In honor of ‘Nyad’: A celebration of Hollywood’s first swimming star, Esther Williams

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It was five decades ago  long distance swimmer Diana Nyad became part of the cultural landscape with her feats  including a recording-setting circling of Manhattan and a  102-mile swim from the Bahamas to Florida she accomplished that in 27 hours. In 1978, Nyad made her first attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida but ended the quest after 40 hours. After segueing to a successful career as a sports journalist on ABC’s “Wild World of Sports” for over two decades, she decided at 60 to try again. She made three attempts felled by asthma, muscle fatigue, jellyfish and a tropical storm.

Nyad’s attempts at the swim were the subject of the 2013 documentary “The Other Shore.” When I talked to her for the L.A. Times a decade ago the then 64-year-old was preparing for her final attempt. “When I first started this in my 20s and when I started again when I turned 60, I had much more bravado to me. I have lost every ounce of that bravado. I wouldn’t say I’m scared; I am just teeming with respect at this daunting journey. I am at the end of my journey and the journey has been much deeper than a sport. It is about dreaming big.”

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The fifth time was the charm. In September, 2013, Nyad emerged from the ocean after having swum approximately 110 miles in 52 hours and 54 minutes. The swimmer’s obsession to succeed is the subject of the Netflix drama “Nyad,” starring Annette Bening as Diana and Jodie Foster as her trainer and BBF Bonnie Stoll. “Nyad” also marks the first narrative feature from Oscar-winning documentary filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“Free Solo”).

If Nyad had accomplished the swim during the Golden Age of Hollywood, she may have become a movie star. Before he became Tarzan in a series of successful adventure films in the 1930s and ‘40s, Johnny Weissmuller had won five Olympic gold medals and one bronze at the 1924 Paris games and the 1928 Amsterdam competition. Buster Crabbe, best known for his roles as “Flash Gordon” and “Buck Rogers,” won bronze in Amsterdam and gold at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932.

And then there was Esther Williams. She starred in a series of gorgeous, escapist fare MGM Technicolor musicals which featured some drop-dead surreal synchronized swimming numbers. She was tall, statuesque. Her few forays into drama didn’t work but she more than proved her comedic chops opposite the likes of Red Skelton and Lucille Ball and held her own opposite Van Johnson, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Ricardo Montalban.

Williams, who was born in Inglewood, California, was a top swimmer as a teenager. By the time she was 16, she had earned three national championships titles in freestyle and breaststroke. She even made the 1940 Olympic team, but the games were cancelled due to the outbreak of World War II. She became a part-time model; one of her photos attracted impresario Billy Rose who cast her with Weissmuller in his Aquacade show in San Francisco. She caught attention of an MGM scout who brought her to Hollywood. And she did her screen test opposite Clark Gable. Williams got to swim and was kissed by  Mickey Rooney in 1942’s “Andy Hardy’s Double Life” and appeared opposite Spencer Tracy and Johnson in 1943’s “A Guy Named Joe.”

Her next film was originally a Skelton comedy called “Mr. Coed,” but during the production the Technicolor film was transformed into “Bathing Beauty” and became a starring vehicle for Williams. The studio built her a swimming pool and a tank on Stage 30. The over-the-top finale is a Williams’ extravaganza swimming number replete with smoke, flames, fountains and other synchronized swimmers. Though the film became Williams-centric, Skelton had some wonderful moments including a sequence in which he wears a pink tutu to attend a female ballet class.

Williams told me in a 1998 L.A. Times interview that “Bathing Beauty” was “the second highest grosser to ‘Gone with the Wind’ for MGM. The reason was it was the first swimming movie in Technicolor.”.

My personal favorite is 1945’s “A Thrill of Romance,” which marked the second of five films Williams made with bobby-sox idol Johnson. In this outing, Williams plays a swimming instructor who arrives at a resort with her new husband for their honeymoon. The problem is no sooner than they check in  he’s called away on business. Also staying at the mountain resort is a solder (Johnson). They two end up swimming a bit, singing a bit and falling in love. The movie also features the film debut of Metropolitan Opera star Lauritz Melchior, who plays an opera singer on a diet encouraging the romance between Williams and Johnson.

Williams and Johnson teamed up the following year along with Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn in “Easy to Wed,” the enjoyable musical remake of the 1936 screwball comedy classic “Libeled Lady.”  This box office hit also marked the first time, Williams sang in a film. And the duck hunting sequence involving Johnson was written and directed by Buster Keaton and Edward Sedgwick. trivia states that Fidel Castro, sans beard, is an extra.

The year 1949 one a big one for Williams. She starred opposite Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munchin and Betty Garrett in the musical comedy “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” directed by Busby Berkeley. And then she joined forces with Montalban, Skelton, Garrett and Wynn in “Neptune’s Daughter,” which features Frank Loesser’s best song Oscar-winner “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” The duet has been the cause of criticism in the #MeTOO era because of such lyrics as

“I ought to say, “No, no, no sir”
Mind if I move in closer?
At least I’m gonna say that I tried
What’s the sense in hurting my pride?
I really can’t stay
Baby, don’t hold out
Baby, it’s cold outside”

Feature films were having major problems in the early 1950s because of the rise of television. And truth be told, Williams’ musicals just weren’t as good as they were in the 1940s. Her last best film was 1952’s “Million Dollar Mermaid” with Victor Mature in which she played turn-of-the-century swimming star Annette Kellerman who appeared in several silent movies including one called “Neptune’s Daughter” as well as starred in aquatic shows. Kellerman, who died in 1975, was also a technical advisor. The movie features one of Williams’ most famous swimming numbers “Fountains and Smoke” choreographed and directed by Berkeley. The film was one of the top hits for MGM that year and was nominated for an Oscar for best cinematography (Color).

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