Holder of a national record for the 100-m freestyle in 1939, Esther Williams didn’t get to compete in the 1940 Olympics — they were called off because of World War II — so she took the short trip from her Los Angeles home to Hollywood. After 20th Century Fox made some hit films starring Olympic figure skater Sonja Henie, MGM boss Louis B. Mayer told his minions, “Melt the ice, get a swimmer, make it pretty.” Olympic gold medalists Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe had played Tarzan in movies, but neither starred in films built around their specialty sport. Williams did, with a popular series of Technicolor swimming musicals, a genre never duplicated or even imitated. She cheerfully acknowledged that she couldn’t act, dance or sing, yet she anchored such watery wonders as Fiesta, On an Island with You and Neptune’s Daughter (in which she did sing the Oscar-winning hit “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”). Whatever Williams’ limitations, her attractions were obvious. Sleek as a seal, with gorgeously toned arms, a beachcomber’s tan and a lustrous smile, she exemplified the athletic young dazzler to a country weary of war. She was Doris Day underwater.
In Million Dollar Mermaid, a biopic of Annette Kellerman, the American swim star met the Australian swim star. A crippled 6-year-old in New South Wales, Kellerman wore steel braces and took swimming lessons as a corrective. At 15 she won the local mile and 100-yd. championships; by 20 she was an international stage star, giving exhibitions of high diving and water ballet (a genre she invented, which presaged the synchronized swimming of Williams and later Olympians). Kellerman’s status as a fashion icon stoked two scandals: she popularized the one-piece bathing suit — no more pantaloons on the beach! — and was the first movie star to appear nude, in the 1914 Daughter of the Gods.
In Williams’ all-talking, all-color, all-wet version, the leading lady doesn’t show enough skin to cause a blush at the Hays Office; otherwise, she’s the perfect embodiment of Kellerman’s all-around allure. But beauty comes at a price: while executing a 50-ft. dive in a gold swimsuit, Williams broke her neck, and director Mervyn LeRoy had to call a six-month delay to the production. The movie came out, was a hit and gave Williams the title for her chattily R-rated autobiography. She’s still around today, at 90, telling her fans, “I was just a swimmer who got lucky.”