The Coen brothers’ latest effort, Hail, Caesar, shines not when it’s lambasting showbiz, but when it’s celebrating it. The over-the-top musical numbers are stunning and just as magical as the iconic performances they’re inspired by. These types of displays are the essence of entertainment: an attempt to pull you out of yourself and into a looking glass world that sparkles with song and graceful, effortless movements. They’re dream sequences of the human spirit.
The acrobatic cowboy and the tapdancing sailor bits are masterful, and the water ballet featuring Scarlett Johansson’s mermaid is almost excruciatingly beautiful. This scene was referencing competitive swimmer Esther Williams’ successful run of Hollywood aquamusicals in the 40s and 50s. Her performances, accented by elaborate costumes, lavish sets, and synchronized swimmers, were some of the most mesmerizing enchantments of cinematic history.
Get a taste of Esther in action in this clip video:
Her other near death experience left Esther in a body cast for 7 months. While filming the finale scene for Million Dollar Mermaid, a biopic of Australian aquaballerina Annette Kellerman, Esther was outfitted in a gold bodysuit covered in 50,000 sequins and an intricate aluminum crown. She shoots up from the water much like Scarlett Johansson’s character, and then dives 115 ft. back into the water. Although she’s already done a few shallow dives in her costume, she could tell during her descent that this was different. When she hit the water’s surface, her crown caused several of her neck vertebrae to break, leaving her unable to move her upper body. Incredibly, nobody noticed she was in distress. The shot was perfect so everyone broke for lunch, leaving Esther struggling to keep afloat only using her legs.
“Only Flossie Hackett, my wardrobe lady, remained, and only because it was her job to get my costume off for later shooting,” Williams wrote in her autobiography of the horrifying incident. “I could kick my legs, so I desperately treaded water; but my arms and shoulders were virtually paralyzed. The back of my neck was in screaming pain. In my mind’s eye I saw the headlines: ‘Esther Williams Drowns in MGM Studio Pool.’ I cried out, ‘Flossie, you’ve got to get some help for me.’
She thought I was joking. ‘C’mon, Esther, you’re such a kidder. I want to go to lunch. I’m hungry.’”
Soon Flossie realized Esther wasn’t kidding, and went to find someone to lift her out. Once a crying Esther was pulled out of the pool, Flossie, who was in charge of keeping the expensive suit in as good as condition as possible, carefully rolled the costume off of the ailing star’s body. Esther recalled “those fifty thousand tiny metal sequins were like little knives, nicking and cutting me.”
Doctors said she had come incredibly close to paralysis and death, but thankfully she was able to make a full recovery and soon went back to work. She suffered from headaches related to the injury for the rest of her life. Even though it almost killed her, and left her with a permanent pain, Million Dollar Mermaid was still her favorite of her films.
Million Dollar Mermaid‘s subject, Annette Kellerman, was a swimming trailblazer, someone who Esther herself owed a lot too. Annette took to swimming as a child to help her legs recover from polio, and soon enough became an award-winning swimmer, often placing above men in competitions. She got her performance start in 1902 doing twice-daily mermaid shows at Princes Court’s glass tank at the Exhibition Aquarium in Melbourne, but still continued to compete in high-profile long-distance swimming races around the world for several years.
Annette was only able to swim competitively by wearing a modified boys’ swimsuit because female swimsuits of the Victorian era were often made of heavy, ruffled wool and contained many layers. It was a daring costume for the time, and even got her arrested for indecency in 1907 while she was training at Boston’s Revere Beach. The judge looked over her impressive swimming record and conceded that she could wear her suit as long as she wore a long, concealing cape until she got into the water. The incident is credited with helping ease U.S. decency laws and popularizing sleeker, more revealing one-piece swimsuits for women. A few years later she even capitalized on the trend by designing her own bathing suit line.
A decade later Annette made waves again by being one of the first actresses to appear nude in a motion picture with 1916’s Daughter of the Gods. The only media that survives from that lost film are a few of Annette’s nude stills. Annette appeared in several aquatic-themed movies including 1914 Neptune’s Daughter, which was remade in 1948 with Esther Kellerman.
Before her film career Annette made a sizable living (hence the Million Dollar Mermaid legend,) performing in vaudeville water ballets that required wire-walking, acrobatics, and impersonations as well as swimming stunts. Her vaudeville and film careers not only popularized one-piece bathing suits, but also spread interest in synchronized swimming and amateur swimming for the sake of health and maintaining beauty.
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