Esther Williams, an aspiring Olympic swimmer who wound up as the unlikely star of a string of MGM musicals, has died at the age of 91.
Williams broke into show business y performing in Billy Rose’s Aquacade, a musical swimming revue mounted as part of the Great Lakes Exposition in 1937. There she was partnered with Johnny Weismuller, the Olympic gold medalist who became the movies’ best-known Tarzan. Williams was still with the Aquacade when she was spotted by MGM talent scouts who were looking for an “athletic” woman who could be groomed into a star—chiefly as competition for the figure skater Sonja Henie, who was then an equally improbable top box-office attraction at 20th Century Fox. Williams, who had competed at national championships and made the team for the 1940 Olympics, later called her movie career her “consolation prize” after the games were canceled following the outbreak of World War II.
After a nine-month crash course in acting, singing, and dancing, Williams made her feature debut in 1942, bewitching Mickey Rooney in Andy Hardy’s Double Life. Two years later, she had her first starring vehicle opposite Red Skelton in a movie whose original title, Mr. Coed, was changed to Bathing Beauty. Williams played a swimming instructor at a women’s college, while Skelton played a songwriter who courts her while working on a water ballet. The film established a pattern for all her movies to come, with Williams always playing a smiling, healthy, all-American girl in settings that provided easy access to the nearest swimming pool. To help her feel at home, the studio set aside part of its lot to build a 25-foot-deep pool with hydraulic lifts and jets of colored water.
Williams’ other starring vehicles included Fiesta (1947), This Time For Keeps (1947), On An Island With You (1948), Neptune’s Daughter (1949), Duchess Of Idaho (1950), Pagan Love Story (1950), Texas Carnival (1951), Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), Skirts Ahoy! (1952), Dangerous When Wet (1953), and Easy To Love (1953). She also appeared briefly, as herself, in the all-star musical extravaganzas Ziegfeld Follies (1945) and Till The Clouds Roll By (1946). These movies are best remembered for the elaborate aquatic production numbers, some of which were devised and choreographed by Busby Berkeley. They also spawned the iconic image of Williams in a one-piece bathing suit, pin-up posters of which competed for space with Betty Grable’s gams on barracks walls throughout the 1940s. Critic James Agee notably compared Williams to “a porpoise amused by its own sex appeal.”
Williams had one of her unhappiest working experiences on Take Me Out To The Ball Game (1949), which—though directed by Berkeley—was the only box-office hit she appeared in that kept her away from the water. Williams said she felt she was treated disrespectfully by the film’s male lead and choreographer, Gene Kelly, who derided her for not being a trained dancer, and who refused to allow a swimming sequence in the picture. After her last MGM musical, Jupiter’s Daughter (1955), she went to Universal International to star in the 1956 thriller The Unguarded Moment, and a 1958 melodrama called Raw Wind In Eden. Critic and film historian David Thomson would cite her work in these films as proof that “she was worthy of drier things,” but the public rejected them. After a couple more undistinguished pictures in the early 1960s—including the Spanish-language The Magic Fountain, directed by her husband, Fernando Lamas—Williams retired from the screen.
She enjoyed a resurgence of interest in her films when a lavish number from Million Dollar Mermaid was excerpted in 1974’s That’s Entertainment!. After that, she provided TV commentary on synchronized swimming for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, co-hosted That’s Entertainment! III in 1994, put out a swimwear collection, and published an autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, in 2000.