When is the last time you wanted to know if any of the 32-plus movies at the cineplex featured choreographed swimming? Were you hoping for a song in Sphere, Jaws or Waterworld? The Aqua Musical is a very limited genre. Most of the limited nature is based on the casting of Esther Williams in the lead. She breaststroke that was the envy of Hollywood’s best producers. She was an AAU champion that missed out on the 1940 Olympics because of World War II. However she splashed into glory by being cast in MGM musicals. Esther Williams: Volume 2 brings us another six of her films.
Thrill of a Romance (1945 – 105 minutes) lets Esther be swept off her feet by Carleton G . Young. The tycoon can’t get enough of the sweet swimming instructor. They get married in a mad rush. Unfortunately she is his second love. He’s so devoted to his job that he abandons her at a resort during their honeymoon. He must seal the deal. During his absence, she enjoys the company of opera great Lauritz Melchior and war hero Van Johnson. Her swimming lessons with Johnson creates too much of a bond. Did she marry the wrong man? At least her confusion is accompanied by the music of Tommy Dorsey and his band. They’re booked in the resort’s ballroom. Melchior’s voice makes up for the lack of a major swimming sequence. Fiesta (1947 – 102 minutes) takes her South of the Border to play the sister of Ricardo Montalban (Fantasy Island). There’s no real aqua musical action. She does take a dip in the water, but nothing elaborate. Ricardo’s father wants him to be a bullfighter. The son wants to be a composer. Can Esther talk him into taking up the red cape to challenge the Toros? Can a man compose and beat up on beef? This is just a truly strange film. There is music and dancing as Ricardo hoofs it with Cyd Charisse (The Silencers). A tequila shot makes this a little more believable.
This Time For Keeps (1947 – 105 Minutes) is another tale of a father with future plans for his son. Johnny Johnston’s old man wants him to be an opera singer now that he’s returned from the war. However Johnny wants to sing jazz. He’s got the hots for Esther Williams. She’s part of the Aquacade. He wants to sing at the water show, but Jimmy Durante sets him up arranging for Xavier Cugat (Charo’s original husband). Things get romantically confused since he was suppose to marry a high society gal. There’s lots of singing and swimming. Even Lauritz Melchior returns with his superb operatic voice. Pagan Love Song (1950 – 76 minutes) lets Howard Keel inherit a plantation in Tahiti from his late uncle. Keel’s a school teacher from Ohio so he’s not ready to adopt island life. Turns out the plantation isn’t as grand as suggested. Luckily he uncovers Esther as a half-Tahitian half-American local. She might not stay local since she’s got pants to leave for New York. Amidst the singing, dancing and swimming, Keel needs to marry her before he loses his coconut queen to the Big Apple. This film is an extremely light musical entertainment. Rita Moreno (West Side Story) gives an early career performance.
Million Dollar Mermaid (1952 – 109 minutes) skips the musical format to give a biopic of Annette Kellerman. The Australian was a swimming sensation at the start of the 20th century. She was born with bad legs that had to stay in braces. But she discovered she could swim better than she could walk. Her aquatic accomplishments become a bigger sensation when she swims the Thames River with Victor Mature and Jesse White as her promoters. They thought they could strike it rich in London with Kangaroo boxing. In her rise to fame, she fights for the right to not wear the extremely long and conservative swimsuits. She should be considered the patron saint of Speedos. Eventually Hollywood came calling. However unlike Esther’s own career, Kellerman’s first spectacular turned into a disaster film. The swimming sequence that takes place in the Hippodrome would fit perfectly on today’s Vegas showroom. It’s the best film in the boxset. Easy to Love (1953 – 96 minutes) places Esther in the famous Cypress Gardens show. Van Johnson runs the place. He knows how to promote and please the ladies. She wants to marry Van, but he’s having none of it. She attempts to make him jealous by fooling around with Tony Martin. Can Van handle the headlines of his woman nightclubbing around Manhattan with a major crooner? The Cypress Gardens sequences are stunning. Legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley set up the motion under the water to create a Technicolor masterpiece.
Esther Williams: Volume 2 makes me wish that Hollywood still could crank out an Aqua Musical. There’s an unexpected joy in seeing the pool in motion without it being an Olympic competition. Nobody is being deducted by the judges. They’re merely bring the joy of splashing around to a crowd hungry to be entertained. Esther made sure we didn’t reduce swimming to something done every four years at the Olympics.
The video for all the films is 1.33:1 full frame. The transfers vary on the films. They all look good. Fiesta has a slight brown tone, but that might have been done to emphasize the Mexican location and kick up the brown makeup on several of the stars. The audio is Dolby Digital Mono. Things sound clear for the musical moments. The start of Pagan Love Song is a little rough. The films have English subtitles.
Reducing (8:21) is Pete Smith Specialty about a woman losing weight. Funny how after all these decades, it’s still about diets.
The Wise Little Quaker (7:07) is a Tom and Jerry cartoon with the annoying duckling.
Lux Radio Theater (41:44) has Esther William and Walter Pidgeon performing the audio version of Million Dollar Mermaid.
Million Dollar Mermaid Theatrical Trailer (1:12) calls it her most exciting movie yet.
The Great American Mug (9:43) is part of John Nesbitt’s Passing Parade series. This gives us the history of the barber shop. They used to also be the tobacconist. Customers would have their own shaving cup mug in the shop.
Wild and Woolfy (7:36) is a Tex Avery cartoon. The outlaw wolf terrorizes the west. It’s up to Droopy to bust him. This doesn’t look as good as the transfer on the Complete Droopy.
Outtakes (6:43) includes the songs “Gypsy Mattinata,” “I Should Care” and “Please Don’t Say ‘No'”
Thrill of Romance Theatrical Trailer (2:08) promises plenty of thrills including “The Thrill of Van Johnson Making Love to Esther Williams.“
Goodbye, Miss Turlock (10:25) is part of John Nesbitt’s Passing Parade series. The short pays tribute to the one room schoolhouse. What happened to Stinky Daniels after her graduated?
Hound Hunters (7:17) is a Tex Avery cartoon. The two hobo bears get respectable jobs as dog catchers. The transfers looks like it was taken from a public domain DVD.
Thrill of a Romance Theatrical Trailer (4:02) promises a spectacular movie musical.
Now You See It (9:22) is a Pete Smith Specialty in Technicolor. He explores the world of macrophotography. He’s ready for close ups.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse (7:24) is a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Jerry gets loose in a chemistry lab and makes Tom pay.
Little Big Shot (2:09) is a musical moment Jimmy Durante cut out of This Time for Keeps.
This Time for Keeps Theatrical Trailer (3:30) teases us with numerous colored bathing suits.
Curious Contests (8:27) is a Pete Smith Specialty. The documentary explores strange contests that were sweeping the nation including men changing baby diapers, baby crawling, firemen hosing a giant soccer ball and Sumo wrestling.
The Chump Champ (7:15) is a Tex Avery cartoon. Droopy competes in numerous college sports to prove he’s the best athlete.
Outtakes (14:46) include the musical moments of “Why is Love So Crazy,” “Tahiti” versions 1 & 2, “Music on the Water,”
“The Sea of the Moon” and “The House of Singing Bamboo.”
Pagan Love Song Theatrical Trailer (3:05) tempts us with Esther Williams as “Neptune’s Daughter in a Sarong!”
Romantic Riviera (8:35) is a James A. FitzPatrick’s Traveltalks. It’s a travelogue of the coastal towns.
Cobs and Robbers (6:20) is a Barney Bear cartoon. He’s got issues with crows in his corn.
Easy to Love Theatrical Trailer (3:40) promises “The Musical Show All Hollywood Has Called The Big One.”
Esther Williams: Volume 2 overflows with music and motion. She sparkles in her element. Even out of water she fares well on the screen. The six films vary from the rather serious Million Dollar Mermaid to the completely light Pagan Love Song. Fiesta is Mexican weirdness with the bullfighting not getting to grizzly. For fans of the Aqua Musical Queen, this collection is worth a dip in the wallet.
Warner Home Video and TCM Spotlight present Esther Williams: Volume 2. Starring: Esther Williams, Van Johnson, Victor Mature and Howard Keel. Boxset contents: 6 movies on 6 DVDs. Released on DVD: October. 6. Available at Amazon.com