Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5
USA, 1944. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Story by Kenneth Earl, M.M. Musselman, Curtis Kenyon, Screenplay by Dorothy Kingsley, Allen Boretz, Frank Waldman, adaptation by Joseph Schrank. Cinematography by Harry Stradling Sr.. Produced by Jack Cummings. Music by Daniele Amfitheatrof, Johnny Green. Production Design by Cedric Gibbons, Stephen Goosson, Merrill Pye. Costume Design by Irene, Irene Sharaff. Film Editing by Blanche Sewell.
Upon its release, this musical comedy was MGM’s third-highest grossing film of all time (behind Gone With The Wind and the original Ben Hur), namely for its inclusion of popular elements that have not withstood the test of time. Red Skelton, one of the most popular funny men of his day whose talent did not age well, plays a songwriter who is trying to outrun a Broadway producer (Basil Rathbone) to whom he owes an overdue score. When Skelton meets bathing beauty Esther Williams at a California pool, they fall madly in love and rush to the altar, but Rathbone gets a woman to pretend to be his abandoned wife and accuse Skelton of bigamy. Williams flees back east to a women’s college where she teaches physical education and Skelton follows her there, taking advantage of a loophole in the school’s charter to enrol as the only male student and try to woo his lady love back.
The plot makes plenty allowance for Skelton to overextend his hijinks, including putting on a tutu and participating in ballet classes, and he gets the lion’s share of attention while Williams’ strengths in the pool are only indulged in twice. A short piece at the beginning shows the Technicolour off and makes sure we understand that this is an Esther Williams movie being hijacked by a low-rent comedian, and we don’t get her wet again until the ridiculous closing number, which requires a suspension of disbelief that you’re only willing to go for because it’s actually what you paid to see.
The film’s appeal at the time is not at all difficult to understand, particularly as the only thing it gives more attention to than the romance at the centre of its plot is a string of hit parade musical numbers featuring the likes of Xavier Cugat, Harry James and the now corny electric organ stylings of Ethel Smith, illogically long performances of music that make for easy, escapist viewing for an audience worn down by the sorrows of war. Today, however, even when compared to other Williams films that were barely excuses to feature her specialty talent, the project makes no impression at all.