Esther Williams, 1921-2013

In the history of Hollywood, hundreds of performers have been called singers, dancers, action heroes or queens of melodrama.  But only one can be called an “aquamusical” star: Esther Williams.

She was born in Inglewood, California on August 8, 1921 to Kansas natives Robert and Bula Williams.  Esther learned to swim at the local pool, winning three U.S. National championships before finishing high school.  She joined Billy Rose’s Aquacade to pay her way through college.  Her plans to compete in the 1940 Summer Olympics were derailed when the games were cancelled due to the onset of World War II.

Esther soon caught the attention of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer chief Louis B. Mayer.  After a handful of minor parts, she co-starred with Red Skelton in Bathing Beauty (1944).  It’s success led to a series of lavish musicals, often including elaborate production numbers in the studios massive 700,000 gallon pool.  She starred in five films with Van Johnson, including Thrill of a Romance (1945) and Easy to Wed (1946), three with Howard Keel, and twice with Ricardo Montalban (including Neptune’s Daughter (1949) in which they duet the popular song “Baby, it’s Cold Outside”).  She even swam with animated favorites Tom and Jerry in Dangerous When Wet (1953).

Her “aquamusicals” presented numberous challenges to studio technicians, leading to advanced camerawork and costume design.  She later sought to expand her acting skills in non-swimming vehicles, including Take Me Out To the Ballgame (1949) with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, but the studio insisted that she have at least one swimming scene.  By the mid-1950s, the Esther Williams movie began to fall out of favor with the viewing public, in 1956 she drove off the MGM lot, only returning 40 years later to host a segment in 1994’s That’s Entertainment III.

Esther Williams was married four times, most famously to screen star Fernando Lamas from 1969 to his death in 1982 (she taught step-son Lorenzo Lamas how to swim).  During her retirement, she designed a line of swimwear, leant her name to swimming pool manufacturers, and even served as synchronized swimming commentator for the 1984 Summer Olympics.

Many of Esther Williams’ feature films are available on DVD.  Which is your favorite?