Christmas is over and the new year is here. So, you know what that means: Summer is right around the corner. Well, practically. What better way to celebrate than by talking about Esther Williams?
Okay, so it took me twenty years to watch an Esther Williams film.
It took a girl who spent many hours of her childhood watching old musicals and classic romance films that long to watch one of those movies. How? Well, I don’t know. I just never really got around to watching her movies until just after she passed away in the summer of 2013.
I remember sitting down one night right in front of the TV (I think I had actually just discovered Seven Brides for Seven Brothers that night. I watched it for the first time on an old VHS given to me. Edgy.)
“America’s Mermaid” passed away on June 6th of that year. TCM (Turner Classic Movies) was running a marathon of her swimming films as tribute to her life and legacy. I remember learning of her death on that June day. I first heard about it through social media, where I follow a lot of other film fans and often find the news first. It was shocking, but I realized that I hadn’t seen any of her films before. I knew, however, that she was a unique talent. I just didn’t know how unique.
As I began to discover her films, I learned that both of my Grandmas were really familiar with her films. I guess that’s not surprising, as she was huge in the 1940s and ’50s. My Grandma Riggs was an especially big fan of Esther’s. She’s told me about the wonderful memories she has of going to the local movie theater to watch her musicals. I hope I’m lucky enough to watch at least one Esther Williams musical on the big screen someday. I can’t imagine how vibrant they must look full-scale.
The first Esther movie I watched was Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). I watched and I was entranced by everything Esther. She was this magical, beautiful mermaid…but in human form. No fins, no tail, but a mermaid in every other possible way.
Here’s one of her musical/synchronized swimming numbers from the film – choreographed by the one and only Busby Berkeley:
And can we talk about her film fashion for a moment? She wore the most beautiful bathing suits in her movies and her non-bathing attire was always gorgeous, too.
Although the plots in a typical Esther Williams movie are not filled with much complexity, their escapist plots -and, of course, the water ballets- are really what drew people in to to watch her. The idea of movies built around synchronized swimming may sound really cheesy to anyone not familiar with her films. But they were marvelous. MGM made each of her swimming numbers extravagant. (Side note: did MGM ever not do extravagant in the ’40s and ’50s?)
Oh, and how can I forget about the romantic plots/subplots? Esther Williams’s musicals were always filled with romance. She was often paired with dreamboats Van Johnson (check out Thrill of a Romance if you’re in the mood for a cute movie), Ricardo Montalbán (my personal pick is Neptune’s Daughter), and Howard Keel.
Esther was still active in her later years, despite suffering from a stroke in 2007. Among other achievements, a swimming pool company named itself after her, she created her own line of bathing suits (over at esther-williams.com, a number of bathing suits inspired by Esther are still being sold), and she appeared at the 1984 Olympics as a synchronized swimming commentator.
Today, many people remember her as one of the most effervescent stars of her time. The world really loved her.
“What good is sitting all alone in your room? Come, hear the music play…Life is a cabaret, old chum…”
Let’s take a trip back to 1931 Berlin. Liza Minnelli stars in Cabaret (1972) as Sally Bowles, an American chanteuse who dreams of fame but performs in a small-time (but lively) nightclub called the Kit Kat Klub. The film opens with a literal ‘welcome’ from the club’s Master of Ceremonies (portrayed by Joel Grey, known today for his notable work in Broadway shows like Anything Goes). In this opening, we get a general sense of the film’s tone. It’s unconventional, daring, and wonderfully bizarre. It also deals with the rise of the Nazi party and the Antisemitism that comes with it in both direct and indirect sequences throughout the film.
If anyone reading this write-up has not seen this movie entirely, be warned: There are some spoilers.
During the opening song “Willkommen”, we see an intertwined part of the narrative, which is something that also happens throughout the film. The Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey) is kind of the glue that holds the fabric of the film together. A pattern begins with the opening number. Each time one of the cabaret acts happens, a corresponding event is taking place in “the real world”.
During the song, we see cuts to “the real world” outside of the Kit Kat Klub. The film itself welcomes a young Englishman named Brian Roberts (Michael York) who has taken a train to live in Berlin while he finishes his work to earn a PhD. He is a student at Cambridge University and, seeing as he has little money to live on, he begins his stay in Berlin by offering English lessons to anyone who is interested.
Brian moves into an apartment building which Sally Bowles lives in. Just as he comes in to rent a room, he runs into Sally and the two become fast friends. She sort of shows him the ins-and-outs of their living quarters (and what “Divine Decadence” nail polish looks like).
He accompanies her to the Kit Kat Klub shortly after moving in and meets one of her closest friends and a native of Germany, Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper), who’s working tirelessly at becoming a gigolo. Brian soon begins giving English lessons to Fritz.
Sally is a free-spirited bohemian girl who is not shy about talking about her regular (and random) sexual encounters – although not much is explicitly said (on camera, at least). She and Brian give each other a nice balance. He’s reserved while she’s totally flamboyant and outgoing. But there’s a deep level of vulnerability hidden inside of her. Brian becomes successful with his English lessons and Sally continues to dream of fame and perform at the club, masking her self-esteem issues from the world.
The song “Maybe This Time”, which Sally sings at the club, really echoes her real-life situation. For anyone who has ever had trouble with confidence, the song hits hard. It’s wonderful.
“Everybody loves a winner, so nobody loved me”
As you can see in glimpses during the song, Sally and Brian develop romantic feelings for each other and become lovers. Let me note that Liza Minnelli and Michael York had great chemistry. And a second note: York’s voice. Holy golly. Anyway, Sally wants to make sure not to fall in love with the young scholar because she’s bound and determined to marry a rich man. Enter Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem), a rich and handsome playboy who entices Sally from the get-go. Oh, did I mention that’s he’s also a baron?
As Sally is getting her laundry done she meets Maximilian. After a little bit of flirting, Max offers Sally a ride in his limousine and after that, they begin seeing each other. Max begins to pamper Sally by doing things like buying her frivolous things, like a nice fur coat.
In the midst of this love triangle, another love story is brewing. Fritz, who I mentioned earlier, meets a wealthy young Jewish heiress named Natalia Landauer (Marisa Berenson) and at first falls for her fortune. It doesn’t take long for him to fall for her, regardless of her big bucks. This is the first time he’s fallen in love with someone
for non-gigolo reasons. He starts seeking advice from his friends. Once Natalia falls in love with Fritz, she seeks advice from Sally. Sally also -indirectly – advises Fritz to “pounce”. And boy, does he pounce, to the shock and – later -excitement of Natalia. Things become serious, although Natalia refuses multiple marriage proposals. Fritz concealed the fact that he was a Jew until he discovered that marriage between Natalia and him would not work because she believed that he was a Christian and she was a Jew. He decides that he has to step up and do the right thing. Although he’s a bit rough around the edges to begin with, I love seeing Fritz’s transformation into a man who no longer cares about money above everything else. I think their romantic subplot is really sweet.
Amidst the love triangle between Sally, Max, and Brian, things become even more complicated. Brian, at first hostile with Max, is eventually attracted to Max. So we get this strange mix of Sally, Brian, and Max all feeling feelings for each other. On top of this, Sally and Brian discover that Max isn’t just some hot bachelor; he’s married. He and his wife live completely separate lives, but do not seek divorce because of the strain that would put on their spending habits. Charming. An all-out argument between Sally and Brian ensues not long after an evening out with Max. It’s a quite revealing argument, where a bombshell of sorts is dropped. How does it all end? Well, if you haven’t seen the film, I urge you to see it for yourself.
Among the other accolades it received, Cabaret nabbed a total of eight Oscar wins, including Best Actress in a Leading Role for Liza Minnelli, Best Supporting Actor for Joel Grey, and Best Director for Bob Fosse. When it was released in 1972, the film received a positive welcome from its worldwide audience. The film had earned a total of $4.5 million by May 1973 in North America, and it earned another $3.5 in other countries. It received a profit of $2,452.000.
But let’s not just look at the numbers to determine the success and legacy of the film. Cabaret is quite a unique piece of art. When I watch an old musical (which happens often), it’s typically one of the colorful, romantic ones. Although there are fun and carefree moments in Cabaret, they are the exception to the otherwise dark and gritty scenes. When I first watched it on TCM, I didn’t really think that I would like it. How wrong I was.
At the beginning, the Master of Ceremonies invites – even pleads -people to, “Leave your troubles outside! Life is disappointing? Forget it! In here, life is beautiful, the girls are beautiful, even zee orchestra is beautiful.”
At the end, Sally sings the titular song “Cabaret” to the audience after a bittersweet event in her own life. The lyrics themselves beg the audience in the Kit Kat Klub to go out and enjoy life: “What good is sitting all alone in your room? Come, here the music play…” just as it says at the top of this post – a great life lesson. I love that Sally is nowhere near perfect and by the end of the movie she’s made choices that some people would majorly argue against. But you know what? She’s a human being. And, even with her shortcomings, she rocks so hard. And you have to give it to the girl: Despite it all, she makes some decisions that are totally selfless and by God, she goes out there on stage and gives it her all. I’d argue that she is one of the most interesting characters in film history.
Cabaret is available for purchase. You can find a copy of it on Amazon (at least on DVD) for around $10. It airs on TCM every so often, so if you get that channel, you can probably catch it in the near future.
Overall, I’d say George Cukor or Frank Capra. I think both of them did an excellent job directing many fantastic films. If I’m in more of a mood to watch visually stunning films, I would tend to go with a foreign director like Ingmar Bergman or Jean-Luc Godard. A friend introduced me to Bergman and he’s amazing. I like Godard because of his involvement in the French New Wave movement and their quirky innovations with film in the late ’50s and ’60s.
2. Did you ever had a the chance to meet a movie star? When? What was the occasion?
Kind of! I got up close to Anna Paquin at a True Blood premiere in Hollywood last summer. I got starstruck and couldn’t get myself to say much, but luckily my brother got her autograph and my mom got a snapshot with the three of us. It’s kind of an awkward picture (sorry, mom, for posting this) but I’m glad we got it!
3. If you were working in the movie business (or maybe you already do!), what would be your dream job?
Film historian/preservationist is my dream. I think being a screenwriter would be great. I think acting is fun, too. I’d feel most comfortable with comedy. I’m not exactly sure what I’ll be doing in the future. I love writing, so I’d like to figure out how to combine writing + film history, which could bring me to writing biographies or essays or something. If I could get the money, I would love to run a classic film theater somewhere in the country. I’m not sure if I could manage to live out in Los Angeles. Sometimes it sounds so awesome, but other times I’m like, “ehhh”. I’d be good with living in a smaller area up north or in the east and returning to LA at least once a year for the TCM Classic Film Festival. A girl can dream. And who knows, maybe that’s a realistic dream, after all.
4. What do you think was the best movie star biography or autobiography written?
Of the ones I’ve read so far, I’d have to go with Harpo Marx’s autobiography Harpo Speaks!. Lauren Bacall’s autobiography By Myself/By Myself and Then Some comes really close.
5. Which movie star do you think should be next honoured by a Life Achievement Oscar?
6. Except cinema, do you have another passion? If yes, what is it?
I’m passionate about helping people and being as kind as I possibly can. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m much help, but when I do help people it feels like the greatest thing in the world. I work with the public, so every so often I get a compliment it just makes my day, like how I’m doing my job well or something. I think it’s important to tell people when they’re doing a great job, just like you need to tell them they’re not doing so hot.
7. Psycho and The Birds are probably the two most well-known Hitchcock’s films. Which one do you prefer?
Psycho. They’re both incredibly fun to watch.
8. What do you think was Pixar’s best short film?
I’d probably say my favorite would be For the Birds and Geri’s Game. I had to go over to Wikipedia to look at a list of Pixar’s short films and those two I remember, especially the first. I remember watching that one back in, I don’t know, kindergarten? We all thought it was hilarious. I vaguely remember Geri’s Game. I remember it being about that quirky cute old guy playing chess in the park. And wasn’t that the same guy who fixed Woody in Toy Story 2?
9. You have the chance to marry an actor or an actress. Who do you choose? 😉
Seeing as this is a big classic film thing, I’m probably going to go with someone who was…at one time alive. I find young Lew Ayres to be incredibly attractive and he seemed to be pretty intelligent. Jack Lemmon, Joseph Cotten, David Niven…The list could go on. Oh, and Alain Delon. Okay, I’ll narrow it down. If I had to pick one, I’d go with Jack Lemmon.
10. Did we ever tell you that you look like a certain movie star? If yes, who?
Not really often, but someone has told me that I look like young Leslie Caron. I’ve gotten Molly Ringwald too, which is stretching it. But seeing as she is one of my film idols, I’ll take it!
11. What do you think is the best article you wrote on your blog? Why?
A big thank you to Paula (Paula’s Cinema Club) for nominating my blog for a Liebster award! Paula owns and operates Cinema Detroit along with her husband. It is an independent movie theater that shows everything from classic films to contemporary indie films. She also plays a big part in hosting “TCM parties” (#TCMParty) on Twitter. Anyone who is able to tune into the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel and has a Twitter account is able to participate in these live discussions. It’s great and allows classic film fans from around the country and even around the world to network in ways that weren’t possible before. Thanks Paula for all that you do!
The rules for this event:
The bloggers who have been nominated must link back to the person who nominated them.
Nominees must answer the eleven questions given to them by the person who nominated them.
Those nominated must choose eleven of their favorite bloggers who have less than 200 followers to answer their own set of questions. Don’t forget to notify them, leave a comment somewhere on their blog.
When you are nominated, you cannot nominate the person who nominated you.
Paula’s list of questions:
1. St. Patrick’s Day was this week. What is your favorite film set in Ireland?
I admit, I’ve probably seen a grand total of two movies set in Ireland, now that I think of it. I will go with Little Nellie Kelly (1940) starring Judy Garland, although I didn’t particularly love it, as much as I love Judy.
2.What movie job would you like to try? Director, screenwriter, stuntperson, costumer….?
Costuming would be so fun, but I think I would be best at screenwriting. I would love to write a really witty script like the old screwball comedies or a hysterical cult-classic mockumentary like This is Spinal Tap (1984). Those genres would be especially fun.
3. Under what circumstances, if any, would you appear on a reality TV show?
Oh, wow. Hmm. If the show were actually intelligent and worthwhile, and if I had a good reason to be on it. Sounds vague, but it just really depends. A lot of those shows are just dumb/worthless/trashy and most of the “stars” get paid way too much for basically living life and showing off in front of a camera for millions of people to see. I’d rather be on one of those shows if we could teach people valuable life lessons.
4. There’s a lot of mediocre sequels around, but are there any films that should have a sequel but don’t?
How about Gone with the Wind 2? Totally kidding. But I’ll be honest, I’m so curious as to what happens to Scarlett and Rhett after the ending. But part of the movie magic is the uncertainty they left us with at the end of the movie. It’s left up to our personal interpretations. Another one I’m going to throw out is It Happened One Night. I’m half-joking but I’ll admit that I would love to see a movie follow up on Peter and Ellie’s lives after they’ve torn down the “walls of Jericho” on their wedding night. Do we see them raising children and teaching them how to properly dunk a donut? Do we see them arguing with each other over just about everything and see that they make up every time they argue? With that being said, I’m glad a sequel was not made, because it would’ve had to have been extremely well-made to compare to the original film and that would be a difficult task. So when it comes down to it, I can’t really think of a movie sequel that I wholeheartedly believe should have been made. I’ll get back to you if I can ever think of one!
5. Have you had any brushes with fame…where and who was the famous person?
I did get to meet legendary St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Lou Brock and got an autograph back in 2006. He was an incredibly sweet man in person and he’s now 74 years old. I have yet to meet any movie or television stars but I’m planning on writing some fan mail to a handful of aging stars when I get some free time over the summer. I’ve had a couple actors respond to Tweets that I’ve sent them, which made me so excited!
6. What is your favorite time of day?
I am a night owl through and through.
7. Who should play you in your biopic?
I’m going to go with young Doris Day. Of course, she’d have to dye her hair brown. I don’t have her wonderful singing skills, but I’m okay. I just feel like our personalities (at least her onscreen personalities) are fairly similar.
8. Is there a book that has not been made into a movie that you think would be good?
I can’t think of any at the moment. If I would have answered this a year ago, I would have said The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. But the movie has recently been filmed and will be released in theaters in June. I’m really excited. It’s going to be emotional.
9. Sleepless night…do you get up and do something, stay still and try to relax, or….?
Often, I make the mistake of staying still which usually does not help when I’m experiencing a sleepless night. I hate being restless, but it happens a lot. My caffeine problem probably contributes a lot to this problem…It’s smart, at least for me, to get up and grab any kind of reading material and read for awhile until your eyes start feeling worn out. That will sometimes work.
10. Do you have a recurring dream?
No, but I have dreamed about a couple of people that I know in real life multiple times and those dreams are usually very similar.
11. Fill in the blank: People would be surprised that I really like __________________.
Being exposed to all different kinds of ways of thinking. I like learning about different people’s beliefs and whatnot. I’m striving to be open-minded. Sometimes I’m not sure if people know that or not. Going in a different direction–I also recently became a big fan of the ’60s band/TV show The Monkees and I’ve developed a crush on Michael Nesmith. He’s really underrated in the music world and ended up doing a lot of solo work after The Monkees split up. His specialty is southern rock/folk–in fact he was one of the pioneers of country rock– and discovering his work is really fun. To those out there who know my taste in music, they’d probably be surprised to find that I have music on my iPhone music library that could be considered country in nature, at least in Mike Nesmith’s own sort of unique way. Apart from Nez, I’ve yet to branch out into other country music.
Thanks again for the nomination, Paula. Unfortunately I am pretty busy at the moment, or I would definitely take the time to nominate other bloggers and pass this along. This is an honor and has been fun to answer these questions!
I officially attended my first film festival this past weekend. My dad and I made the journey to the city of Topeka, which is roughly 4 1/2 hours from our home, to join fellow classic film fans in a weekend of silent film bliss at the 18th annual Kansas Silent Film Festival. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s famous “Little Tramp” character, so Modern Times (1936) was screened in honor of the milestone (we were unfortunately unable to attend this screening). The two other themes were “Hollywood on Hollywood” and “early animation”. My dad and I actually weren’t able to attend most of the screenings due to the threat of a winter storm–which turned out to be a bit of a dud, in my opinion, but at least we played it safe. Fortunately, we were at least able to enjoy two full-length films: Doubling for Romeo (1921) and The Patsy (1928) and a few short silent films; and for that I am grateful.
We arrived a bit late on Friday evening and missed the first feature film Ella Cinders (1926) , but luckily we arrived shortly before Doubling for Romeo,a hysterical love
story starring Will Rogers–filled with satire aimed at Hollywood and one-liners, many of them intermixed with Shakespearean dialogue. The story follows an awkward but endearing cowboy named Sam Cody (Will Rogers) who just doesn’t know how to “make love” (different connotation back in the 1920s, mind you) to the girl he likes. Lulu, his love interest, (portrayed by Sylvia Breamer) tells him that men in the movies–namely the suave Douglas Fairbanks– all know how to make love to women and that he should look to them for inspiration. Cody decides to head out west to Hollywood and becomes a not-so-successful stunt double in the motion picture industry. I won’t give away any more, but I will mention that there is a brilliant comedic dream sequence in which Cody dreams himself into the world ofRomeo and Juliet, which is a highlight in the film. Unfortunately it is not available on DVD, which is a real shame because I would be interested in owning this film.
Day 2 of the festival began with a few cartoon shorts from that spanned from the turn-of-the-century to the 1920s. It was very enjoyable. Then came the first feature film of the day:
The Patsy— starring Marion Davies, tells the story of a young woman, “Pat” (Marion Davies), a kindhearted Cinderella- esque girl who is desperately in love with her sister’s suitor, Tony, and faces mistreatment by her mother (portrayed by the always-wonderful Marie Dressler) and sister at home. She finds comfort in her loving father (Dell Henderson), who brings out the best in her. We see that Pat’s sister does not really love Tony, which is illustrated at one point in the film when she completely ignores poor Tony at a dinner party to pursue another gentleman. All the while, Pat tries to make Tony take notice of her–she even goes as far as to create a make believe crush in order to seek advice from Tony on how to make the “other man” fall in love with her. This film contains the famous scene in which Marion Davies was able to show off her gift for doing impressions. She showcases this talent in one scene by mimicking three famous actresses of the day: Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri.
Being able to see silent films on the big screen is something of a novelty now, but it’s so much more than that. We, the people of the 21st century, get a glimpse of what it was like to go to the movies when the motion picture was coming of age. I think it’s also worth noting that watching silent films with live musical accompaniment really adds to the experience. I hope to return to the festival next year and hopefully I’ll be able to attend more of the screenings than I did this year. In the meantime, I will try to delve into the world of silent film by means of TCM, my local library (they have a good Buster Keaton DVD collection), and even Netflix streaming.
I’ve toyed around with the idea of creating a blog several times over the years and I’ve made a couple of them, posted a couple times about random stuff, and ditched them. Now that I’m interested in blogging about something I’m passionate about, I really want to do this the right way.
I’ve been watching classic films since I was a little girl. My dad introduced my brother and me to The Three Stooges. By the time I was four or five, my grandma and I often watched movies like Roman Holiday, Singin’ in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis. Over the years, I gradually grew distant with classic films and by middle school I really didn’t watch them anymore. Everything changed during my sophomore year in high school back in 2009. I decided to sign up for the Film 1 class that was offered, which focused on films released up until 1959. I believe it was when we watched Singin’ in the Rain that I remembered how incredible old films could be. Over the next couple of years, I started watching old films more and more. I started talking about them, even if other kids my age didn’t want to listen. I discovered the Marx Brothers only a few years ago, when I saw that my local library kept their Paramount movies in their DVD section. Needless to say, I fell in love with them. I couldn’t stop watching their movies (especially those early Paramount ones) and I couldn’t stop talking about them. I think they’re absolutely brilliant.
I suppose this post is to just set up everything and let those who may follow me know a little bit about me. I’m a sucker for old musicals, comedies, and romance. Every so often, I like a good film noir. I really owe a lot to TCM (Turner Classic Movies) because I would have a much tougher time discovering and re-discovering movies if it weren’t for that channel. I probably wouldn’t be blogging here today if it weren’t for TCM and my film class back in high school. I hope to go far with this and begin new journeys by writing about my film experience.
I’ll be attending the Kansas Silent Film Festival this weekend, so hopefully I will be back soon to post a few words after I attend. This will be my first film festival, so I’m really excited.
In the future I will plan on posting about classic films (of course), fashion from classic films, and I may post about old television shows every so often. I really look forward to this and I hope anyone who keeps up with this blog enjoys.