Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Thrill of a Romance (1945)

Esther Williams, "America's Mermaid"
It is a little known fact that between the years of 1942 and 1955, MGM employed a highly paid executive think tank, composed of all the relevant experts in the fields of music, psychology, women's fashion, and aquatics. Their sole task, to concoct interesting and original plots revolving around the eternal, unfailing premise of Esther Williams in a bathing suit. Boy, they had some doozies. While in her early films she generally played a woman who simply liked to swim, by the late 40's her roles got more and more elaborate, usually with Williams playing some form of underwater dancer at one of the many nightclubs with swimming pools that proliferated in the 40's. She was also cast in a biopic of famed swim star Annette Kellerman (perhaps best known for her introduction of the one-piece bathing suit to America); she played a sea goddess, crossed the English Channel with Tom and Jerry, and headed up an all-water ski Busby Berkeley chorus line.

Back in 1945, however, Cynthia Glenn (Williams) was still just a swimming teacher at a community pool in a Los Angeles suburb. She meets the man of her dreams, falls in love, and gets married--all within the first fifteen minutes of the film. It's when she arrives at her honeymoon resort that things start to pick up. Her husband has to leave town suddenly when some important business comes up--on their wedding night. It looks like Cynthia will get to spend her honeymoon all alone, but for a highly decorated war hero, Major Thomas Milvaine (Van Johnson) who suddenly finds himself in urgent need of swimming lessons.

Van Johnson and Esther Williams

Thrill of a Romance is the second of five films Williams and Johnson made together, and it's easy to see why the studio kept them close. Their classic blonde good looks and clean-cut smiles are a perfect match. Add to the mix a delightful performance by Lauritz Melchior, a Metropolitan Opera tenor who made a handful of films with MGM in the late 40's. Unlike other opera singer/actors like Mario Lanza and Nino Martini, Melchior was no leading man. He was well past his prime by the time he started making movies, overweight, and spoke with a thick Danish accent. However, he is warm and charismatic, and a strong addition to any film with a part written for him.

Curiously, almost all Esther Williams films were musicals, although she never sang and her leading men seldom did either. Her movies had all the trappings of musicals--light, breezy entertainment, Technicolor, and the obligatory underwater dancing--so musicals they were, and the rest of the cast would just have to pitch in. Melchior belts an occasional aria, of course, and in case that's not enough, Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra are along for the ride.

Van Johnson and Esther Williams

There is plenty of footage of Esther diving, swimming, and smiling underwater to delight fans, but the real strength of this film is its emotional content. We're treading dangerous water here, after all; Esther's character falls in love with another man on her wedding day. She is honest and good, and not about to give up on her husband, but that doesn't change what she feels for Milvaine. The romantic tension this situation creates is genuinely moving, and is strong enough that even without the music and the swimming, there'd probably still be a picture here, and that's more than you can say for most of Esther's films.

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