Thursday, February 29, 2024

Water Watch: Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)

Watched:  02/28/2024
Format:  TCM
Viewing:  First
Director:  Mervyn LeRoy (with some Busby Berkely)
Selection:  Me

I've not seen many Esther Williams movies, but Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) often gets mentioned, so I thought we'd give it a spin since it played on TCM recently.  I was curious about what an Esther Williams movie might entail - can't be all swimming - so this seemed like a safe bet.

The thing I did not know was that Million Dollar Mermaid was (very, very loosely) based upon real life personality, Annette Kellermann, an Australian swimmer and entertainer.  I won't get too much into who Kellermann was, because I had never heard of her prior to watching the movie, so I'm no expert.  

A major clue at the end of the movie suggested that maybe this movie was mostly nonsense and not to be taken at all seriously as a biopic, and it's probably best to just think of this as a fantasy/ fictional account of Kellermann's life.

The movie opens on the Kellermann Music Conservatory where a young Annette cannot play or dance like the other kids because she's in braces after a bout with polio.  However, she has been sneaking off to swim, and has regained strength in her legs - almost enough to walk.  By the time she's a teenager, she's a sensation in Australia, winning swimming contests.  

Around 1905, the Kellermanns are forced to move to England.  On the boat she meets Jimmy Sullivan - played by Signal Watch fave Victor Mature - a sort of carny and promoter, hustling a kangaroo as a boxer (alongside pal "Doc", played by Hollywood character actor Jesse White).  Sullivan has Annette swim the Thames (which, gross, man) and she blows up in the news.  From there they try New York and the famed Hippodrome, but that doesn't work out.  Looking to recreate the stir of London, Jimmy is going to have Annette swim 20 miles, but her form-fitting swim attire almost starts a riot for "indecent exposure".  

The fame wins her attention enough to start a sort of sideshow where she demonstrates dives and swimming, totally novel at the turn of century, especially for women.

This is as good a time as any to point out - no movie has ever done more to avoid the elephant in the room - and the pachyderm who goes unmentioned is that the swimming was probably only a minor part of the attraction.  Kellermann was billed as "the World's Most Perfect Woman", and they didn't mean her SAT scores. Folks were paying to see the "perfection" in a form fitting suit.  Which is also one of the unspoken bits about watching an Esther Williams movie, and time is a flat circle.

Eventually Annette and Jimmy split, for what I'd argue are absolutely very good reasons that include gaslighting on multiple levels, and basically not including Annette in plans for her own fate.  Like, red flags ahoy, girl.  

The best bits of the film are really the Berkeley musical numbers that then take place in the Hippodrome.    If you want your ridiculous, "how did they do this?" Berkeley sequences, this is it, and it's pretty fantastic.  And has also been referenced heavily elsewhere, from The Great Muppet Caper to Hail, Caesar.  These sequences are gorgeous, mind-blowing bits that are the kind of thing people used to mean when they talked about the magic of the movies.  

Speaking of movies, Kellermann and Jimmy make their separate ways to Hollywood, with Kellermann starring in some water stunts in silents.  But I also suspect some of what we see in this was what informed the first 1/3rd of Babylon.  

I'd also argue - we don't often discuss dialog, but it occurred to me how sometimes it's not just about quippy, quotable bits.  Sometimes there's just some really lovely ways of putting things, and there was a nice bit as Annette has her ring returned to her at the end of the film that feels like a slam dunk.  Sometimes those old school Hollywood writers could really turn a phrase.

Anyway - the movie basically ends abruptly.  It seems they planned to make two of these and then didn't for reasons I can't figure as the first did make money.  But they end it suggesting the lead may never walk again, and she very famously did return to the screen and stage, which maybe people in 1952 knew perfectly well, but here in the dark future of 2024, I had no idea.  

They could and should have made another one - Esther Williams was around for decades after this film.  And Victor Mature wasn't *that* busy he couldn't fit another into his schedule.  

By the way, the item at the end that tipped me to "oh, wait, maybe this whole movie is bullshit" (and it kind of is) was Mature's character stumbling into owning Rin-Tin-Tin, who was literally one of the biggest stars of the silent era.  So when I saw a pale little German Shephard, my eyebrows raised.  Anyway, no, Rin-Tin-Tin had nothing to do with Annette Kellermann.  It was just kind of a goof for the film.  One of dozens in the movie.  

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