“Esther Williams, the swimming champion turned actress who starred in glittering and aquatic Technicolor musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, has died,” reports the AP. “Following in the footsteps of Sonja Henie, who went from skating champion to movie star, Williams became one of Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers, appearing in spectacular swimsuit numbers that capitalized on her wholesome beauty and perfect figure. Such films as Easy to Wed, Neptune’s Daughter, and Dangerous When Wet followed the same formula: romance, music, a bit of comedy and a flimsy plot that provided excuses to get Esther into the water.”
“At a time when most movies cost less than $2 million, MGM built Ms. Williams a $250,000 swimming pool on Stage 30,” notes Aljean Harmetz in the New York Times. “It had underwater windows, colored fountains and hydraulic lifts, and it was usually stocked with a dozen bathing beauties…. By 1952, the swimming sequences in Ms. Williams’s movies, which were often elaborate fantasies created by Busby Berkeley, had grown more and more extravagant…. Ms. Williams once estimated that she had swum 1,250 miles for the cameras. In a bathing suit, she was a special kind of all-American girl: tall, lithe, breathtakingly attractive and unpretentious. She begged MGM for serious nonswimming roles, but the studio’s response was, in effect, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.'”
Eric Kelsey for Reuters: “She dismissed her talent, saying ‘I can’t act, I can’t sing, I can’t dance. My pictures are put together out of scraps they find in the producer’s wastebasket.’ After watching the films decades later, she softened that self-deprecating assessment, saying: ‘I look at that girl and I like her. I can see why she became popular with audiences. There was an unassuming quality about her. She was certainly wholesome.'”
Updates, 6/9: The Telegraph presents a set of excerpts: “Esther Williams may have been known as a swimmer first and a movie star second, but if there were an Oscar for Hollywood gossip, that would be her real achievement. Her 1999 memoir, The Million Dollar Mermaid, dishes the dirt as few others have. Williams could be shameless, and shamelessly funny.”
The Guardian‘s Ronald Bergan: “Most of the time in Dangerous When Wet (1953), co-starring her future husband Fernando Lamas, was taken up by her preparations to swim the English Channel. The best moment is a dream sequence in which Williams anticipates a crossing with the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry, while trying to avoid an octopus in a beret who gropes her with six extra hands. However, she did not give in to groping very easily on screen: ‘My movies made it clear it’s all right to be strong and feminine at the same time,’ she claimed.”
The Los Angeles Times‘ Susan King, who interviewed Williams in 1984, sketches the life and notes that “TCM just announced a 24-hour Williams movie marathon on June 13. It will be a pleasure to dive back in.”
“She was, perhaps, the first of a breed we’ve become increasingly familiar with in recent years: the glamour-athlete.” Noreen Malone makes the case for the New Republic.
Update, 6/15: “Where a Rita Hayworth would stoke men’s lust with the allure of exotic danger, and Jane Russell was a sullen face over two bazookas,” writes Time‘s Richard Corliss, “Esther suggested the pretty girl next door, if you were lucky enough to live in an Orange County or John Cheever suburb where everyone had a backyard pool.” And he quotes James Agee: “Miss Williams, a pretty young woman in the punk of condition, should have a pleasant and pleasing career on the screen. Dry and dressed, she suggests Ginger Rogers. Wet and peeled, as she slithers her subaqueous charms before underwater cameras, she suggests a porpoise amused by its own sex appeal.”