Friday, August 28, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: BATHING BEAUTY (1944)

Although she makes appearances in two earlier feature films, Bathing Beauty (1944) marks the debut of Esther Williams as a fully realized Hollywood star, with plenty of opportunities to show off her attractive figure and her signature swimming skills. This light, frothy comedy from director George Sidney is typical of the wartime Technicolor musicals released to buoy public morale and entertain the troops overseas; it doesn't take itself very seriously, and its thin plot is as much an excuse for a series of musical set pieces as anything else. In spite of that, Bathing Beauty provides plenty of entertainment for those who enjoy its particular kind of musical comedy, with Williams looking lovely and quite game for her romantic high jinks with costar Red Skelton. Musical performances from Xavier Cugat, Harry James, and Ethel Smith also make this a fun film for fans of the era's big band sound.

Williams stars as Caroline Brooks, a swimming teacher at a women's college who falls in love with song writer Steve Elliot (Red Skelton) during a trip to California. When Steve's friend and employer, George (Basil Rathbone), breaks up the couple's wedding with a phony bigamy claim, Caroline goes back to her job at the school, and Steve enrolls there as a student in order to convince her of his innocence. The faculty conspire to get Steve expelled, while his musician friends and new college classmates work equally hard to help him out.

As slight as its plot is, there are moments when Bathing Beauty falters, mostly in the bizarre waste of Basil Rathbone as the cause of Steve's marital woes. Williams occasionally shows her inexperience, as well, but she has a natural charm that quickly wins the audience over. She's an all-American beauty, tall, athletic, but utterly feminine, and she's especially flirtatious in her underwater scenes. The movie originally belonged to Red Skelton, with the title Mr. Co-Ed, but Williams usurped him and caused the focus of the picture to be altered. In spite of being knocked to second place, Skelton still has all of the movie's funniest scenes, and his character remains the most interesting and developed figure in the story. His ballet sequence, complete with pink tutu, is a scream, but he's also a lot of fun in his musical number, "I'll Take the High Note," performed with the adorably spunky Jean Porter. Skelton, whose mentor at MGM was Buster Keaton, excels at an expressive, physical comedy that recalls the silent era; he has the sweetness of a classic clown rather than the brash bravado of a Pre-Code comedian or more verbal comedic leads like Jack Carson. There's something sincere and vulnerable about Skelton's character that causes us to root for him even in the most ridiculous circumstances, like the scene when his romantic rival's huge dog keeps him trapped in Caroline's house, and he resorts to wearing her clothes in order to fool the beast.

Musical sequences fill as much of the film's running time as the narrative itself, offering audiences across the country a chance to enjoy the performances of the era's biggest acts. Although they play themselves, the musical stars also contribute to the story line by interacting with the protagonists and trying to help Steve, but they're really there to show off their stuff. Band leader Xavier Cugat and his orchestra open the picture with a poolside performance, assisted by Carlos Ramirez singing "Magic is the Moonlight." Harry James and his orchestra also perform, with James tearing it up on the trumpet. More unusual is the appearance of organist Ethel Smith as one of the college's music teachers; her numbers, which emphasize her footwork and sense of fun, are especially entertaining. Disney fans might recognize Smith from her "Blame It on the Samba" segment in Melody Time (1948), and she turns up again in the 1946 Williams picture, Easy to Wed.

Be sure to note familiar character actor Donald Meek in a brief but significant role; he gives Steve the idea to enroll at Victoria College. For more from George Sidney, see Anchors Aweigh (1945), The Harvey Girls (1946), and Kiss Me Kate (1953); Sidney directs Williams again in Jupiter's Darling (1955). Esther Williams and Red Skelton both appear in Ziegfeld Follies (1945), Neptune's Daughter (1949), and Texas Carnival (1951). See Williams with different leading men in Easy to Wed (1946), Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949), and Dangerous When Wet (1953). Skelton had a long television career, for which he is best remembered today, but you can see his earlier work in films like Ship Ahoy (1942), Panama Hattie (1942), and Du Barry Was a Lady (1943).