Saturday, May 21, 2011

Easy to Love (MGM, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was an Esther Williams musical from the current TCM “Star of the Month” salute to her: Easy to Love, made in 1953 by MGM and shot largely on location in the Cypress Gardens theme park, Winterhaven, Florida. (Williams would return there seven years later for a TV special that would land her on the cover of TV Guide.) The title, from Cole Porter’s classic song (introduced by the golden throat of James Stewart in Porter’s first original film score, Born to Dance, after it had been dropped from the stage show Anything Goes because its lead, William Gaxton, found it too difficult to sing), evokes comparison to Easy to Wed, made seven years earlier and also co-starring Williams and Van Johnson (it was a remake of the marvelous 1936 comedy Libeled Lady with Williams in Myrna Loy’s role, Lucille Ball’s in Jean Harlow’s, Johnson in William Powell’s and Keenan Wynn in Spencer Tracy’s), but the two films have nothing in common besides two stars and similar titles.

Easy to Wed barely got Williams into the water; Easy to Love is built around two huge numbers created for Williams by Busby Berkeley: one towards the beginning of the film, with Julie Hallerton (Williams) and her swimming partner Hank (John Bromfield, who’s actually pretty hot — he’s muscular without achieving Schwarzeneggerian ridiculousness about it, and it’s only in the final reel that he’s shown wearing anything more than a pair of black swim trunks) supposedly doing a water dance for a promotional film resort owner Ray Lloyd (Johnson) is having shot at 8 p.m. (the finale of this one shows Williams and Bromfield each floating in the middle of a circle of white flowers on top of the water; I joked, “If you can see them, that means you’re not color-blind”); and the scene everybody who’s seen this film (or seen the sequence excerpted in That’s Entertainment, Part 2) remembers: the huge water-ski ballet with platoons of skiers of both genders surrounding Williams in V-shaped formations as an unseen helicopter pulls her up so she can let go and do a ski jump that starts in mid-air.

Williams recalled that Berkeley called her at 2:30 a.m. and asked if she thought she could do that — Berkeley was calling from his bathtub, sloshed to the gills on martinis (she could hear the telltale slurring in his voice), saying that both the water and the alcohol were necessary sources of inspiration as he designed her numbers. She asked him if anybody had done that before, and he said, “I’m not asking you to do things other people have done before. If you’re going to be the star of my movies, you have to do things no one has done before!” She decided to give it a go, and the result is a spectacular sequence, complete with phallic geysers of water that come from the bottom of the pool and turn Williams’ routine into a water-skiing version of slalom (though as Charles pointed out, at least terrestrial skiers doing slalom runs don’t have to contend with the gates coming at them suddenly from below with volcano-like force!).

In between these highlights (and a few decent songs — Martin gets to sing the title song, Guy Lombardo’s “Coquette” and a couple of ballads by Vic Mizzy, a composer best known for the Addams Family TV show theme) the plot is a rather nasty romantic quadrilateral with Williams the object of a romantic rivalry between three men: Ray, who works her like a dog (we’re told she’s not only the swimming star of the resort but is also his secretary, though we don’t see her functioning as the latter: a scene in which she came into his office in a bathing suit and towel, the latter to dry herself after a water show, and started typing or taking dictation would have added to the film’s amusement level) and is determined not to marry anybody while she’s in decidedly unrequited love with him; Hank, whom she impulsively announces to Ray that she’s going to marry in hopes he’ll get jealous and demand to marry her himself; and star singer Barry Gordon (Tony Martin), whom she meets when Ray takes her to New York for what she thinks is going to be a vacation but is really just another grueling round of model work. He comes upon Julie and a photographer (using an old-fashioned view camera that took pictures on large plates) shooting a lipstick ad and takes the place of the male model in it, kissing her with an intensity and duration decidedly above and beyond the call of duty.

There are some nice moments in the movie — including a sequence in Florida in which Barry sings a romantic ballad to a room full of senior women who ooh and aah over him the way their younger consoeurs did over Sinatra, Elvis and the Beatles — but unfortunately the story (by László Vadnay, adapted into a script by him and William Roberts) is probably the nastiest musical plot since Holiday Inn, with the men involved (Ray especially) resorting to really dirty tricks to ace out their rivals for Julie’s hand. (The low point is when Ray takes both Julie and Barry on his motorboat, and deliberately drives it so fast Barry will get sprayed by the backwash of water in his face.) Old reliable Charles Walters gets overall credit for the direction, and he’s good enough but no one then or now bothered to watch this movie for the scenes he directed!

There were other Esther Williams movies that had more plot than this, as well as some (including Dangerous When Wet, in which she swims the English Channel and there’s legitimate suspense as to whether she’s going to make it) that were actually good entertainment even between the numbers, but Easy to Love just sort of lumbers to a close enlivened only by the Big Number and a charming little bit at the end in which, after being jilted by Julie for Ray, Barry sees another model sporting impressive lipstick, makes a pass at her … and it turns out to be Cyd Charisse, real-life wife of Tony Martin. Another oddity is that John Bromfield’s other best-known movie credit is in Revenge of the Creature, the first sequel to The Creature from the Black Lagoon and also a movie shot largely at a real-life theme park (Marineland) in Florida.