Watch out! Esther Williams is... Dangerous When Wet (1953)

I'm loving this rush of blogathons I've been able to be a part of! This post will be my contribution to the fun Beach Party Blogathon, and please check out the many other awesome posts! Many of the films are quite new to me, and I'm sure it'll be very enlightening.

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From the minute I laid eyes on Dangerous When Wet, I knew it was my favorite Esther Williams flick. It's funny and romantic, with great songs, out-of-this-world chemistry between the leads, and lots of heart. I've made no bones about my love for the marvelous Ms. Williams, but I've yet to write about one of her films. It's certainly time to remedy that, don't you think?

It's a bright, beautiful morning at the Higgins' dairy farm. Giving us what may be the most optimistic opening to a film ever, the cute family leaves the house one by one on their way to their daily exercise routine. They're all singing "I Got Out of Bed on the Right Side," they're wearing their workout clothes, they do stretches in synch--they even swim in synch! All except oldest daughter Katy. She would rather look amazing in her short shorts and baseball cap while reading a book (I already love her!). When it comes time to jump in the water, she dips her toe in and goes back to reading, which is a great way to disorient the audience. Esther Williams is going to read about farming instead of swim?!


This upsets Pop (William Demarest) too, and he tells Katy to do her laps before breakfast. She begrudgingly obliges, and in she goes, baseball cap and all, doing a simple but wonderful underwater swim. Until she suddenly hears some advertisement jingle that breaks her out of her peaceful routine. Puzzled, she goes to the road and discovers Windy Webbe (Jack Carson at his con-artist best), a salesman for the health drink Liquapep. His van, full of samples and blaring the Liquapep song from a loudspeaker, was halted by a herd of slow-moving cows. Irritated, Katy steps in: "Why don't you ask them to move like a gentleman?" She clears the road and Windy is stunned to find such a beauty suddenly appear. He tries to flirt, but Katy is not having it, especially when Windy invites her to the Liquapep demonstration he's giving in town that day. Rolling her eyes, she brushes him off and goes home.

At breakfast, Katy tries to convince her father that they need to seriously update their farm's equipment and get their hands on a prize bull to increase profits. The Higgins are simple, down-to-earth people, and as Pop reasons, they have a nice home with a good roof over their heads and food to eat--why bother? Katy is frustrated, even more so when middle sister Suzie (Barbara Whiting) finds Windy's Liquapep demo flyer and the whole family gets excited. Remember, they're kind of health freaks. At the demo, Windy tries to work his magic, but Pop's not impressed. As part of his schtick, Windy holds a talent contest of sorts, offering a big supply of Liquapep as the prize. Suzie is grabbed by some guys and they happily go onstage and do the cute number "I Like Men," which you can watch here. Katy sweetly and proudly tells Windy that that's her sister singing, which immediately sends off an alarm in his head. He declares Suzie the winner and tells the Higgins he'll bring her prize by later tonight. Katy is on to him, though. When Suzie tells him they'll leave the porch light on, Katy exclaims "We will not! It attracts bugs!" Ouch.

Bored to death by his weak advances, Katy tries to avoid Windy for the next few days, even going so far as to do extra laps so she can stay in the water until Windy gives up and leaves. When Ma (Charlotte Greenwood) informs Windy that Katy is the best swimmer out of all of them, even winning a 14-mile race recently, you can practically see the light bulb going off above the salesman's head. He immediately uses the Higgins' phone to call his boss and pitch the idea of Katy swimming the English Channel under the sponsorship of Liquapep. She's appalled by the idea, but Pop is ecstatic! Why, the whole family could do it! The whole family?! Windy jumps on the thought, telling his boss that the publicity would be incredible for Liquapep. Katy very reluctantly agrees to it once Pop reminds her that they could afford the changes to the farm she wanted if they won. It's off to Europe they go! (With plenty of photo shoots, interviews, and training on the way there, of course.)

The crew arrives in England and just as they begin to get excited for the race, they become a little hesitant--and maybe a little afraid--to learn that once the current is taken into account, the race is 30 miles long, 10 miles more than they were expecting. Being the stubborn, go-get-'em family they are, though, they start out the next morning to train in the Channel. Their singing of "I Got Out of Bed" turns into yelps once they hit the icy waters, with everyone running out of the Channel except for Katy, and soon we see that Katy may be the only one really cut out for this. From this point on, the audience never sees the rest of the family training in or out of water.

During one of her training sessions, Windy rows a boat alongside Katy as she forges on. Windy makes her stop so she can push his boat forward to give him a slight edge before they continue. Unfortunately, this push sends Windy into the dense fog that's gathered on the Channel, separating the swimmer and her coach. She calls his name and suddenly
 a hand reaches out and pulls her on to a small rowboat. Katy thinks it's Windy, until she gets a better look and sees the dashing Andre Lanet (Fernando Lamas) clad in a crisp, white tuxedo jacket and impeccably groomed. She's even more confused when he tells her he lives "here." He's equally perplexed at this girl swimming far out into the ocean at
an early hour, wearing weird goggles and shouting "Windy!" Andre rows them to his yacht, the "here" he was referring to. He goes below to change clothes and skeptically look at this stranger he picked up, but he quickly changes his tune (literally) when Katy takes off her goggles and swim cap, revealing the gorgeous Esther Williams. Andre brings her coffee and a suggestively lacy and transparent robe to wear over her bathing suit ("It's my mother's!" he claims in response to her dubious look). They chat, Katy explaining she's a Channel swimmer and Andre revealing that he's a champagne salesman. He had just left a party where he was making sales, hence the tux.

Andre is less than thrilled when Windy's shouts for Katy interrupt them. In an encounter parallel to Katy and Andre's, Windy had thought he had found Katy when he really happened upon the Channel's French competitor, Gigi. She clearly has a thing for Windy, but the guy would rather keep his eye on the race. The fog is still intense, so Katy and Windy continue to shout at each other to figure out where the other is at. I love when Windy asks where she is and she responds uncouthly, "On a yacht! With a Frenchman!" Andre practically spits out his coffee and Windy panics. "With a Frenchman?!" The two men immediately start competing for Katy's attention as Andre invites her to dinner to "show her the layout and tricks of the Channel" and Katy brings Windy along. He is her coach, after all. Andre ditches Windy, though, by driving a two-seater and sending him in a cab to the wrong restaurant. Katy sees through it, but she's willing to play along. She even admits she's flattered, and Andre gives her a gift. She opens it to find a skimpy bikini that looks like it would barely cover her and she embarrasses Andre as she chides him. French girls wear them all the time, he reasons! The waitress makes things worse when she says her sister wore one to Brighton, only to be arrested, proving Katy's point.

Andre drops Katy off at her hotel. In her room, she looks curiously at the bikini and can't resist trying it on. First, she has to pull down a curtain so the audience won't see! Downstairs at the bar, Andre calls her room to ask how the bikini fits, knowing curiosity would get the best of her. She's furious, which just makes it even funnier for him. Gotta
love these two. They laugh about it the next day, and Andre invites Windy and Katy on his yacht to study the tides and currents for real this time. Windy gets very seasick, though, prompting him to go below and leave the Frenchman alone with Katy. Bad choice, man. Andre launches into "In My Wildest Dreams" and struggles to snuggle with Katy. I love watching Esther get flustered and try to act blase while Lamas drapes himself all over her. Pretty soon, Katy isn't putting up much of a fight. Can you blame her? Back on land, Katy sets some ground rules. This Channel race means a lot to her, and being with him distracts her from her training and her concentration. It's not exactly a break-up, but she does want to stop seeing him until after the race. Andre acts like he gets it, yet he shows up in France when the Higgins go there to start the race in a few days.

The night before the competition, rain postpones the start date, but all the contestants still gather to pick which order they'll start. When it's Pop's turn to draw a number, an official tells him he's not allowed to. Startled, Windy takes the family aside and breaks the bad news: everyone but Katy was disqualified. Pop is indignant: "Haven't they watched me train?" Windy sadly replies, "Yeah, that's when they disqualified you." The officials don't want to take a chance on the older Ma and Pa and the fairly young Junior (I'm not totally sure why they would disqualify Suzie, except that it increases the drama with only Katy competing). In one of my favorite moments of the film, Katy talks to Pa to understand why he's so upset--after all, the rest of the family is actually relieved. Pa reveals that before they left their farm, he put in motion all sorts of repairs and bought new equipment, all on credit. He was so sure one of them would win; he even bought a prize bull! Katy is astounded and very worried, knowing that if they can't pay, they'll lose the whole farm. William Demarest is so endearing in this scene, explaining that he "just wanted things to be nice when we got back." Katy hugs him and tries to remain hopeful that she'll win and everything will be fine.

Later that night, Junior sits in Katy's room as she gets ready for bed and reads aloud from her Tom and Jerry book. Katy tells her to go to bed and quickly falls asleep, where she then dreams that she's entered Tom and Jerry's world. It's a magnificent sequence, if I do say so myself. It's funny, gorgeous to look at, and technically incredible. Like
Gene Kelly did in 1945 for Anchors Aweigh and again in 1952 for Invitation to the Dance, Williams had to act by herself, except she did it all underwater. There were cleats attached to the pool's floor so she could anchor herself while sitting at the octopus's table, and she knew how to move and interact with the characters
by looking at a storyboard held up against the pool's windows while she was under. Esther had fun doing it, although it was certainly difficult. Preview audiences were actually dubious whether Esther really filmed underwater or not because they couldn't see bubbles surrounding her, so the animators went back and added pink bubbles, costing the studio $50,000. Esther couldn't believe it--she could have done the bubbles herself! The dream is supposed to represent Katy's torn feelings over being with Andre and winning the race. Tom and Jerry are surrogates for Windy as they try to steer her away from the octopus that symbolizes Andre/Lamas (a fitting choice, Williams thought) and just generally playing around. A cute family of seahorses swim by with a "Dover or bust" sign as they sing "I Got Out of Bed," reminding Katy why the race is so important. The dream ends with the octopus pulling Katy from one side and Tom and Jerry from the other. Katy wakes up to find Junior pulling her feet in an attempt to get her up. You can watch it all here, lucky ducks.

Sick and tired of training, Ma encourages Katy to take the day off and go on a picnic. Naturally, she calls up Andre and they have a lovely time. Katy remarks that the house behind them is beautiful, leading Andre to reveal he lives there. She doesn't believe him, so they go to the back terrace to meet Andre's mother. The butler informs them that Mama stepped out for the moment, which contributes to Katy's disbelief that there is a Mama. They sit to have cocktails while they wait for Mama's return, Katy drinking Liquapep to make a point to Andre. However, the alcohol content is much stronger than she was expecting, leaving her very drunk by the time evening comes around. ("How'd it get so dark?" "The sun went down." "Oh. Who drank all my vitamins?") Andre suggests a swim to sober Katy up a little, since she keeps refusing to let him take her home. The butler brings her a black, lacy, rhinestone-studded bathing suit, a callback to "Mama's" robe from earlier. Watch the fun here.

The two head to the dressing rooms and begin my favorite routine from Dangerous When Wet, "Ain't Nature Grand?" Katy and Andre change into their suits as they sing, and then we cut to back at the hotel where Suzie sings to many admirers, Gigi tries to corner Windy, and Ma and Pa sing that they're younger than ever. Charlotte Greenwood does some impressive kicks and splits, and William Demarest does a little soft-shoe; they're adorable. The number is cut short when a race official announces that the weather and visibility is perfect, allowing the competition to begin at 4 a.m. the next morning, which is only hours away. Windy rushes to find Katy, who's having a marvelous time swimming with Andre, a scene that is so much fun to watch. Windy gives Katy the news, causing her to panic. As if she wasn't feeling pressured enough.

A few hours later, the race is underway. Being the sweetheart he is, Andre lets Katy's family sail on his yacht with him as he follows the race. As the hours go by, swimmers start dropping out, including Gigi. Katy is exhausted, but she cheers up some when Andre joins Windy and Pa on the rowboat to be alongside her. Things get tense as the race nears its end. Katy is ahead, but she's very ready to quit. Andre thinks
she should be taken out. But then she looks at dear Pa's crestfallen face. She knows she can't quit--how could she let down Pa and the family? In a sweet moment, a radio reporter who has been giving a play-by-play on the race says that it looks like Katy's body will give out before she can finish, prompting a worried Ma to go "She ought to stop. She ought to stop!" The Higgins love each other so darn much! Katy continues, getting closer and closer. Seeing that she's ready to give up, Andre jumps in the water and coaches her. "We swim together good, don't we?" he says. They swim side by side, reaching the shore. Unable to help her walk (touching her would result in disqualification), Andre yells and encourages Katy to stand up and walk. She finally does, finishing the race in first place and collapsing in Andre's arms. It's a dramatic sequence for sure, but damn, it's effective. The film ends with the family all packed up and ready to leave their hotel to go back home. They're singing "I Got Out of Bed" again as they march to Katy's room, only to be stunned that Andre answers the door. Katy's hand appears on his shoulder and Andre points to her wedding ring, letting them know that nothing scandalous was happening. The Higgins, plus Andre, march out of the hotel as they sing, and they're joined by Windy and his new Liquapep swimmer, Gigi. Such a fun way to end a fun movie.
 


During filming, Williams and Lamas were equally aware of a growing attraction between them, but Williams was trying to work on her marriage to Ben Gage, although Lamas was certainly willing to give an affair a try. He was living up to his image as a Latin lothario, having affairs with the likes of Lana Turner and others. Esther knew he still wanted to fool around, and for her, that just wasn't going to cut it. Their romance wouldn't really kick in until years later after Esther left MGM and basically moviemaking altogether. She was working on a televised special from Cypress Gardens in Florida and needed a partner when she remembered how well she worked with Lamas. They reconnected, Lamas divorced his wife Arlene Dahl, and the two were married from 1969 until his death in 1982. If you'd like to know more about their relationship, or just Esther in general, I highly recommend Esther's autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid. You just cannot be disappointed by it.

Dangerous When Wet was directed by the ever-reliable Charles Walters, a director I hope to learn much more about now that there's a book out about him. I've always liked the projects he's picked, whether it's Lili, Summer Stock, or High Society, and he never seems to disappoint me. To make it even better, he had a wonderful friendship with Esther. I mean, he called her a "dear dame"--how cute is that? Dangerous When Wet was important for Esther because before then, her directors never took her seriously; they figured that her only talent was swimming, an assumption that drove her crazy because she was anxious to learn how to improve her acting and singing so swimming wouldn't be her only talent. Chuck gave her that chance. He worked with her to try and help her be the best she could be, and she was grateful. They worked together again immediately on 1953's Easy to Love, a film that I think is just as good as Dangerous. They had also done Texas Carnival in 1951, but that material isn't as strong as their other two works'.

Another way Esther tried to improve the film was by picking the right leading man. Up until this point, she felt pretty underwhelmed by what the studio gave her, which isn't to say that she didn't love Ricardo Montalban or Van Johnson--they just weren't what her fellow MGM leading ladies were getting, such as Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable. While I think an actor of their high caliber would've been fascinating paired with Esther, her leading men kind of allowed the spotlight to really be on her and her character. The studio wasn't trying to build up the guy's part to equal or overshadow Esther's, which probably would have happened had she gotten Cary or Clark. Fernando Lamas seemed to have caught on to this because he didn't want to play second fiddle to the actress, admitting that he wouldn't get as much attention from the audience. She was anxious to get Lamas to sign on, so she had his part maximized and he finally conceded. Noticeably, though, Lamas doesn't get a scene all to himself--he may get 30 seconds in before Esther pops up again. I imagine if a bigger name had been given Andre, he would've gotten some of his own business to do in addition to scenes with Esther. (Think of Red Skelton in Bathing Beauty, the film that made Williams a legitimate star.) It also helps Lamas and Williams' chemistry that he was able to actually swim, almost as beautifully as her. Lamas was a champion swimmer in Argentina, much like Esther was before MGM stepped in. It definitely shows in their swimming routine together--they're able to play around and flirtatiously compete, whereas with Van Johnson, Howard Keel, and others, Esther had to sneakily hold the guys up underwater so they could pretend like they were keeping up with the million dollar mermaid.


Esther breaking the fourth wall before she puts on her bikini.



Jerry, the taskmaster.

The cat and mouse tell Gigi's fish incarnation the wrong way to Dover.




Andre playfully grabs Katy after she thinks she's outsmarted him.


I know my pictures aren't the best (blame my TV for that), but this film is just beautiful to look at. All of Esther's films are--she looked stunning in Technicolor, and MGM definitely took advantage of that. With a great score by Johnny Mercer and Arthur Schwartz, perfect direction by Walters, great support from secondary characters, and marvelous performances by Williams and Lamas, you just can't go wrong with Dangerous When Wet. If you don't like it, maybe you got out of bed on the wrong side.

With love,
Michaela

Comments

  1. Great post, lots of nice background too! wouldn't be a proper summer blogathon without Esther, thanks for including her and thanks for being part of the event.

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    1. Thanks for having me! When I saw no one picked an Esther flick, I knew I had to fix that. Everybody needs a little Esther Williams in their life!
      Thanks for the kind words!

      Delete
  2. I agree with Kristina – a Beach Party Blogathon would not be complete without Esther Williams!

    This looks like a very charming film...I can't believe I haven't seen it. And thanks for the tip re: her autobiography. I'll try to find it in the library.

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    Replies
    1. You'd enjoy them both! Her book is one of my favorites. She had a fascinating life, and she kind of lifts the curtain on what being in Hollywood at that time was like. Very insightful, and a little gossipy.

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  3. I must admit, I have never seen an Esther Williams film! But this one looks like a one I would like. I've always like Jack Carson and Charles Walters comedy are always so enjoyable! Thanks for your great post!

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    1. Thank you for stopping by! I haven't seen Stromboli either, but it's got Ingrid Bergman, so it must be good.
      It's my goal in life to expose people to Esther Williams. Her movies are fun and crazy, and she always played a smart, sassy, independent woman. If you ever get the chance, check out her book. It's invaluable for fans of Old Hollywood.

      Delete
  4. You gave such a great review with lots of information and background. Such an unusual storyline. It sounds like a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing your love of Esther Williams and the encouragement to see one of her movies!

    ReplyDelete
  5. You gave such a great review with lots of information and background. Such an unusual storyline. It sounds like a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing your love of Esther Williams and the encouragement to see one of her movies!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, thanks for reading! Writing this post was definitely a labor of love. Esther's movies are always interesting, especially in terms of the plotline. MGM had to stretch to find ways to get her in the water, and Dangerous When Wet probably provides one of the more legitimate reasons with the Channel race. It's certainly different from the rest of her filmography, where huge water ballet routines reign.
      Thanks again!

      Delete

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