Monday, August 12, 2013

Esther Williams 1921-2013

Readers of this blog are probably familiar with my appreciation for the films of the Studio Period.

One of the most intriguing and at the same time peculiar stars of that era was Esther Jane Williams, the "Million Dollar Mermaid".

Williams has always held an odd sort of fascination for me because her place in American film is so...bizarre. She said it herself: “I know I can’t act. I know I can’t dance. I can’t sing, but I’m going to keep trying until I get it right.” Her movies were almost interchangable, the only differences the setting or the names of the characters. They were bright, cheerful, accessible, and trivial; in some ways like the lady herself.

She is also intriguing because in a movie world full of tiny, petite little women she was a titan. Like many of the best swimmers she was tall, broad-shouldered, and long-legged. And that wasn't all that was big about her. Look at her pictures; the woman had nature's swim fins on the ends of her legs. I haven't found any sources that will come straight out and talk about Esther's shoe size but I'll bet she wore a women's 10 or 11. Not a bad thing for a competitive swimmer, but I'll bet the studio costumers and camera guys had a hell of a time ensuring that she never got photographed with those big ol' dogs right in the camera. Wouldn't do for the lads to see the girl had some big, strong feet, right?

I wonder if her arch-enemy Gene Kelly cracked wise about her ginormous hooves? He certainly seems to have snarked about all the other aspects of her size during the filming of Take Me Out To The Ball Game...

She had wretched taste in, or luck with, men. The ones that she got on well with were married to other women; the ones she married were frightful - the first was neurotic, the second drunk, and the third, Fernando Lamas, a psychiatrist's poster boy for priapic self-centered egotism. Once when Esther has an argument with him he tells her that he isn't going to do something purely because she wants to do it, and that is what's going to happen every time she wants something other than what he wants.

"Then the best thing for me to do is not to want anything, right?" she says, to which Lamas replies serenely;

"Yes, that would be best."

William's "autobiography" - which is where I culled this gem - is a delight, full of gossip about the Hollywood of the studios and stars of her day. Esther dishes the dirt, too, and for all that she is often elliptical she comes across as a woman who knew what she wanted. Her biggest troubles always seemed to come from men and her weakness for them. She doesn't come right out and say it but you get the feeling that Esther was a bit of a lusty lass who tended to ignore her man's other bad news if her man was good at pleasuring her.

In later life - after Lamas' death - she seems to have found a great deal of satisfaction in her businesses and the "sport" of synchronized swimming. She seems to have finally found a good man who was good to her (and good with her, since though in her autobio she finally shuts up about her carnal escapades after Lamas it's hard to imagine Ms. Williams being happy with a fella who couldn't make her shout when the lights went out...). She died peacefully in her sleep at 91 after twenty-five years with her husband and kids beside her and a happy ending to a busy life.

And speaking of that...for what it's worth, I'm not sure that I don't believe her story about Jeff Chandler and the striped dress. Chandler's people got into a tizzy and Esther sorta-kinda said that she might have made the story up. But no reason that Jeff couldn't have been all man AND a cross-dresser. It takes all kinds. Thank heaven.

Well, Esther went to the big Pool in the Sky this June.

We will never see another like her. She was a creation of a studio system that is long gone, and a public whose taste in entertainment has vastly changed since her stardom. Her films, her family, and her odd little sport, though, remain behind so she will remain a shining smile and a sparkle in the eyes of those who come upon her works.

Not exactly a bad legacy, that.


Anonymous said...

I had SUCH a crush on Jeff Chandler when I was a teen!

Do tell me about the striped dress, lol! Cause that man was too pretty by half!

Syrbal/Labrys said...

Oops. That was me, it suddenly posted as I was attempting to type my name.

Lisa said...

"I wonder if her arch-enemy Gene Kelly cracked wise about her ginormous hooves?"

A pun (arch-enemy and hooves?) Cute.

While Esther was certainly no actress, I can't say that many in film today are much better. Pity the end of the innocence

FDChief said...

Here's Esther's tale of Jeff and The Dress, from Million Dollar Mermaid

She and Chandler has met on the set of Raw Wind In Eden in 1958. Her second marriage had fallen apart and, worse, she had discovered that her husband, an alcoholic moron named Ben Gage, had stolen from her and she was damn near destitute.

Chandler's marriage was disintegrating, too, and so the two stars pretty much decided "Fuck it" and...well, each other. Esther doesn't come right out and get clinical but she makes it pretty clear that Chandler was all man and...ummm...a LOT of man.

When they came back to the states they continued their affair; she claims Chandler repeatedly asked her to marry him. Whatever the circumstances, the story picks up one evening when Esther is preparing a romantic dinner for two (I don't remember whether it's at Chandler's place or hers - presumably his given what happens next).

Esther recounts:

"I froze at the bedroom door and started screaming. I couldn’t stop myself…I just stood there in the center of the doorway and screamed. He was standing in the middle of the bedroom in a red wig, a flowered chiffon dress, expensive high-heeled shoes and lots of makeup. ’Take that off! Take that off now!’ I yelled.”

She says that Chandler tells her he's not some sort of sissyboy (it's '59, remember...) but that he just likes the clothes.

But that was it; Esther just couldn't take the idea of being girlfriend and "girlfriends", if you know what I mean and I think you do...

FDChief said...

Thing is, Lisa, that when you read her story you get that the "innocence" was all hokum. Johnny Weismuller tried to screw her in the Tarzan set pool, various studio execs made it clear that sex with them meant star billing for her, she broke her neck because of a badly designed stunt and damn near died because the studio didn't take simple safety precautions building her water tank set.

I tend to agree, though, that she was certainly no worse than a lot of people making a living in the movie biz today, and at least had a sense of humor about the triviality of her "profession".

She seems like she was a good gal, and a fighter. She made the most of what she had, and could do. You can't really do much better than that, can you?

Syrbal/Labrys said...

ROFL...good gracious, still, I think it would take more than a dress and wig to scare me away from that much gorgeous!

Lisa said...

Nope, one can't do much better.

By innocence, I just mean the appearance ... at least that. We strove for something better and finer. Today, the bloom is off the rose completely, ISTM.

FDChief said...

Lisa: Well, again, not so sure we "strove" for neater and sweeter things; I think that an American audience sitting through Esther's Bathing Beauty in 1944 had a pretty damn good idea how nasty and gritty Real Life was outside the theater. What was demanded was escape; a pretty, shiny fantasy world where all the women were strong and all the men good-looking.

And the children above-average.

What I think we had was a hard shell of appearance and a fierce demand for conformity. Guys wore ties, women dresses. Black people were maids, or entertainers. American soldiers died heroically (and painlessly), Asians hissed nefariously (or, if they were Friendly Asians, smiled stoically), and dogs were named Wags.

That was, in many ways, a lovely dream. But it WAS only a dream, and when the need for such dreams passed away - when the Depression and the War ended - the films themselves passed away, too.

We still have our dreams today; they're just based on a very different sort of reality. Those of us who were young when the dreams were passing may mourn them, and not for no reason.

But autre pays, autre mors