Thursday, June 6, 2013

Esther Williams: they don't make 'em like that anymore

When Code Enforcement took some of the erotic edge off Busby Berkeley's mass spectacles in Warner Bros. musicals, he eventually took to the water. Swimsuits allowed him to show off more flesh again, while swimming gave his spectacles a pose of healthy American athleticism. While Ruby Keeler was his muse on land, Esther Williams was his Venus rising from the waves. Like Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe, Williams was a champion swimmer; unlike them, she was denied a chance at Olympic glory by a world war. Instead, she followed the men's trail to Hollywood, but not as a jungle girl. Weissmuller himself had starred in an Aquacade show at the 1939 New York World's Fair; this seems to have been a model for the Technicolor spectacles Berkeley and others contrived for Williams, who had performed in the Aquacade, at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. There had been nothing like her before and there almost certainly will never be anything like her again. Hers may have been the era of Code Enforcement, but her movies -- the big numbers at least; I won't comment on the films in their entirety -- have a redeeming strangeness on top of their obvious virtues. Williams died today at age 91, not long after her contemporary Deanna Durbin, as their era recedes further into history, beyond the memories of those who saw her on the big screen. In theory there could be another Deanna Durbin, though such a person would certainly sound much different -- but there won't be another Esther Williams. Yet because she and her films were so irreproducibly unique, Williams will probably stand the test of time better than Durbin. She isn't easy to forget once you've seen her stuff.

To prove my point, here's a clip from her first star vehicle, Bathing Beauty, uploaded by vsbonvenutocine.

How about a little more: This bit was uploaded by Jeroen de Korte.

This is cinema as pure spectacle. Commercial, yes, but maybe art of a kind, too. 

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