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TCM Memorial Tribute: Esther Williams
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Esther Williams (1921 - 2013)

TCM pays tribute to legendary film star and swimmer Esther Williams with a 24-hour marathon of films beginning Thursday, June 13 at 8pm ET. The 13-film lineup includes the following:

8:00 PM - Bathing Beauty
10:00 PM - Neptune's Daughter
11:45 PM - Million Dollar Mermaid
1:45 AM - Dangerous When Wet
3:30 AM - Andy Hardy's Double Life
5:15 AM - Thrill of a Romance
7:15 AM - Easy to Wed
9:15 AM - The Hoodlum Saint
11:00 AM - Fiesta
1:00 PM - This Time For Keeps
3:00 PM - On an Island with You
5:00 PM - Pagan Love Song
6:30 PM - Texas Carnival

Like Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe before her, Esther Williams achieved the seemingly impossible by transforming her skill at competitive swimming into a popular movie career. A star athlete and Olympic hopeful in her teens, she gained her earliest exposure to show business as the female lead in showman Billy Rose's Aquacade. Executives at MGM who saw her swimming abilities and pin-up worthy looks signed her immediately to a contract with the studio. There she starred in a series of musicals built around Williams' extraordinarily graceful water ballets. Audiences ate up the ultra-lightweight fare, making her one of the most popular movie stars of the 1940s and 1950s, though her career declined whenever she decided to pursue roles on dry land. After retiring in the early sixties, she parlayed her association with all things aquatic into lucrative licensing deals for ladies' swimwear and swimming pools.

Born Esther Jane Williams in Inglewood, CA on Aug. 8, 1921, she took to the water at a very early age, earning her first paycheck at the age of eight as a towel girl at a local swimming pool. Her older brother Stanton Williams was the first member of the family to become a star by appearing in a handful of silent films and stage productions before his untimely death at age 16. His sister took the athletic route and gained fame as a teenage swimming champion; by 16, she had earned three national championship titles in freestyle and breaststroke. Eventually, she made the 1940 Olympic swimming team, but her dreams of a medal were dashed by the outbreak of World War II.

Undaunted, she took up part-time work as a model while studying at Los Angeles City College. Theater impresario Billy Rose saw one of her print layouts and immediately contacted her to audition for his Aquacade, an all-singing, all-dancing, all-swimming production at the San Francisco World's Fair. Former Olympic swimming medalist-turned-movie Tarzan, Johnny Weismuller, was the star of the show, and according to showbiz legend, he personally selected her to be his Aquabelle No.1.

Williams' looks and flawless skill with the show's choreographed swimming duets captured the attention of audiences, as well as executives at MGM, who saw a box office bonanza in her abilities. She was quickly signed up for a screen test opposite none other than Clark Gable, the then-reigning King of the Movies. Both the star and the studio liked what they saw, and Williams was signed to a contract. Her movie debut came with a small role in 1942's "Andy Hardy's Double Life," with star Mickey Rooney giving Williams her first screen kiss.

Audience response to Williams was overwhelming. She was already a star by her third picture, a Red Skelton comedy originally titled "Mr. Coed" that was transformed into a starring vehicle for Williams and re-dubbed "Bathing Beauty" (1944). A special tank was built at Stage 30 on the MGM lot to accommodate choreographer Busby Berkeley's elaborate water routines. The film's climax, which sees Williams crowned as queen amidst an orgy of smoke, flames, synchronized swimmers and gushing fountains, became one of the most iconic numbers in Hollywood history. The film itself became the third highest-grossing title in MGM's history to that date.

The film's success led to a 10-year string of aquatic-themed musicals for Williams, each more lavish than its predecessor. There were occasional forays out of the MGM pool, such as 1946's "The Hoodlum Saint," which paired the 24-year-old actress with the 54-year-old William Powell as her love interest, and Berkeley's terrific "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (1949), in which baseball players Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly vied for the hand of new owner Williams. But for the most part, audiences preferred seeing Williams in the water in features like "Million Dollar Mermaid" (1953), a biopic about real-life swimming star Annette Kellerman, or "Jupiter's Darling" (1955), which found her in the improbable role of a Roman woman who helps Hannibal (Howard Keel) swim the Tiber River. The aquatic features were challenging and even dangerous - prolonged exposure to the studio tank led to repeated eardrum ruptures, near drownings and a broken neck during a diving sequence for "Mermaid" - but Williams was "America's Mermaid," as the press dubbed her, so she had little choice in the matter.

But she was also shrewd enough to realize that her particular brand of musical was limited - there were just so many films that could be built around her swimming routines. She departed MGM as audience demand for their musical product began to dry up, and moved to Universal for her first drama, "The Unguarded Moment" (1956). A lurid melodrama about a high school teacher (Williams) who becomes the object of obsession for a deranged student (John Saxon), the film raised eyebrows with its sexually suggestive subject matter but failed to translate into a lasting dramatic career for Williams. She appeared in several more forgettable features before retiring at the demand of her third husband, actor Fernando Lamas, in the early 1960s.

In the late latter part of that decade, Williams was approached by swimming pool manufacturers, the Delair Group, to license her name to their above-ground models. The decision was a savvy one, and the line became one of the most popular for suburbanites across the United States. Further licensing agreements led to her own line of swimwear for older women, based on the suits she wore in her movies, and a modern line for younger women. All three business decisions proved to be lucrative and popular for the former actress.

In 1999, Williams penned her autobiography, Million Dollar Mermaid, with co-author Digby Diehl. The tome generated a great deal of press for its controversial stories about her love life, which included trysts with co-stars Victor Mature and Jeff Chandler; a revelation about the latter actor's penchant for women's clothing was among the book's most scandalous statements. Williams also discussed her three marriages, which included loveless unions with a former college classmate and singer/actor Ben Gage, whom she described as an alcoholic spendthrift. In addition, the book recounted her various struggles with studio heads, fending off the amorous advances of Weismuller and Howard Hughes, and dealing with the egos of co-stars like Gene Kelly and Lamas, who reportedly demanded total servitude from Williams.

(Biography courtesy of TCMDb)

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