Turner Classic Movies was quick to rearrange its schedule in order to do timely homage to Esther Williams, the movie-star swimmer who died on June 6. From 8:00 p.m. on June 13 through 8:00 p.m. on June 14 the cable channel devoted 24 hours to a Williams marathon. Since I went to the trouble of acknowledging Williams's demise on this blog, yet had never sat through an entire Esther Williams movie, I thought I should do so now. I chose the movie that made her a star, George Sidney's Bathing Beauty. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer recognized what they had in Williams and retitled their Red Skelton vehicle Mr. Co-Ed to spotlight the newer star. It remains a Skelton vehicle, though -- and that's the problem. I should add that the problem isn't necessarily Skelton himself, but the fact that, as a musical-comedy leading man, he's probably a toned-down Skelton compared to his just-plain comedy movies. He plays a songwriter in love with the Williams character, a student at a women's college. Nightclub impresario Basil Rathbone trembles at the thought of Skelton retiring once he marries Williams, so he contrives a situation to prevent the wedding -- a woman shows up at the church claiming her three redheaded boys are Skelton's. This works. Williams flees back to college and Skelton follows her, only to be barred at the gate because faculty members are the only men allowed on campus. Fortunately, Mr. Co-Ed was not a drag comedy, for the most part. Instead, Red encounters the college's legal counsel (Donald Meek, who gets a single scene), who relates that he's redrafting the school charter to make it women-only, but that for the moment it's actual co-educational. Such was the higher education system in that simpler time that Red is able to apply for admission and, despite some qualms, be admitted on the spot. Now he must remain in good academic standing, avoiding demerits that the administration is eager to impose, in order to regain Williams's love. Taking classes with the girls creates opportunities for allegedly comic setpieces for Skelton. He gets to do an extended pantomime impersonating a woman making herself up in the morning. In ballet class, he finally must don drag because the class uniform, apparently, is a tutu. All of this is dull stuff. Buster Keaton worked on the picture as an uncredited gag-man, but he couldn't do much to keep the ballet scene interesting. It comes down to Red and the girls struggling with a sticky candy wrapper while keeping time to the music. Har har de har har.
This leaves us depending on Williams for our entertainment by default, but she only really stars at the beginning and the end of the picture. She's introduced in a poolside sequence designed to show off her swim skills, and closes the show with the big aquatic ballet you can watch back at my Williams obituary. Contrary to the impression I may have given then, the big Bathing Beauty number was directed not by Busby Berkeley (who would get to Williams later) but by John Murray Anderson, a peer/rival of Berkeley known for his innovative staging of musical numbers on Broadway. Anderson had tried to make his big splash in movies back in 1930 with the Paul Whiteman showcase King of Jazz, but had not worked in Hollywood since then until Bathing Beauty. There are Berkeleyesque touches in his big number, especially when Williams swims through human hoops of shapely flesh, and the costuming of Williams's dry-land attendants strikes a slightly decadent note, but overall the big finish is relatively uninspired to the apocalypses Berkeley and others would stage later, though definitely eye-opening as a first outing for the title character. Otherwise, neither Sidney nor Anderson do much interesting visually, except for the big band numbers featuring the Harry James and Xavier Cugat units. Directors knew they had to work to make these bits interesting, and the band numbers at least feature creative camera movement, lighting, etc. They don't help the story any, of course. Leave Williams out of the picture, or leave her out of the water, and Mr. Co-Ed would have been a lesser Skelton movie if not a just plain dumb comedy. With her in it, M-G-M learned that people would sit through plenty of dumb comedy for glimpses of girls in swimsuits. Thus movie history was made.