September 28, 2013

Esther Williams in "Million Dollar Mermaid", Part Two: The Swimming Numbers

As I mentioned, Million Dollar Mermaid, which was one of champion swimmer/diver/star Esther William's MGM vehicles, is a real clunker. But the swimming numbers, which were directed by famed choreographer Busby Berkeley, are in a league of their own. It's almost astonishing how much the film suffers in quality without his touch.

All of the swimming sequences are set at the New York Hippodrome, a large scale theater that existed from 1905 to 1939 in the Midtown area. One of the first chuckles of the 1952 film comes from its treatment of the early 1900s as an almost nostalgic era -- rightfully so, but in a few decades the 1950s would also be depicted as a bygone era.

The first number, where she wore an almost painfully skintight suit that had 50,000 gold sequins. The golden crown was made of actual metal, and when she wore it to make her 50-foot dive, she broke her back. Stories like that make you see how much Hollywood regulations have improved, but they also make it clear why a movie such as this could never be made today.

Williams dives off a huge fountain.

In the second, she does an underwater ballet routine to The Nutcracker. Perhaps I am uncultured, but this reminded me more of a stripper move than anything else.

The third swimming sequence is the extravaganza we have been waiting for. All the hallmarks of a Busby Berkeley-directed number are there: dizzying formations, eye-popping athleticism, high camp, and surrealism.

I like the slight whiff of indecency in his work.

The video quality was so low, the images practically looked like paintings.

With Busby Berkeley, more is more, and the highs keep building to the point where you're practically delirious. Imagine seeing this on the big screen!

Berkeley served in the army during World War I, and he conducted parade drills with over 1,000 men and also trained as an aerial observer. The influence on his work is more than obvious, and perhaps even explains the relentless cheer and workmanlike movements of the swimmers. (Williams smile is plastered on in these scenes, but her eyes look frightened.)

It ends with sparklers that light up as they come up out of the water. 

The number can be seen here:

No comments: