When Dubsism and Return to the 80s announced that they would be hosting the Box Office Jocks Blogathon, an event honouring actors who were athletes as well, I thought this would be the perfect occasion for me to finally see my first Esther Williams film. I remembered Michaela from Love Letters to Old Hollywood recommended Dangerous When Wet when I met her in Prague, so that’ the one I’ve decided to go with.
Esther Williams surely was an intriguing character. She didn’t start her professional life in a studio among the camera, but rather in water as a competitive swimmer. She almost competed in the 1940’s Summer Olympics but these were canceled because of the war. She instead joined Billy Rose’s Aquacade, a music, dance and swimming show produced by Rose, and that’s how she was noticed by MGM. During her acting career, she often played in movies involving swimming or synchronized swimming, such as Bathing Beauty (George Sidney, 1944), Million Dollar Mermaid (Mervyn LeRoy, 1953) or the one we’ll be reviewing: Dangerous When Wet (Charles Walter, 1953).
I have to give you a fair warning: Dangerous When Wet isn’t necessarily an extraordinary movie. On its release, film critic Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Time “frolicsome item not only dumps you quite often in the drink but also gives you some rather pleasant company to clown around with while on dry ground. As we say, there is nothing very special or spectacular about “Dangerous When Wet,” but it comes as relaxing entertainment at this torpid time of the year.” (Wikipedia). Well, that’s pretty much the way I felt about it as well. A cute, but not very meaningful film. Nevertheless, there are interesting things to say about it.
Except for Michaela’s recommendation, two other aspects that influenced me to see this films were Jack Carson, who is an actor I love, and the fact that it was directed by Charles Walters. He always directed nice and lovely films. Not really masterpieces, but highly appreciable ones. The kind of film that always put a smile on your face.
Dangerous When Wet tells the story of the Higgins, a family of dairy farmers who like to keep in shape with morning swims. One day, the eldest daughter, Katie (Esther Williams), meets Windy Weebe (Jack Carson), a travelling salesman for Liquipep, an elixir supposed to put people in better shape. When Windy is made aware of the Higgins talent for swimming, he suggests them to compete for the English Channel crossing. The family, especially Mr. Higgins (William Demarest, is very enthusiast about it. Katie isn’t so much, but she turns out to be the most talented swimmer of them all. She accepts as she sees an occasion to win money to buy herself a bull (first thing we’ll all think of buying. Hum). So, they become the famous Liquiped Family. In England, Windy trains Katie and she meets André Lanet (Fernando Lamas), a Frenchman who sells champagne. They fall for each other (at the great despair of Windy) but Katie has to concentrate on her swimming as crossing the Channel needs a lot of preparation. If Katie isn’t too interested in Windy, this one attracts the eye of Gigi Mignon (Denise Darcel), the friendly French competitor, who is a rather fun and sympathetic person. Eventually, the pressure is more and more on Esther’s shoulders as the rest of her family is disqualified for not being strong enough for the long swim. Katie will now be the only one to compete, representing the USA.
Oh, and Dangerous When Wet is a musical. I forgot to mention it. But, to be honest, this isn’t a very important aspect of the film, except maybe for one sequence (we’ll come back to it). There are some nice little musical numbers, but there aren’t many and if they weren’t part of the film, it honestly wouldn’t change much to the story.
So yes, Dangerous When Wet is the film that introduced me to Esther Williams. If you asked me what I thought of her acting, my answer would be “not much”. Honestly, she didn’t make much of an impression as an actress. Not that she was bad. She was just very ordinary. She did the job, but it was nothing outstanding or worthy of any awards. Of course, for the moment my opinion is based on the one film I’ve seen, so I’m probably quick judging. I’m sure some of you who are more familiar with her could recommend me a film really exploiting her acting talent. However, the fact that she was a swimmer make us notice interesting details. If you look at her, Esther Williams surely was no fake. She really had the body of a swimmer which gives good indication a on her sportive past. Swimmers are known for having large shoulders and this is something I immediately noticed about Mrs. Williams. She had swimming in her blood and was able to exploit it at its fullest, even in Hollywood comedies. But she did have the attitude of a star, with the class that comes with it. Being an athlete and having large shoulders surely didn’t prevent her to be most elegant!
Dangerous When Wet isn’t packed with sequences of Esther Williams swimming, but the ones we see are quite significant. One of the scenes that made this film quite noticeable is an animated sequence with Tom and Jerry. Katie’s little sister (Donna Corcoran) is telling her about them before she goes to sleep and, as a result, Katie dreams that she is in a animated swimming world the famous cat and the famous mouse. They have to swim a distance but Katie constantly gets distracted by an octopus supposed to represent André (not sure that’s really a flattering comparison). Tom and Jerry try their best to put her on the right path and help her reach her goal. It’s a very cute and fun sequence. I’ll let you watch it:
A positive aspect of the film regarding the competitive swimming thematic is the fact that they, by no mean, try to glamorize it. Yes, it is in the Tom & Jerry’s sequence, but that isn’t a negative thing as it is just a dream. I mean, obviously, a human cannot stand underwater like that without any snorkel. So, it works. But I’m thinking more about what happens in real life. The famous channel crossing scene shows us competitive swimming in its most difficult conditions. Esther Williams, covered with a weird grease, is ready to plunge in the water and attempt this almost impossible challenge. It’s cold, it’s dark, and she needs as much concentration as possible. She, after all, is going to swim for several hours.
This makes me think, there’s a scene in the film where André offers a little polka dot bikini to Katie to wear for the competition, which she finds completely ridiculous. And it is. Obviously, André knows much more about champagne than competitive swimming. I mean, a bikini like that is good to go lay on the beach, but surely not to do long distance swimming. Luckily, Katie is a serious person and knows what’s good for her or not! Also, isn’t a bit awkward to give a bikini to a girl you barely know? What a stupid character!
Well, he’s stupid at this moment, but, luckily, he turns out to be a good person, which kind of makes us appreciate him eventually. That being said, we can come back to the channel crossing scene. If Katie starts at dark (at 4 am in the morning) she also finishes it at dark. She is exhausted, it is more and more difficult and her swimming is less and less energetic. But, she must not give up. To encourage her, André dive in the water after showing us his sexy body and go swim with her to encourage her and give her support, which I found kind of cute. Katie is honest and when she’s asked how she’s doing, she says she isn’t doing fine (I mean, who would be in these conditions) but she isn’t ready to give up, especially after being giving moral support by André. [spoiler] and her perseverance results in her winning the competition. When she arrives on the beach in England (the departure was in France), she has to walk a few steps to reach the finishing line. She is very tired, barely stands on her feet and André wants to help her. She refuses, as she has to accomplish that on her own. Go, girl! [end of spoiler].
Another aspect that sort of saved the film for me was the supporting cast, especially Denise Darcel, Jack Carson, and William Demarest. I had first seen Darcel in Vera Cruz (Robert Aldrich, 1954) but Dangerous When Wet shows her in a different light, which gives her the merit of being a versatile enough actress. Elegant like in Vera Cruz, she, however, has a more humorous part and she and Jack Carson provide the comic relief of the film. And well, Carson will be Carson. No matter what the film is, I will always like him. Darcel’s character initially seems a bit insignificant but her developement turns out to be interesting and she is a well-nuanced character. As for William Demarest who plays Katie’s father, he gave me the impression to be a true and sincere actor.
As said before, Dangerous When Wet doesn’t try to glamorize competition swimming but, nevertheless, it is a visually lovely film. The Technicolor cinematography by Harold Rosson (The Wizard of Oz, The Asphalt Jungle, I Love Melvin) provides bright and cheerful colours that make this film faithful of a one by Charles Walter. It’s rather agreeable for the eyes of the spectator. And to that, we could add good compliments to the always elegant costumes by Helen Rose (Father of the Bride, High Society, Mogambo). She often designed costumes for Walters’s films.
So, overall, would I recommend Dangerous When Wet? I wouldn’t necessarily urge you to see it (in my opinion there are many better films to see before) but I wouldn’t tell you not to see it either. It is good entertainment and provides interesting elements that make it worth watching as you now have discovered with my review.
Thanks a lot to Dubsism and Return to the 80s for hosting this blogathon!