RedEye

The water was fine when Esther Williams was in it

How do you explain Esther Williams to younger moviegoers with no working knowledge of her stardom?

She came, she swam, she conquered. The 1940s and 1950s popular culture was, and is, unthinkable without her. And that smile looked just as starry on land as it did underwater.

The champion swimmer turned movie marquee asset, a unique property housed by the MGM stable or, rather, the pool just outside the stable, died Thursday in her sleep at 91.

By the age of 8, she was earning money counting towels at a public swim facility in Inglewood, Calif. She dropped out of Los Angeles City College to join Billy Rose's San Francisco Aquacade revue, opposite Johnny Weissmuller. By that time the latter, best known as Tarzan, was on the way down; Williams had yet to ascend.

She admitted, freely and gladly, that she really couldn't sing, or act or dance. But in films with titles such as "Dangerous When Wet" or "Million Dollar Mermaid," she took the screen in a flamboyant, flaming, often bizarre series of underwater ballet sequences.

The comedienne Fanny Brice said it: "Wet, she's a star. Dry, she ain't." Yes, but wet, Williams really was a star.

She swam with Ricardo Montalban for romance. She swam with Red Skelton for a gag. She beamed at Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." The studio publicity departments, knowing they had a formidable athlete and swimwear model in their corner, dubbed her "Hollywood's Mermaid" and "The Queen of the Surf."

And then, naturally, she started getting interested in getting out of the water more and more. Her once-loyal film audiences didn't cooperate. She retired from the screen in the early '60s, investing in various business projects, among them Esther Williams Swimming Pools.

I remember seeing her for the first time as one of a parade of MGM stars featured in the nostalgia binge "That's Entertainment!" And I remember thinking: Well, she's more a lot more interesting than Mark Spitz. (In fact, Donald O'Connor, introducing her clip segment in that compilation celebration, offered this wisecrack, dated the moment he uttered it: "Eat your heart out, Mark Spitz!")

She may have been a one-trick pony, but Williams brought something to her stardom that cannot be exploited if it's not there for starters. She loved being on camera. She moved, beautifully. And if she always looked most comfortable making like a mermaid or a highly promising swimmer who somehow landed, for a few glorious years, in Hollywood's most ridiculously overscale swimming pools, well, what is American pop culture without a fluke or two?

One of Williams' dry-land attempts was the woman-in-peril thriller "The Unguarded Moment," from 1956. In that drama, she's menaced by the usually sweet-natured Edward Andrews. The audience didn't know what to make of it. Williams was born to conquer oceans, not serve as cliched movie prey for sleazeballs.

Williams' survivors requested Thursday that donations in the star's name be made to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

mjphillips@tribune.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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