POSTED June 6 2013

The Esther Williams Effect

Esther Williams, 1922-2013

Esther Williams, 1922-2013

Esther Williams was the star of Technicolor films with titles like Neptune’s Daughter and Jupiter’s Darling. And today, everyone in the pantheon and on dry land grieves the passing of the prize-winning swimmer and eternally-smiling movie mermaid whose chlorine musicals were MGM’s most reliable hits in the 1940s and 1950s. In a quote describing her credited variously to producer Joe Pasternak, MGM colleague Katharine Hepburn and vaudeville legend Fanny ¬†Brice, “Wet, she’s a star; dry, she is not.” (Given the rhythm of the words, I’ll bet you a swimming cap it was Brice.)

In 1940 Williams, who learned the butterfly from the men at the pool where she was towel girl, was a swimming star on track to sweep the Olympics. But then the games were called off due to World War II and Williams was discovered at the Aquacade at the San Francisco World’s Fair swimming with Olympian Johnny Weissmuller, star of MGM’s Tarzan movies. So MGM tapped her as the studio’s answer to 20th-Century Fox, who had Olympic skater Sonja Henie under contract.

While I thought she was fun in Take Me Out to the Ballgame¬†and compelling as the victim of sexual assault in The Unguarded Moment, I won’t make a case for Williams’ acting talents. I will say that she was spirited and that anyone who can emerge from the bottom of the pool with a smile and radiate contagious joy at being the centerpiece of one of Busby Berkeley’s coral-reef fantasias has my gratitude. She always made me smile. So, thanks Esther Williams.

Ginger Rogers told me that whatever I thought of Williams, she had a lasting effect on Hollywood. “All the women stars, me included, had pools dug and we all swam and we all got broad shoulders and didn’t need the shoulderpads anymore. Esther made athleticism look beautiful.”







  1. A really lovely tribute.

  2. Vincent says:

    Nice tribute. I’ve seen plenty of recollections of Esther this afternoon from people who knew her, and they salute her friendliness and humor. I’m sorry I never had the chance to meet her.

  3. wwolfe says:

    That quote from Ginger Rogers made me think of a great exhibit my wife and I saw at the Palm Springs art museum, focusing on the pools of Southern California. In addition to work by artists such as david Hockney, there were wonderful old home movies from the 1940s made by Hollywood stars, including Ginger, cavorting in and around their new pools. It was a treat to see, as was Esther.

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