By Ed Garea and David Skolnick
TCM is paying tribute to Esther Williams, who passed away June 6, with a 24-hour marathon of her films beginning with Bathing Beauty at 8:00 pm Thursday.
Born Ester Jane Williams in Inglewood, California, on August 8, 1921, Williams first made her mark as a competitive swimmer. She set multiple regional and national records in her late teens and was to compete for the U.S. in the 1940 Summer Olympics. When the Games were canceled because of World War II, she signed on with Billy Rose’s Aquacade, replacing Eleanor Holm, who married Rose. After her stint was over, she returned to Los Angeles and began working in a department store, where she caught the attention of MGM talent scouts who made a recommendation to Louis Mayer. Mayer, looking for an athletic star to compete with 20th Century Fox’s skating star Sonia Henie, signed her for the studio in 1941.
After appearing in two shorts, she was given a small role in Andy Hardy’s Double Life as Sheila Brooks, a friend of Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford), Andy’s girlfriend. Next was a minor role in A Guy Named Joe (1943), starring Spencer Tracy. Her big break – and stardom – came with 1944’s Bathing Beauty, a vehicle tailored specifically for her.
From 1945 to 1949, she had at least one film listed among the top 20 grossing films of the year. Almost all her films during her MGM tenure were musicals, save for a serious role in The Hoodlum Saint (1946, with William Powell) and the Myrna Loy role in Easy to Wed (1946), a remake of Libeled Lady (1936).
She left MGM in 1956, having become superfluous with the steep decline in musicals. She starred in a couple of dramas for Universal: The Unguarded Moment (1956), as a teacher stalked by a student; and Raw Wind in Eden (1958) as a plane crash survivor who interrupts the utopian existence of a family on a small Mediterranean island. Her last film, Magic Fountain (1963) was a Spanish production directed by Fernando Lamas. (She married Lamas in 1969 and their marriage lasted until his death in 1982.) The bulk of her acting career during her post-MGM period was spent guest starring in television dramas and specials. Williams’ last film appearance came in MGM’s That’s Entertainment III (1994) as a guest star discussing her musicals.
Following her retirement in 1963, she turned to business, lending her name to a line of swimming pools and retro swimwear. She also made instructional swimming videos for children and served as a commentator for synchronized swimming at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. It was there that she met her fourth, and last husband, Edward Bell, whom she married on October 24, 1994, and remained with until her death.
TCM’s Revised Schedule for June 13
8:00 pm – BATHING BEAUTY (MGM, 1944): Esther Williams, Red Skelton. To win his fiancée (Williams) back, songwriter Steve Elliot (Skelton) enrolls as the only male student at her college. C
10:00 pm – NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER (MGM, 1949): Esther Williams, Red Skelton & Ricardo Montalban. A case of mistaken identity complicates bathing-suit designer Esther’s romance with a polo player. B+
11:45 pm – MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID (MGM, 1952): Esther Williams, Victor Mature, & Walter Pidgeon. Esther stars in this biopic about Annette Kellerman, the great swimming star of turn-of-the-century America. B-
1:45 am – DANGEROUS WHEN WET (MGM, 1953): Esther Williams, Fernando Lamas. Esther tries to swim the English Channel. Look for Tom and Jerry in one scene. A-
3:30 am – ANDY HARDY’S DOUBLE LIFE (MGM, 1942): Mickey Rooney, Lewis Stone. Andy, trying to raise money for a car, gets into a jam when he tries to date one girl too many. C+
11:45 am – THRILL OF A ROMANCE (MGM, 1945): Van Johnson, Esther Williams. Williams, abandoned by her husband on their honeymoon, finds romance with war hero Johnson in this slight romantic musical. C
TCM’s Revised Schedule for June 14
7:15 am – EASY TO WED (MGM, 1946): Van Johnson, Esther Williams, & Keenan Wynn. Newspaper editor Wynn hires Johnson to compromise the woman (Williams) suing his paper for libel in this remake of Libeled Lady. B-
9:15 am – THE HOODLUM SAINT (MGM, 1946): William Powell, Esther Williams. After finding religion, a cynical newspaperman tries to help young hoods. C
11:00 am – FIESTA (MGM, 1947): Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalban. A sister (Williams) takes the place of her toreador brother (Montalban) in the bullring so he can pursue his musical career. C
1:00 pm – THIS TIME FOR KEEPS (MGM, 1947): Esther Williams, Jimmy Durante, Lauritz Melchior, & Johnnie Johnston. Opera singer Melchior’s son Johnston falls for swimming star Williams. B-
3:00 pm – ON AN ISLAND WITH YOU (MGM, 1948): Esther Williams, Peter Lawford, & Ricardo Montalban. Movie star Williams falls for naval officer Lawford while location shooting in Hawaii. B-
5:00 pm – PAGAN LOVE SONG (MGM, 1950): Esther Williams, Howard Keel. American tourist Keel romances local beauty Williams while on vacation in Tahiti. C
6:30 pm – TEXAS CARNIVAL (MGM, 1951): Esther Williams, Red Skelton & Keenan Wynn. Penniless carny Skelton runs up a pile of debts when he’s mistaken for millionaire Wynn. C