Tuesday, July 17, 2007

dvd review: esther williams collection, vol.1

When I was a kid I always heard about Esther Williams and Ethel Merman. I'm pretty sure I saw a musical aqua number on television once or twice. Two different names, two different people, right? Well, not in my addled kid-ville brain. I thought they were one and the same...perhaps because Merman reminded me of mermaid, which reminded me of water... and so on. Later on, of course, I learned the difference, but still lingering is the mental/verbal name switch-up. I've got Esther down, but occasionally Merman will sneak in. No disrespect to either lady.

Now, I've had a chance to make a life long correction to this problem that I've had and see so much more of Esther Williams' work. It's been a great opportunity to see some fun, entertaining films, and gain a new respect for the beauty, the talent, the dedication, and the sheer athleticism of a charming lady. How, you might ask? Well, by reviewing the subject of the new TCM Spotlight Collection that comes out today. But we know what you are asking: How was it? Is it worth my hard earned cash? Is it a Shelf Classic, or should I even bother? Find out in today's Shelf DVD review of The Esther Williams Collection, Volume 1.

The Hard Facts:
TCM Spotlight: The Esther Williams Collection, Vol.1
Five Discs in a digi-pak folding case
Studio: Warner Home Video
Color (Technicolor)
Original Studio: MGM
Release Date: June 19, 2007
Rated: NR for All Films
Star: Esther Williams

Let me start this review by giving a piece of viewing advice that I don't normally give. Take out Disc 1 and watch the episode of TCM: Private Screenings located in the Special Features section. It's a great interview of Esther Williams by Robert Osborne. It's an excellent introduction to Esther Williams and these films, especially for someone not familiar with her work. I found her to be very charming, affable and honest and down to earth about her career.

Esther started out as a young swimming champion who had her sights on the Olympics. World War II broke out and US competitors were unable to go to the Olympics, and Esther's life changed. Her plans then changed. She decided the best thing she could do would be to find stable employment; which she did at a department store. Some time later she got a call from a representative helping put together a water show on behalf of showman Billy Rose. It was her performance in that show which caught the eye of MGM. They approached her about signing a contract with MGM to appear in their newest film concept: Aqua-musicals. Esther actually turned them down. Several times. It wasn't until MGM convinced her that this was no fly by night offer, and that this was completely different from the variety of problems she encountered on the Billy Rose roadshow.

Esther premiered in an Andy Hardy movie: Andy Hardy's Double Life. Esther commented on her big screen debut, "The popular "Andy Hardy" series movies were MGM's tests for its promising stars such as Judy Garland, Lana Turner and Donna Reed. If you didn't make it in those pictures, you were never heard from again". Well, Esther made it. It wasn't long until she was a featured player in the new musicals featuring Esther and aqua ballet. Her first was Bathing Beauty, co-starring Red Skelton. Esther was a hit. She starred mainly in lighter fare: musicals and romantic comedies usually featuring Esther doing her thing in the water at one point or another. Eventually, audiences tired of the "aqua-musical" and it's popularity declined. Esther tried her hand at more dramatic parts but didn't enjoy the same success.

When Dore Schary took over the reigns at MGM, many of the stars and directors found that the new chief wasn't anything like Louis B. Meyer, and perhaps for the worst. Esther was certainly one of them. She came up with an idea for a film that she called Athena, that was to be about several Greek Goddesses living on modern day earth. A script was written, but things were put on hold when she left for maternity leave. When she returned, she found out Schary had taken the script, removed all the water numbers and cast Jane Powell in Esther's part and gave the go ahead. When Esther confronted Schary about this all, he just simply replied, "I've got a studio to run." Schary continued to try and cast her in parts that Esther knew wouldn't work. Shortly after their confrontation, Esther Williams decided to leave MGM. She quietly packed her things, and without fanfare or goodbyes to anyone but the security guard, Esther Williams left the studios behind. Only Gable before her had left in the same way. On their own terms. Some may think that this was a stupid move career-wise, but in the minds of audiences and film fans everywhere, Esther Williams remained forever Esther Williams. An image and a career that she could be proud of, and one that has remained a part of film history.

The Films:
The Esther Williams Collection Volume 1 contains five films: Bathing Beauty, Easy To Wed, On an Island with You, Neptune's Daughter and Dangerous When Wet. Latin music and themes were popular with the public and Hollywood during this time, so many of the music numbers have a Latin Influence or are popular Spanish language songs. In fact in four of the films, Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra appear and play many of the numbers and Ricardo Montalbán and Fernando Lamas are co-stars. While you might consider these films to be musicals, some aren't in the truest sense, but music, water and comedy are all very much a part of each films. Also in these films are frequent Esther Williams co-stars Van Johnson, Keenan Wynn, Red Skelton and Cyd Charisse.

Bathing Beauty
Co-Stars: Red Skelton, Basil Rathbone, Harry James and Nana Bryant
Director: George Sidney

Steve Elliott (Skelton) and Caroline Brooks (Williams) are about to marry and embark on a new life away from their respective careers as song writer and swimming coach. Steve's boss, showman George Adams, is more concerned about getting that music Steve is supposed to have been working on, so he pays an actress to pretend to be Steve's "wife" and disrupt the wedding. It works, and Caroline leaves him, going back to her old job as the swimming coach at all girl's college, Victoria College. When Steve finds out she's gone, he immediately sets out to win her back, eventually finding a loophole in the school's charter that allows him to enroll as the first and only male student. The college is unable to prevent him from enrolling, but the faculty and the Dean decide to push hard and give Steve as many demerits as possible with an eye to expelling him before parents and boosters find out. Caroline goes right along with the idea, still fuming and believing Steve has a wife. The girls at the school take to Steve and help him when they can, and Steve also enlists the aid of some musical cronies like Xavier Cugat and Harry James to help him in his cause.

Red Skelton is very funny in this film and has some great sequences. Organist Ethel Smith has a bit part as an Assistant Music Professor and gets a chance to play her popular tune "Tico Tico". It's also neat to see Radio Actor/Announcer Bill Goodwin (from The Burns and Allen Show) as a professor who has a keen interest in Caroline himself. Frequent Marx Brothers foil Margaret Dumont also has a brief role in the film. The music is provided by Harry James and his Music Makers and Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra, and of course, Ethel Smith. One of the highlights is the number "I'll Take the High Note".

Extras: TCM Private Screenings with Esther Williams is, as previously mentioned, a must-see. I highly recommend watching this before the rest of the films, especially if you are not as familiar with Esther Williams' career. Also included are the theatrical trailer, wartime short Main Street Today and the MGM Tom and Jerry Short, Mouse Trouble.

Easy to Wed
Co-Stars: Van Johnson, Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn
Director: Edward Buzzell

Newspaper man Warren Haggerty (Wynn) is called back to work from his wedding to Gladys Benton (Ball). It seems the paper printed a story about heiress Connie Allenbury (Williams) that wasn't true and is being sued. Haggery's job is to prevent the suit at all costs. He calls in old rival Bill Chandler (Johnson) to wine and dine Connie to put her in a compromising situation where she will be forced to drop the lawsuit. What Chadler doesn't count on is that Connie is no pushover. What Haggerty doesn't count on is Chandler falling for Connie, and his own fiance Gladys falling for Chandler.

If you've seen the screwball comedy (and Shelf Classic) Libeled Lady- then you already know what you are in for with this film. It is a remake of that 1936 classic. That's not to complete rule it out however, as it is charming enough. But 1946 audiences couldn't be completely in the fog and not be comparing this to it's ten year old predecessor. I did, and perhaps it is unfair. Essentially you take the story and most of the dialogue of Libeled Lady, change Fly Fishing to Duck Hunting and add Latin flavored music and you have Easy To Wed. Esther Williams and Keenen Wynn do a good job with their roles and Lucille Ball practically steals the movie from her costars. It is watching Van Johnson that makes you long to see William Powell again. Johnson is an excellent actor, but this role seems more miscast for him than any of the other actors. Powell owns this role, and while Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy are unforgettable in their roles, the new cast doesn't try to reinvent the wheel. Johnson just can't bring the same charm and comedy to the role that William Powell did so effortlessly. That being said, it's worth watching, especially for Lucille Ball. Her performance almost channels the comedy and role of Lucy Ricardo 6 years too early. It's easy to see that Edward Buzzell knows what he has with Ball, as he keeps throwing scenes her way.

Extras: Theatrical trailers of both this film and Libeled Lady (not sure why - seems to be a bit on the insult to injury side). Pete Smith Specialty short, Sure Cures and MGM classic Barney Bear cartoon, Unwelcome Guest.

On an Island With You
Co-Stars: Ricardo Montalbán, Peter Lawford, Jimmy Durante and Cyd Charisse
Director: Richard Thorpe

Movie star Rosalind Reynolds (Williams) is on a Pacific Island filming a romance with her costar and fiance, Ricardo Montez (Montalbán). Since Montez is playing a Navy Lieutenant, Assistant Director Jimmy Buckley (Durante) has hired a Navy Consultant, Lt. Larry Kingslee (Lawford) to make sure things go right. When Lt. Kingslee arrives on set he finds out the leading lady is the movie star that he danced with 3 years ago at a USO function. He fell in love with her that night, and assumed that she felt the same way. When he realizes that Roz doesn't recognize him, Lt. Kingslee kidnaps her and flies her to the island where they met, hoping she'll remember him. When she remembers, she tells him that she didn't fall in love with him, but that she spent time with him and all the troops as a way to boost morale. Crestfallen, Kingslee attempts to take her back, but the plane has been vandalized. The Navy finds them and a series of events and romantic complications will eventually result in a Hollywood happy ending.

This was the hidden little gem in the set for me, although it is a favorite for many Williams fans. I had never seen it and while the plot was very contrived, the film and cast had plenty of charm. The only one kind of out of place was Peter Lawford. This seems to have been more of a role for Van Johnson. Oh, well. Esther Williams really shines in this film, she seems to be comfortable with herself and with her role. I was constantly impressed not just with her talent and beauty (she is ravishing in this picture) but just how hard she had to work with the swimming scenes. She was very talented. The one who steals the show is Jimmy Durante. The big shnozz breaks up 'da joint.

Extras: Vintage Romance of Celluloid Series Short: Personalities; Classic MGM Barney Bear Cartoon, The Bear and the Hare and the theatrical trailer.

Neptune's Daughter
Co-Stars: Red Skelton, Keenan Wynn, Ricardo Montalbán, Betty Garrett and Mel Blanc
Directed By: Edward Buzzell

Esther Williams plays a role closer to her real life story than either of her movies. Eve Barrett (Williams) is a champion swimmer spotted by Joe Backett (Wynn) talks her into starting a swimsuit business. They become very successful. Her sister, Betty bemoans her lack of success with men. When a South American polo team comes into town for a competition, Betty (Garrett) mistakes masseur Jack Spratt (Skelton) for Jose O'Rourke (Montalbán), the team captain. Eve is suspicious of Betty's new beau and decides that she doesn't know what she is getting into. She asks to meet O'Rourke to dissuade him from dating her sister. However she meets the real O'Rourke and he is so smitten with Eve he continues to pursue her. It's a case of mistaken identities and romance with a hilarious conclusion thanks to Red Skelton.

This was perhaps my favorite of the set for two reasons: Red Skelton and Mel Blanc. Red is at his best in this film and the polo match scene is great. Mel Blanc plays a variation on his Mexican character that he frequently did on The Jack Benny Show and eventually parlayed into Speedy Gonzales and his cousin Slowpoke. The funny bits are fantastic and the light romantic comedy is very good. It may seem a bit formulaic to some, with a little justification. Nonetheless it is lighthearted fare and the music is great and the cast is wonderful.

Extras: There is an outtake musical number with Betty Garrett, "I Want My Money Back", an Esther Williams Sequence From 1951's Callaway Went Thatway, A Pete Smith Specialty Comedy Short: Water Trix; The Oscar nominated cartoon Hatch Up Your Troubles; Promotional Radio Interviews and theatrical trailers of Neptune's Daughter and Take Me Out to the Ball Game.

Dangerous When Wet
Co-Stars: Jack Carson, Fernando Lamas and William Demarest
Director: Charles Walters

The Higgins family is a farming, health conscience clan who start every morning with a swim and calisthenics. When an out of town huckster, Windy Weebe (Carson), arrives hawking a health tonic, he becomes enchanted with the oldest Higgins daughter, Katie (Williams). Windy comes up with an idea for the whole Higgins family to swim the English Channel, sponsored by his product. Katie and her family agrees, in order to win money to fix up the farm and buy a new bull. Once in England, Katie begins to train in earnest. One foggy day, she get separated from Windy who is coaching from his rowboat, and swims right into Frenchman André Lanet (Lamas) who scoops her up in his boat. Lanet attempts to sweep Katie off her feet, Windy attempts to keep her in the water, and her family tries to keep her healthy. A change in the rules only allows Katie to swim on the day of the contest, so she is swimming for herself and her family.

This is the film that contains the famous sequence where Esther swims with an animated Tom and Jerry. It's a dream sequence that is very charming and entertaining. Three of MGM's biggest stars of the time all in one scene! Demarest, who plays Pa Higgins, isn't really given enough to do in the film. Overall, it's an enjoyable film, with some great sequences, but doesn't reach the level of the previous films.

Extras: An outtake musical number "C'est La Guerre", Johnny Mercer Demo Recordings of: "Fifi", "I Got Out of Bed on the Right Side" and "I Like Men", Promotional Radio Interview With Esther Williams, Pete Smith Specialty Comedy Short: This is A Living?; Tom and Jerry cartoon The Cat and the Mermouse and Esther Williams Musicals Trailer Gallery

Video/ Audio:
The Technicolor Prints are excellent and very vivid. In fact, in one scene in Easy to Wed, Lucille Ball's hair is up and it almost looked like you could see blond roots under the red. The audio is excellent as well, with great music tracks. Warner's used fantastic prints and audio tracks for transfer. If you are a 50's Latin music devotee, you might be interested in this link from The Vintage Place.

The Bottom Line:
TCM and Warner Home Video do it again with an excellent box set. This one is perfect for release during the summer as well. Esther Williams deserved a great set and this first Volume of what will hopefully be a multi-volume series really shows off Esther and MGM at their best. The famous aqua ballets and swimming numbers that pretty much became synamous with Esther are wonderfully done, and quite frankly not so numerous as you would think. The Extras are also wonderful in the set. I love MGM cartoons and especially Tex Avery or Barney Bear cartoons, so these and the always humorous Pete Smith Shorts much appreciated. The Main Street short on Bathing Beauty is clearly a World War II era short that was worth viewing, but may even strike a chord today. The best extra by far is the episode of TCM Private Screenings with Esther Williams. The TCM sets are always excellent when these Private Screenings or other interviews and documentaries are included for context. Robert Osborne never fails to disappoint.

Esther was in great physical shape, and one of the hardest workers on the lot. After you watch the aqua sequences, you'll see what I mean. You definitely don't want to miss Red Skelton and Esther in Bathing Beauty and Neptune's Daughter, and some great comedy from Red and Mel Blanc. On an Island with You is great film to catch and a great find if you've never seen it. Dangerous When Wet is pleasant viewing (and you have to see the iconic animated scene), and if you can get past Libeled Lady, you'll enjoy Easy To Wed at least once, especiallly for Lucille Ball's performance. The Esther Williams Collection, Vol. 1 is a hit out of the park for classic film fans.

Review Rating:
Individually grading the films, they would earn the following:
Bathing Beauty: A
Neptune's Daughter: A
On an Island With You: A
Dangerous When Wet: B
Easy To Wed: C
Overall rating: 4 stars (Groucho Glasses)

Neptune's Daughter and Bathing Beauty are SHELF CLASSICS. That combined with the rest of the films and some great extras, especially The TCM Private Screenings interview with Esther Williams, makes The TCM Spotlight Collection: The Esther Williams Collection, Vol. 1 overall a Must Have set.

Oh, I know it's a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

Don't tell me it's a woman - he'd never fall for a bathing suit.
Wait till you see what's in it!


Anonymous said...

Very nice. What you said about Esther Williams and Ethel Merman rings true. I used to get them and Shelley Winters mixed up. I guess I thought because she was in Posiedon Adventure and supposed to be a champion swimmer in that movie, that was who that was.
Hopefully I can netflix this set it sounds good.

Anonymous said...

Are these being released individually? I'd like to get the Red Skelton movies without getting the set.

J.C. Loophole said...

Not as of now, anonymous. The Esther Williams set is available only as a set in those folding "digi-pak"s . But who knows. It could change in the future. But if you like Red Skelton, you'll like Jimmy Durante in On an Island With You. The set is worth it, for the other two pictures are great fun also. I

Sallie Neal said...

What a fantastic review. I will be linking it to my place. I'm going to order the set tomorrow! I am very excited- Esther is a blast to watch.

May I also recommend to you and or viewers to also read her book called "Million Dollar Mermaid". You get a great look into her life from the book as well. It's a very information, fast read.

Thanks for the great info!

J.C. Loophole said...

Thanks Sallie-
That's a good tip about reading her book. You can find it on Amazon or barnesandboble.com.
Also recommended is The Golden Girls of MGM

Sallie Neal said...

Just re-read my last comment. That's what I get for typing too fast. I guess I'm too much of a perfectionist- I have to say-

The Esther Williams book, Million Dollar Mermaid, is very "informative" and a fast read.

Thanks for letting me fix my mistake!

Anonymous said...

Where can you purchase this box set? I'm having a hard time locating it.


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