I get the majority of my musical rentals from Netflix nowadays, which means I have to make the decision on my weekend viewing earlier in the week… so by an eerie coincidence, by the time I found out Esther Williams had died, Million Dollar Mermaid was already on its way to me for weekend viewing.

This was my first full Esther Williams in classic, underwater form–I’d watched Take Me Out to the Ball Game a few months ago, but she was mostly on land there. And I’d of course also seen her highlights featured in That’s Entertainment, but it’s a very different experience to watch a single film from beginning to end, and understand all the context around a particular number.

One of the things I’ve liked discovering about these musicals–the ones where I’d only seen a brief clip of some dancing or singing–is how many of them are actually dramas! So for Million Dollar Mermaid, I was interested to see that since it actually was fully set up as a biopic, and they committed to that throughout. Though I’d known it was based on a true story, I’d expected they might just use the name value of Annette Kellerman as an excuse to tie together some loosely related water ballets.

But no! It takes about an hour into the picture for Esther to even begin her water dancing, so we’re totally invested in Annette’s story by the time she gets in the water. I didn’t know anything about Annette Kellerman before the movie, so it was interesting to learn–though I was probably starting out at a much more basic level than a contemporary audience. (My level of knowledge being somewhere below ground.)

As Annette becomes more successful, she (and we) are rewarded with a few spectacular numbers, including this one characteristically choreographed by Busby Berkeley. His kaleidoscopic, synchronized movements translate really well to water work–no longer bound by the confines of “gravity,” Berkeley can really let his imagination go wild. This is spectacle filmmaking at its finest–I wonder if even Annette’s real-life act was this over-the-top.

Overall, this is a fun movie, if only slightly out-of-balance in the latter half with an abundance of indulgent musical numbers following a pretty straight biopic drama in the first half. The water ballets seen here are extraordinary though, and I think a necessary and delightful experience of film history.

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