Silver Screen Standards: Dangerous When Wet (1953)
In June, I was finally able to return to the retirement community where I present classic movie programs for the residents, and I knew that Esther Williams was the perfect star to celebrate summer and the sense of joy we all felt at being able to gather again. We watched three of Williams’ pictures, including Bathing Beauty (1944) and Neptune’s Daughter (1949), but Dangerous When Wet (1953) was the crowd favorite and for good reason. Most of Esther Williams’ movies are fun, light-hearted musical and romantic comedies, but Dangerous When Wet combines all of these elements with a more coherent story that uses Williams’ talents as a swimmer to the fullest. We get a great sports story, plenty of romance with Fernando Lamas, some wonderful family elements, and a fabulous animated sequence that pairs Williams with cartoon stars Tom and Jerry. It’s no wonder that Dangerous When Wet was a box office hit when it first appeared in 1953 and remains a favorite today with classic movie fans.
While Bathing Beauty and Neptune’s Daughter are both thin on plot and heavy on musical numbers from performers like Xavier Cugat, Dangerous When Wet settles into a proper story about the healthy, happy Higgins family, who run a dairy farm in Arkansas and keep in shape with lots of exercise – especially swimming. Promoter Windy Weebe (Jack Carson) discovers them while hawking a health tonic called Liquapep, and he quickly engineers a scheme in which the Higgins family will travel to England to swim the English Channel as an advertisement for the tonic. Windy has a particular yen for the eldest daughter, Katie (Esther Williams), but while swimming in the heavy English fog Katie meets handsome Frenchman André (Fernando Lamas), who distracts her from training with his ardent attention. When the rest of the Higgins swimmers are disqualified, the family’s hopes and future all depend on Katie successfully completing the grueling Channel swim, especially because her father (William Demarest) has already bought expensive dairy upgrades on credit with the intention of paying for it out of their winnings.
Of course, we also get the colorful musical spectacles we expect from an Esther Williams “aqua musical,” although these are less Busby Berkeley style showstoppers and more musical moments woven into the narrative. The movie opens with a song from the Higgins family, “I Got Out of Bed on the Right Side,” which sets the tone and introduces us to this peppy, can-do crew. Barbara Whiting, who plays second daughter Suzie, performs a fun number called “I Like Men” at the Liquapep talent contest, which gives Windy the opportunity to recruit the family for his English Channel scheme. We also have songs featuring Fernando Lamas, including “In My Wildest Dreams” and “Ain’t Nature Grand,” but as handsome as he is the Argentine actor gets upstaged by Tom and Jerry in the extended animated sequence. Like the similar segment in Anchors Aweigh (1945), this portion of the film combines live-action footage of the star with the animated characters and is a crowd-pleasing highlight of the picture. Ironically, the lack of synchronized swimmers and elaborate staging helps us really see and appreciate Esther Williams’ ability to “swim pretty” throughout this part of the movie, and it’s clear that she’s performing underwater and holding her breath for long stretches to get the unbroken takes of her cavorting with her animated companions.
Williams is very much the star in her prime, with almost a decade of leading roles behind her after her big breakout appearance in Bathing Beauty, but I really enjoy the supporting cast for this outing, too, especially William Demarest and Charlotte Greenwood as Katie’s loving if somewhat unconventional parents. Greenwood gets a chance to demonstrate her famous long-legged high kicks during the “Ain’t Nature Grand” number, but she’s solid throughout as the mother of the family, while Demarest is typically gruff but lovable as the dad. Fernando Lamas, in real life a champion swimmer and thus a perfect partner for Williams, has such good chemistry with his leading lady that he ended up becoming her third husband in 1969, a union that lasted until his death in 1982. Lamas and Williams have a terrific swimming scene together that cements their rightness as a couple, but the climactic end of the Channel swim adds dramatic emotional realism to their earlier flirtations. You won’t think for a minute that Jack Carson’s Windy is the man for Katie, but he’s more fun when the tables are turned by Denise Darcel as the spunky French swimmer who sets her swim cap at him.
While Dangerous When Wet is probably my favorite of the Esther Williams pictures, plenty of her other movies are worthwhile if you’re in the mood for splashy summer romance. See her first real film appearance in Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942) and then the breakout role in Bathing Beauty to understand Williams’ rise to stardom, or go with Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) and Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) for other high points in her career. Don’t miss the loving parody of Williams’ unique kind of stardom in the 2016 Coen brothers picture, Hail, Caesar!, in which Scarlett Johansson plays a pregnant swimming star struggling to fit into her spangled mermaid costumes.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.