How Esther Williams Elevated Synchronized Swimming, Took Over Hollywood & Lived Her Best Life
“Melt the ice. Find a swimmer. Make it pretty.” — Louis B. Mayer.
Louis B. Mayer (1884 - 1957) — the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios, and the most powerful man in Hollywood — was looking to make a new kind of film. American audiences were flocking to theaters to watch movie musicals, escapist fantasy fare where light plots and big song & dance numbers provided temporary refuge from the harsh realities of life during World War II. Of all the studios that were cranking them out by 1940, MGM had established itself as the gold standard. They had released The Wizard of Oz (1939) the previous year, a Technicolor marvel whose songs have since become American classics, and which many consider to be the most influential film ever made.
Having seen the success of (rival studio) 20th Century Fox’s successful series of “ice musicals” created around Olympic figure skater Sonja Henie (1912 - 1969), Mayer wanted to do the same with a champion female swimmer. To find her, he wouldn’t have to go looking much farther than his own backyard.
At 17, Esther Williams (1921 - 2013) was the fastest recorded female swimmer in the United States. She learned to swim at her neighborhood pool in southwest Los Angeles, where the male lifeguards taught her strokes that most young women weren’t yet privy to. One such stroke was what would later be termed the butterfly, which allowed her to win the fifth of five consecutive races against the fastest female swimmers in the country at the 1939 U.S. National swimming championships. While her competitors swam the traditional breaststroke that kept their arms under the surface of the water, Esther’s butterfly stroke allowed her to aquaplane along the surface of water, and toward a new national record time. As one character would say in her future film Neptune’s Daughter (1949): “She hit the water and cut through it like a million dollar yacht.”
Her feat assured her a spot on the 1940 Olympic team to be held in Helsinki . However, due to the German invasion of Poland, the Olympics were postponed and wouldn’t be resumed for another decade. Nonetheless, she received plenty of attention, namely from showbiz impresario Billy Rose (1899 - 1966).
Rose was riding high on the success of his Aquacade — a swimming, music, and dancing extravaganza performed by some of the best swimmers and divers in the world — led by Olympic gold medalists Eleanor Holm (1913 - 2004) and Johnny Weissmuller (1904 - 1984). Dressed in elaborate costumes and accompanied by a live orchestra, aquabeaux and aquabelles performed tightly synchronized water ballet and diving feats in and around a 200-foot long, 60-foot wide, 50,000 gallon pool in the center of an amphitheater.
It was reminiscent of ancient traditions wherein young women would perform in flooded coliseums before emperors like Julius Caesar (100 BC - 44 BC), forming shapes that resembled winning battleships, or more recently, the 19th-century “aqua dramas” performed in theater across England and France, depicting nautical life in giant tanks big enough to hold small boats and a back wall of water. In turn, the Aquacade would serve as a kind of blueprint for the movies that would make Esther Williams a star.
Five million people had come to see the Aquacade during its run at the 1939 New York’s World Fair. Rose was bringing the show west to the 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in San Francisco, and needed a star swimmer to replace Holm. “I don’t want fast,” he told Esther when she finally acquiesced to his pleas for an audition, “I want pretty.” Swimming pretty, as she learned under the tutelage of choreographer John Murray Anderson (1886 - 1954), meant engaging in a series of difficult isometric moves; and employing her strong freestyle kick, to lift herself up and out of the water, so that any of the 10,000 audience members could get a clear view of her exaggerated gestures and unflappable smile. It meant keeping precise pace with Weissmuller, who had played the original Tarzan in a series of silent films, a man whose size and speed, she said, made swimming alongside him comparable to swimming in the wake of a boat.
Her five-month run with the show was a raving success, with one critic declaring it “... the biggest forty cents worth of entertainment I ever saw.” It also gained her an audience Louis B. Mayer himself, who had auditioned other swimmers to be his next leading lady, including Williams’ Aquacade predecessor Eleanor Holm, but who saw in tall, tanned, athletic Esther, the All-American girl he was looking for.
After joining the MGM stable of actresses, she first got her feet wet playing alongside MGM child star Mickey Rooney (1920 - 2014) in Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942). The Andy Hardy movies were crowd favorites that followed the title character, played by Rooney, as he grew up. They were also the platform on which MGM tested its new starlets’ popularity with audiences. In a brief scene filmed in black-and-white, the two characters frolic underwater in a pool and share a kiss, she having taught him, before filming, how to close his palette so as not to take in any water. And, more crucially, she spontaneously began lolling under the water letting her long hair swirl around her. “As if I had invited the audience underwater with me,” she said. “I wasn’t thrashing or gasping for air like most people do underwater. It looked like I would never have to come up. It was as if I were at home. And of course, I was.”
Audiences went wild for her. She was dubbed the “Woo Woo Girl,” for the sound Mickey Rooney made after she kissed him, and the fuchsia two-piece bathing suit she wore in the picture was the hot ticket item of the summer. But it was her next swimming movie, two years later, that would invent a subgenera, and solidify her reputation as Hollywood’s Mermaid.
Bathing Beauty (1944) was what you get when you employ the tried and true MGM formula and just add water. The featherlight plot, in which a songwriter (played by frequent co-star and vaudeville veteran Red Skelton (1913 - 1997) follows his estranged wife (played by Williams) back to her all-female college where she is a swimming instructor is studded with good humor; bright, beautiful colors; and outsized song and dance numbers performed by top talent. Framing it all at either end are two water sequences. Since no one had made a swimming movie before, director George Sidney (1916 - 2002) left Esther to choreograph the opening number as she saw fit. She thought back to her her time swimming at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, when swimmers employed a combination of the Greta Garbo (1905 - 1990) kick (named for Garbo’s infamously large feet) and the East River crawl named for the way swimmers in New York’s East River would bat floating garbage away from their faces. However dubious the origins, these moves played joyfully on camera and audiences loved them.
As spontaneous as the opening number was, the spectacular closer was choreographed to the letter by John Murray Anderson. In one solo sequence, Esther does a combination of crawl stroke and backstroke called “the spiral,” while in group sequences, the aqua chorus performed moves like “the tiller,” named for the way its ripple effect resembled the tilling disc of a plow, where a number of girls lined up along the edge of the pool, diving in one after the other. In later films, those group numbers were at their most extravagant when directed by Hollywood’s premiere dance director Busby Berkeley (1895 - 1976). Having overseen marching drills while serving in the army during WWI, became famous in the 1930s for choreographing large scale performances according to geometric patterns resulting in what could only be described as massive human kaleidoscopes. Visually, these formations were even more effective in water, where, as Esther explained, movement was more fluid, and there wasn’t the stop-start motion that there is with dancers.
With that the aquamusical was born and the genre would follow in much the same way for more than a decade. They vacillated between thrilling acrobatics, pyrotechnics, high-rise diving, and mass synchronization, and the soothing intimacy whereby Esther looked directly into the bakelite camera, made to cut through the water as it came toward her, inviting the watcher to join her down in her hushed blue world. “The water was really my co-star,” Esther explained. “Technicolor was so invitingly blue and with the camera angle water level as I swam, audiences felt as if they were swimming right beside me.”
Its surface created a mirror effect, seemingly doubling the stage players and expanding the already massive Stage 30 of the MGM lot. On its floor was a tracking system that allowed the camera to follow her underwater, and its $250,000 plumbing system (propelled) the hydraulic lifts that would raise Esther several feet in the air and surround her and the aqua chorus in a shimmering wall of water. The camera then pans back to reveal the 90 x 90 foot pool, 25-feet deep and built specifically for the swimmer herself and eventually named after her. The vast majority of her swimming scenes would be shot there, and with so many 12-hour days spent filming in it, she even learned to nap there.
On the floor of that pool, she danced on pointe as if she were a ballerina on a stage, holding her breath interestingly enough the same downward pointing of the toes being crucial to staying close to the pool floor. In Thrill of Romance (1945), while Esther is swimming with her five-time co-star Van Johnson (1916 - 2008), she secretly has her hand under his back to help keep him from sinking to the bottom. She almost sank to the bottom of it herself while filming Skirts Ahoy (1952). Portraying a woman in the Naval Federal Reserve, a WAVE as they were referred to, she wore their authentic regulation swimsuit of long and heavy flannel. Recognizing the issue of safety not just for herself but for the real-life WAVES, Esther took an audience with the Secretary of the Navy and modeled a suit for him that she designed in collaboration with Cole’s. The Navy subsequently ordered 50,000 of them for the WAVES to wear.
The limitations of water allowed hair and makeup artists to be innovative. Esther’s team discovered that slathering her hair with a warm mixture of Vaseline and baby oil would keep it in place all day, and that a cream-based body makeup was the only kind that would adhere to her skin rather than leave an foggy cloud on the pool. The water also helped them around mid-century censorship practices. In Texas Carnival (1951), she appears in the dream of her love interest, swimming around his bed in a white negligee. Because the scene takes place in water, the negligee that would otherwise be forbidden was allowed.
Though Esther herself never made it to the Olympics as a swimmer, many credit her aqua musicals as popularizing the sport of synchronized swimming, which became part of the Olympic Games in 1984. Adele Carson, manager of Britain’s synchronized swim team at the Beijing and London Olympics, cites the aqua musicals, which she watched as a kid growing up, as her first introduction to the sport.
Her greatest role (her and her fans’ favorite) was her portrayal of Australian champion swimmer Annette Kellerman (1887 - 1975) in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). Like Esther, Kellerman had been a record-breaking champion who went on to make a name for herself in live water shows and later in a string of wildly successful silent swimming movies during the Victorian period. No other actress in the world could have portrayed such a record-breaking athlete as Kellerman, and since the two women shared such a similar career trajectory, by telling Kellerman’s story, she pays a bit of homage to her own.
In one shot from that film that could be the avatar of her career, she stands triumphantly atop a massive fountain of water as it raises her high into the air. Dressed from head to toe in gold lame with a crown on top of her head, she swan dives from the top and back down under that celestial blue water. Kellerman’s films have been largely lost to time. But Esther remains preserved in Technicolor, Hollywood’s one and only mermaid.
Note* All images are in the public domain.