Where Are they Now? Swimmer Movie Star Esther Williams Part 1

About the movie star swimmer Esther Williams, history and biography of her then and now.


Headline--1949: ESTHER WILLIAMS

At the Peak: In 1949 and again in 1950, motion picture exhibitors ranked Esther Williams as one of the top 10 box-office draws. In nearly 20 films, she did hardly more than swim elegantly and look gorgeous in a bathing suit, but the public was in love with her wholesome good looks and paid more than $80 million to see her movies. Her success has never been equaled by any other motion picture athlete.

Esther Jane Williams was born in Inglewood, a suburb of Los Angeles, in 1921. At the 1932 Olympics, which were held in Los Angeles, she was inspired by the swim meets, and when she became a teenager she took a towel-girl job just to have the use of a pool. She tirelessly practiced her strokes and won a swimming championship by the time she was 15. Next came the Women's Outdoor Nationals and Pacific Coast Championships, and then she was scheduled to swim in the 1940 Olympics in Finland. When those games were canceled because of the war, she went to work in Billy Rose's San Francisco Aquacade. MGM talent scouts saw the show and thought she could be turned into a swimming Sonja Henie; but when they offered Esther a screen test, she turned it down. While she was briefly a student at USC and then a stock clerk at I. Magnin, the studio persisted, and in 1941 she finally signed a contract. Her debut, in which she got seventh billing, was Andy Hardy's Double Life with Mickey Rooney.

During the war, MGM launched an Esther Williams pinup campaign, and by 1944 she was ready for stardom. That year her first big film--titled, appropriately enough, Bathing Beauty--was released, and it became the model for almost all her later pictures. Her movies were shot in color in lush resort locations and on improbable sets made up of pools and fountains. Each film consisted of three or four aquatic production numbers separated by guest acts ranging from Lauritz Melchior to Xavier Cugat. The razzle-dazzle camouflaged the fact that her movies had no plots, which explains why, though everyone over 30 remembers Esther Williams, few remember her films. It's just as well there were no stories, because Esther was no actress. "If they ever teach a duck to act, I'm in trouble," she admitted. Fanny Brice's terse description of Esther: "Wet she's a star. Dry she ain't.

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