The Siren finds some genres slow going and the aquatic musicals of Esther Williams are definitely in that category. Williams was wonderfully pretty, had a smile that could power a small city and the best figure in Hollywood until Mitzi Gaynor came along to give her some competition. But the swimming and the posing underwater, even with a genius like Robert Alton or Busby Berkeley in charge, is only intermittently interesting to the Siren. And then the curiosity is usually clinical, such as how long did that take to rehearse? weren't those sequins awfully heavy in the water? is this the one where the crown on her head could have killed her?
Talk about a vanished aesthetic--there is really nothing around these days to compare with Williams and her movies. Then again, nowadays if you get a person who is famous for something nondramatic, and decide to make her a star, you plunk her into a reality show. As with just about everything else, the Siren prefers the old days. Skirts Ahoy! may not be The Magnificent Ambersons but it sure ain't The Girls Next Door, either. There were other non-acting celebrities that Hollywood gave the star treatment, notably Audie Murphy (a better actor than people give him credit for) and Sonja Henie (so, so, so much worse than you imagine--not even Tyrone Power can make her bearable). I like Take Me Out to the Ballgame, an enjoyable movie from Stanley Donen that Williams was utterly miserable making, due she says to ceaseless put-downs from both Donen and costar Gene Kelly. Nevertheless she's charming in it, and her singing voice was pretty good. Fiesta has its moments too. Williams and Ricardo Montalban were one hell of an eyeful (though they were playing brother and sister, alas).
But unlike some genres and directors that the Siren has given up on, she still watches Williams's water movies from time to time, largely due to the lady's delightful 1999 autobiography. Brutally honest about herself and others, Williams has intelligence, humor and self-deprecation to spare. Here she is, talking about the unique approach to the art of acting at MGM:
Lillian Burns was the drama coach, and she clearly made her mark on the leading ladies of MGM. Burns was a proponent of the one-size-fits-all school of acting. She was oblivious to the fact one might be taller, fatter, thinner, older, younger than she. When she left a room, she left in a huff. Up went her shoulders, up went her chin. Then she snapped her head back--you could almost hear it--and sailed out the door. We all learned the same mannered technique. Ava Gardner snapped her neck; so did Lana Turner and Jane Leigh. Even little Margaret O'Brien left a room that way. It's a wonder we all didn't end up at the chiropractor's.
Even though Lana Turner, Donna Reed, Debbie Reynolds, and Janet Leigh all swore by her, Lillian Burns and I were a mismatch. I knew instinctively that a five-foot-eight-inch girl could not behave like a feisty indignant little poodle with quick, jerky movements. Lillian's teaching consisted of reading chunks of dialogue in her style, which we were then expected to imitate, but her melodramatic incantations didn't work for me. I though I had avoided picking up most of her mannerism, but seven years of classes were bound to leave their mark. I remember watching Neptune's Daughter and when I saw my nostrils flare and my eyes pop out of my head, I thought, 'Oh Lillian, you sneaked those into my subconscious!'
On Aug. 8 she turned 87, and her swimwear line is still going strong. Ms. Williams, the Siren thinks you're fabulous, and the next time Dangerous When Wet comes on television I am by golly going to watch it.