In MGM's 1952 kitschsterpiece Million Dollar Mermaid, an impresario says, "Movies are growing bigger every day!" He was right -- the early '50s were the era of Cinemascope screens, Technicolor, 3-D, Smellovision, and all manner of desperate experiments designed to drown out television's siren song. Esther Williams, the only actress who ever built a movie career on swimming, deserves her own category in this regard. Blessed with an athletic frame, an unassailably chipper attitude, and a smile as fixed and imposing as a skyscraper, she became a cause célèbre for her combination of grace and guts as she leapt and glided her way through the vast pools, fire pits, and aquaria of the MGM sound stages. Her career was short -- a mere dozen films from 1942 to 1961 -- but Williams is as oversize and impressive in her own way as any of those '50s gimmicks. In Mermaid, she's especially brazen, regally rising from an obscenely spurting tower of spray, swan-diving through choking multicolored fogs, and slithering suggestively into a giant clamshell in the world's biggest fish tank.
Williams' cinematic aquacades have held a powerful place in the canon of camp since their release, not least because of the influence of her willing accomplice, legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley. Their few numbers together (two in Million Dollar Mermaid) created an unforgettable image of the larger-than-life, absurdly cheery postwar gal, a Rosie the Riveter with water wings. The film itself is an enjoyably lachrymose melodrama based on the life of Annette Kellerman, who survived childhood polio to become a world-renowned swimmer. And while the movie proper is a respectful biography, Berkeley undermines it by dolling up the apparently agreeable Williams (she called him a "genius") in aluminum tiaras and gold lamé bodysuits and foregrounding her to some of the decade's nuttiest mise en scène. On the flip side, Williams almost died during one of these routines thanks to a spell of vertigo (the alcoholic Berkeley ran off to drink his lunch while she nearly drowned). But the smile that apparently got her through such moments must have been real; her juicy autobiography, also called Million Dollar Mermaid (1999), reveals a woman who's surprisingly grounded and droll. If the book is any indication -- she giddily recounts Jeff Chandler's transvestism, Victor Mature's sexual prowess, Joan Crawford' s dementia, and her own experience with LSD, for chrissakes -- Williams' live appearance, presumably in a dress this time, promises to be one of the wilder evenings at this year's festival.
"A Tribute to Esther Williams" takes place Saturday, April 22, at 6:30 p.m. at the Castro. Admission is $10-12.
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