July 8, 2011

Esther Williams in "On an Island with You" (1948)

Esther Williams posing pretty in the opening credit sequence of her 1948 vehicle, On an Island with You. The word "vehicle" doesn't apply to her in the way that it does to most actresses. For someone like, say, Reese Witherspoon, a vehicle is merely a comedy/light drama in which she can channel her blend of cute and steely and fall in love. 

An Esther Williams vehicle was something more specific to her unique talents: a combination of romance, musical, and lavishly choreographed synchronized swimming numbers that showed off her swimming and diving skills.

A singing-and-swimming actress sounds like a novelty today, and it was a novelty back in the 1940s and 50s, when she was at the height of her popularity. (It should be noted that she didn't sing and dance in all her films. In On an Island... the swimming is up to her; the singing is carried out by Jimmy Durante, Xavier Cugat, and Kathryn Beaumont; and the dancing is handled by Ricardo Monalban and Cyd Charisse.

It's hard to imagine a studio today allowing their lead actress and major asset to dive off platforms dozens of feet above ground in film after film. Williams starred in around 10 of these water musicals, and in each film, each swimming sequence, and each dive, the camera captures her movements in no-cheating-allowed long takes. No stuntmen and choppy editing for her.

Unfortunately, apart from the dance numbers and swimming numbers, On an Island with You is not a particularly memorable film. Williams plays an actress shooting a film in Hawaii, Ricardo Montalban plays her Latin lover and co-star, Peter Lawford plays an Army Lieutenant who acts as a consultant on the film. Trouble ensues when Lawford's character announces that he is in love with William's Rosalind, who is engaged to Ricardo (Montalban). The lack of chemistry between the three leads and the creepiness of Lawford's Lieutenant is almost beside the point -- they provide a stopgap in between the singing and swimming numbers.

A chihuahua, here with Xavier Cugat, is used as a running gag.

Blatantly "ethnic" numbers (and William's mean foundation-applied tan) are a sign of the times.

The aforementioned Cyd Charisse plays second fiddle to Williams as her co-star. She has far too little to do, but gives it her all in a couple of astonishing song numbers.

Where Williams is all-American apple pie with her thick blonde hair, healthy figure, and dazzling smile, Charisse is the epitome of exotic allure. (As much as I hate that word, it perfectly captures the film's simplistic portrayal of any non-white character.)

On an Island With You [VHS]
The gorgeous dance scene with Montalban and Charisse can be viewed here on YouTube. Seeing her incredible grace, arresting face, and scorching chemistry with Montalban, it seems unimaginable that anyone would cast Charisse in a supporting role. Yet, in a few short years she would be taking on her best-known roles with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.

P.S. Check out the gloriously campy Million Dollar Mermaid photos here: Part 1, Part 2.

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