Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Bathing Beauty (MGM, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a quite different sort of MGM film: Bathing Beauty, a splashy (in more ways than one) 1944 musical starring Red Skelton as a songwriter torn between his duties for a megalomaniac producer (Basil Rathbone) and his love of a college swimming teacher (Esther Williams) he’s met on a vacation in California. It’s hard to believe that all seven credited writers (Kenneth Earl, M. M. Musselman and Curtis Kenyon, story; Joseph Schrank, adaptation; Dorothy Kingsley, Allan Boretz and Frank Waldman, script) were needed to come up with this plotlet in which Rathbone hires an out-of-work actress to impersonate a nonexistent previous wife of Skelton’s and, seizing on a quirk in their charter, Skelton enrolls in the otherwise all-female student body of Williams’ college to try to convince her he’s not a bigamist and win her back, but given what a portmanteau movie this is it really doesn’t matter. 

The list of guest stars includes Harry James and His Music Makers, featuring Helen Forrest; Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra, featuring Lina Romay (whose grotesquely oversexed act proves that Charo wasn’t the first woman Cugat did this to!); Ethel Smith, Formerly Hit Parade Organist (apparently Ethel Smith never got to make a movie without some explanatory statement added to her credit to make sure movie audiences “got” her significance!); as well as a significant talent behind the cameras: John Murray Anderson, veteran of the Ziegfeld Follies (on stage) and the film The King of Jazz, making his return to Hollywood 14 years after the Whiteman film to stage the final water-ballet extravaganza featuring Williams and, it seems, virtually every shapely young girl in the L.A. area who could swim. (James Agee, whose pixieish sense of humor sometimes came out in the unlikeliest places, wrote about this film, “I could not resist the wish that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had topped its aquatic climax — a huge pool of girls, fountains and spouts of flame[1] — by suddenly draining the tank and ending the show with the entire company writhing like goldfish on a rug. But MGM resisted it.”) Skelton gets two great pantomime bits — one in which he plays a woman getting up in the morning and one in which, dressed in the same tutu as the other students (not the only time he does drag in this film, whose biggest mystery is what on earth attracted Williams’ character to Skelton’s in the first place), he disrupts a eurythmics class that is working out to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. (This isn’t the only borrowing of classical music in this film; the final water ballet — the one Rathbone has been after Skelton to compose throughout the movie — is set to Johann Strauss’s “Tales from the Vienna Woods.”) Skelton also does a credible job of singing in a number called “I’ll Take the High Note,” James contributes overblown arrangements of “Trumpet Blues and Cantabile” and “Hora Staccato,” Cugat does his own set of specialties, baritone Carlos Ramirez sings “Te Quiero Dijiste” in Williams’ ear in the opening scene; and Smith cooks on swing versions of “By the Waters of Minnetonka” and “Tico Tico.” It’s the sort of movie where the whole doesn’t really matter because the pieces are so entertaining! — 6/22/03


Knowing what I was likely in for with the second half of The Diplomat, I ransacked my video collection for something light and frothy Charles and I could watch after it — and found it on a collection of three Esther Williams films I’d recorded from Turner Classic Movies in January 2015. The film we watched was Bathing Beauty, a 1944 Technicolor extravaganza from MGM that started life as The Co-Ed, a comedy vehicle for Red Skelton. But as they were preparing the film they started to realize what a potentially hot property they had in the film’s female lead, former Olympic swimmer Esther Williams, whom they’d been giving a slow build-up to for about two years, casting her in minor films and bit parts in major ones. So they gave Williams featured billing above the title (both she and Skelton get their names under pictures of themselves in character, then comes the main title, then the miscellaneous acting credits, then everybody else) and made hers the central character, Caroline Brooks, who takes a summer vacation from her usual duties as swimming coach for Victoria College, an all-women’s institution back East. 

During her trip she meets, falls in love with and actually marries Steve Elliot (Red Skelton), principal songwriter for Broadway producer and nightclub owner George Adams (Basil Rathbone, billed third and playing his role with such dogged earnestness that I was half-expecting for him to turn out to be Sherlock Holmes impersonating a Broadway producer to solve a crime) — only he makes the mistake of telling Adams that after they’re hitched he and Caroline intend to retire (and do what?). Adams, who regards Elliot’s songs as his meal ticket, decides to break Steve and Caroline up by having one of his old discarded mistresses — he lured her into his bed with the promise of parts in his shows, a plot point the writing committee (Kenneth Earl, M. K. Musselman and Curtis Kenyon, story; Joseph Schrank, adaptation; Dorothy Kingsley, Allan Boretz and Frank Waldman, script; and “And” George Oppenheimer, uncredited — one wonders why it took eight writers, seven of them screen-credited, to come up with this cliché-ridden plotlet) makes surprisingly frankly for a “post-Code” movie — pose as Steve’s previous wife, with three little red-headed boys in tow, breaking up Steve’s and Caroline’s wedding. Caroline flees to Victoria College, her job and the attentions of the school’s surprisingly nellie biology professor, Willis Evans (Bill Goodwin) — he plays the part as such a “queen” one wonders why he doesn’t propose to Skelton’s character instead! — who’s in unrequited love with her and also has a large Great Dane dog who’s fiercely protective of Caroline and won’t let another man get near her. Through a chance encounter with drunken attorney Chester Klasenfrantz (Donald Meek), Steve learns that though Victoria College has only admitted women students, its charter allows a man to apply — so he matriculates and arouses the ire not only of Caroline but the entire faculty, who determine to expel him either by flunking him out or giving him so many bad-conduct demerits to disqualify him. 

Needless to say, the plot is simply an excuse for a lot of comedy scenes, big-band performances by Xavier Cugat and Harry James (ironically, the first thing we see in the film — before any hint of this plot develops — is a full-out swing number by Cugat, whose forces give James surprisingly stiff competition in the jazz department), along with Cugat’s singer Lina Ronay (whom one can’t help but think of as the beta version of Charo) and Ethel Smith. As usual, the credit for Ethel Smith doesn’t just say “Ethel Smith” — the studios always seemed to think audiences needed an explanation of who she was, so they bill her as “Ethel Smith, Former Hit Parade Organist.” There’s quite a lot of music in this film — James gets to do his specialty “Trumpet Blues (And Cantabile),” an example of what George T. Simon called his “very full style” in which he started having his arrangers (including Jack Matthias, with whom he co-composed “Trumpet Blues”) write out jazz parts for entire sections instead of allowing the musicians to take improvised solos — the appendation “And Cantabile” indicates that the piece has a slow section in the middle, but it’s just as loud and brassy as the rest. He also gets to do “I Cried for You” with his singer, Helen Forrest, whose face (especially betrayed by an unflattering hairdo) wasn’t going to launch her to movie stardom but was still an excellent singer (even though both Billie Holiday and Judy Garland did this song better) whose collaboration with James ended when, after having dated him as well as working for him for two years, she found out he’d married Betty Grable the way the rest of the world did — from the media. Skelton gets some marvelous set pieces, in which he manages to escape from Professor Evans’ killer dog by taking the front door of Caroline’s house off its hinges and reversing it, so he ends up outside and the dog is inside (the gag apparently came from Buster Keaton, who having blown his own career was reduced to working at MGM as a gag man for Skelton and Harpo Marx — the writers couldn’t figure out how to get Skelton’s character out of that house and Keaton immediately came up with the gag they finally used), disrupts a eurythmics class by appearing in a tutu (which he complained later was excruciatingly uncomfortable for him), and transforms “Loch Lomond” into an elaborate swing number he performs in Victoria College’s music class.  

Bathing Beauty leads up to a spectacular water-ballet climax designed and directed by John Murray Anderson, whose cinematic non-career is one of Hollywood’s great might-have-beens: after directing most of the Ziegfeld Follies and starting an acting school whose alumnae included Bette Davis and Lucille Ball, he was brought to Hollywood by Universal to take over the 1930 mega-musical King of Jazz. Viewed today, King of Jazz is one of the most audaciously imaginative musicals ever made; viewed in 1930, it was a flop and destroyed Anderson’s chances for a movie career. (I still rue that he didn’t get the chance to direct the 1936 biopic The Great Ziegfeld, beset by elaborate but rather dull production numbers representing Florenz Ziegfeld’s shows: with Anderson, who’d worked extensively with Ziegfeld and shown with King of Jazz that he could make a movie, at the helm The Great Ziegfeld would be a deathless masterpiece instead of a lame period piece redeemed only by the acting of William Powell and Myrna Loy.) Anderson’s only film credits after King of Jazz were this one and the circus scenes in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1953 The Greatest Show on Earth, though I suspect he may have had more to do with Bathing Beauty than just the final big number for Esther Williams: there are two scenes in which the bell of Harry James’ trumpet fills the screen as he is soloing, the way Paul Whiteman’s musicians were shot in King of Jazz, and a marvelous scene in which Steve rubs the dirty windows of the room he’s been assigned (a basement previously used by the school’s janitors) and a pretty Victoria College student appears in each one as he wipes it clean: shots with far more visual imagination than we expect from the film’s hacky director of record, George Sidney. (He was the son of MGM executive L. K. Sidney and this got him a lot of assignments taking over troubled films, like the 1950 Annie Get Your Gun after both Busby Berkeley and Charles Walters were fired from it, which he really didn’t deserve. In the early 1960’s he’d make his two best films back-to-back, the Elvis-themed Bye, Bye Birdie and then Viva Las Vegas with Birdie star Ann-Margret and the real Elvis.) 

The final ballet was easily the most sensational part of the movie and helped make it an enormous success — as well as setting the template for just about every other big musical Esther Williams made at MGM (though it would be Berkeley rather than Anderson who’d be called in to do her subsequent water ballets) — indeed, one contributor claims this was the best-grossing MGM movie since Gone With the Wind. Actually, it wasn’t: that honor went to another musical MGM released in 1944, Meet Me in St. Louis, with Judy Garland as star, Vincente Minnelli as director, Arthur Freed as producer and a plot where the characters actually had some depth and you cared about them even when they weren’t singing or dancing: between them, Meet Me in St. Louis and the 1943 Broadway hit Oklahoma! pretty much ended the sort of portmanteau musical, on stage or film, that Bathing Beauty represented, the one in which they reached out to appeal to every type of audience and essentially told viewers, “You don’t like this? Wait a moment and there’ll be something you will like.” Still, Bathing Beauty is a joy to watch, complete with overripe Technicolor (the director of photography was Harry Stradling, Sr. but the real auteurs were Technicolor consultants Natalie Kalmus and Henri Jaffa), a personable pair of leads and a wide variety of scenes that show off the talents of their widely assorted participants, even if those eight writers couldn’t for the life of them get together and come up with a plot that made sense. But then again, who in 1944 really expected the plot of a musical to make sense? — 9/6/17

[1] — Including one errant spout of flame in the top-left corner of the screen that obstinately refused to flame until all the others were roaring — an odd glitch, but I guess a retake even in this lavish a movie would have been too expensive.