Remembering Esther Williams

by HFPA June 7, 2013
Esther Williams, with husband Ben Gage, at the Golden Globes banquet, 1956
Esther Williams, with husband Ben Gage, at the Golden Globes banquet, 1956

by Philip Berk

It's hard to believe that Esther Williams is gone. She was such a force of nature!

During the 40’s, she was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars; all her films from 1945 through 1950 were box office hits. Even as late as 1950 she was  one of Hollywood’s Top Ten  Moneymakers. But once out of water she made a series of indifferent movies (at Universal) and then quietly retired to private life.

When That’s Entertainment rekindled interest in the MGM musical, it was her spectacular swim scenes (choreographed by Busby Berkeley) that surprised and delighted everyone. But she was  nowhere to be found.

Instead of joining Fred Astaire and others in promoting the movie, she sued the studio for misappropriation of her work.

With the release, 20 years later, of That’s Entertainment Part III, imagine our surprise that not only was she narrating one segment of the movie but she’s out  there promoting it.

How come? I ask her.

“They paid me,” she answered.

“On the first one, when (the producer) Jack Haley Jr. called me, it was a scandal. They built the MGM Grand with the money that movie made. I don’t know what it is about actors. They love to have their picture taken!

“I said to Jack, ‘I’d like to do it’ -- they wanted me to narrate a section -- ‘Who else is doing it?’ and he said, ‘Crosby, Astaire, Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart.’  And I said, ‘What are you paying them?’ and he said, ‘We’re not paying the actors,’ and I said, ‘Jack, are you getting paid?’ ‘Of course I’m getting paid,’ he said, and I said, ‘Why is that a given?’

“After I saw it, and it was wonderful what they had done, I asked  a lawyer, ‘Can they do this? Can they take our work and use it?’ and he said, ‘Did you ever read the stock contract? Do you know what you signed?’ And of course I said No. But he added, ‘If ever you want to pursue it, you have a class action suit  because all the studios had the same contract, so it was anti trust. You’ve got a hell of a law suit.’

“And then he asked me, ‘Who was president of the Actors Guild at the time, and I said Ronald Reagan.  ‘Well he sold you out because what he did -- the Screen Actors Guild -- was write the contract and sell everyone of you down the river.’ Everything we did, not just in the future but for as long as the product lives, belongs to the studio.

“And he said, ‘Would you take this on?’ and I told him, ‘Unfortunately, there is no way you can get enough actors in this town to join us because they’re all hoping that somebody will offer them a job again. They don’t want to make anybody mad."

Was she always that outspoken, even when she was MGM’s Bathing Beauty?

“They called  me big mouth. But when you spend so much time underwater, you learn to be succinct. Joe Pasternak was a producer on the lot who loved turning his actresses into the girl next door. Time Magazine had written that ‘Van Johnson and Esther Williams in Bathing Beauty,’ --  that was my first starring role -- ‘were like a dollop of toothpaste on a strawberry sundae,’ which kinda made my stomach turn.

“So the day after the preview of my next movie Thrill of a Romance, when Joe asked me how I liked the movie, I said, ‘How’s your stomach?’ and he said to me, ‘That mouth of yours is going to get you into trouble.’ ‘Yeah Joe,’ I answered,’ but I’m not going to get an ulcer, and you’ve got one.”

Did it get her into trouble?

“No, but it was room-clearing sometimes. But when I was in kindergarten and I’d come home with a bloody nose, my mother would say, ‘Well, Esther, I wonder what it is about  you that makes people want to hit you.’

“The problem with being a moviestar is that you peak too young. Just about the time you’ve learnt how to do it, it’s over. I said that to my mother one day, and she said, ‘You don’t have to worry about that. You have consciousness of supply. Nobody can take away what’s yours. They can take away your money, which is what my second husband did, they can take away your possessions. But they can’t take away you.

“Don’t think I didn’t think of that when I was married to Fernando Lamas for 22 years. He said to me one day, ‘Could you stop being Esther Williams?’ and I said ‘Could you stop fooling around?’ And he said. ‘I don’t know.’ But then he thought about it and said, ‘Yeh I’m getting tired anyway.”

What made her leave City College in New York, where she was a national swimming champion, and join the Billy Rose Aquacade?

“I think it’s called money”

What does she remember most about Billy Rose?

“He was short. I don’t know where all these short men came from. Now they're all on the screen. Dustin Hoffman, Redford, Tom Cruise, I even heard Newman is short.”

Who was it who thought up the swimsuit movie?

“I’ve thought about it. It  really was a daring thing to do, what a chancy thing. But when you’re making 60 to 70  movies a year, which MGM was making at the time, and somebody has a light bulb go off in his head, who’s going to take credit for it? It could have been only one, but the audience was so adoring, it lasted ten years!”

Some of her other comments were quite outrageous:

“The downside for MGM was when Dore Schary hit the place and ruined it.” (Schary preferred making message movies.)

“The Japanese killed off more kids with those Hondas than they did in World War II.” (her teenage son was almost a victim.)

“Lana (Turner) always had a bit of a tart in her, and Cass Timberlane (in the Sinclair Lewis novel) was so fair and square and strong and all of that, a little like me. But when I asked to play that role -- they really knew how to break your heart -- they would look at me,  pull from a drawer the grosses from my last movies, and say, ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’”

“There were 27 stars of the future at MGM -- Van Johnson, June Allyson, Kathryn Grayson among them -- but the ones that didn’t make it were the ones who were sleeping with somebody on the 3rd floor. I’ve talked to all of them, and none of them slept with those guys.”

Esther was the last of that breed.

What a shame she never won a Golden Globe for her performances! (She received two honorary Globes, the Henrietta Award 1952 as a World Favorite, and in 1956 as a Hollywood Citizen.)

Fondly remembered.