley "Screen: Hannibal Hooked; and Rome Is Saved by 'Jupiter's Darling'" New York Times 18 Feb 55
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