“Dangerous When Wet” (1953)
by A.J. Hakari
For one of the strangest means by which someone broke into the movies, look no further than the story of Esther Williams. Although she’d receive straight acting assignments as well, it was her talents as a swimmer that first captured the attention of showbiz types who crafted an entire string of musicals around said aquatic prowess. It’s one of the strangest subgenres in film history (not to mention a way of appearing wholesome whilst showing so much on-screen skin), but take away the conspicuous amount of conveniently-placed pools, and there isn’t much setting it apart from the era’s deluge of dime-a-dozen, squeaky-clean tunefests. Perhaps 1953’s Dangerous When Wet just wasn’t the best choice for my first Williams flick, that her career is filled with more successful marriages of the frothy tunes people came to hear and the body in balletic motion they came to see. But the musical is a fickle beast to begin with, and harmless though it may be, Dangerous When Wet can’t help but capture the genre in all its glitzy tedium.
Williams plays Katie Higgins, an Arkansas farm girl with a figure to die for. It’s only natural that she’s in tip-top shape, considering she comes from a family more concerned with physical fitness than with milking the cows. The farm is in dire need of an upgrade, and with no other way of getting the money to pay for it, Katie reluctantly takes up snake-oil salesman Windy (Jack Carson) on his crazy offer. After seeing the Higgins family in action, Windy enlists them in the publicity stunt to end all publicity stunts: having the entire clan swim the English Channel. It’s a ludicrous idea (and having to hawk an awful “miracle tonic” while doing it isn’t pleasant, either), but the brood has no choice but to jaunt across the Atlantic and start training in jolly old England. But in between seemingly endless laps, Katie crosses paths with Andre (Fernando Lamas), a playboy who — much to Windy’s chagrin — starts distracting our girl with his yachts and million-dollar smile. Can Katie choose between her love of sport and her growing affections for Andre? Will Windy end up with a bathing beauty from France (Denise Darcel)? Will everyone stop singing that opening song over and over again?
Just to be clear, out of all the reason why Dangerous When Wet is such a dud, Esther Williams isn’t one of them. By all accounts, the woman was a complete sweetheart, and for someone whose figure is what landed her a movie contract in the first place, she dedicated a lot of effort towards making sure she was at her best on the silver screen. Williams reportedly spent nine months taking lessons in acting, singing, and such before she appeared on camera, and while watching Dangerous When Wet, you can tell that all that preparation paid off. She takes on her role like a pro, rattling off sarcastic zingers and playing the swoony lover card to equal success. But though Williams carries a tremendous amount of appeal here, it’s weird that the picture itself doesn’t really play up the swimming angle that much. Oh, she sure swims a whole heck of a bunch, but it’s mostly in nondescript training scenes, with the one standout showcase being an animated dream sequence where she dog-paddles along with none other than Tom and Jerry. It’s a neat little excursion into fantasy, yet for as much as the story is centered around Williams’ skills, it’s the only section of the film that really takes advantage of them.
I’m only harping on this point so much because the rest of the time, Dangerous When Wet represents the musical at its most disposable. In all fairness, I’ve seen far more flimsy excuses for narratives, and the flick has a decent amount of amusing gags to share. Corny as the script’s sense of humor may be, it’s hard not to chuckle at scenes like Katie and her family arriving to an English reception so drenched in fog, they can’t even see the band that’s come to greet them. On the other hand, though, the soundtrack is too homogenous to kick around your memory banks for long (no matter how much it tries forcing that opening anthem down your throat), and even by the genre’s standards, the story gets painfully contrived at times. Windy’s leering advances towards Katie make him look like a creep who can’t take a hint, Andre comes across in a similarly unpleasant fashion (with the added bonus of not caring whether or not he’s keeping Katie from her training), and to top it off, our own heroine doesn’t seem engaged in the race at all. You have to keep reminding yourself that she’s on a mission to save the family farm, since the screenplay doesn’t allow her very many scenes in which she can exhibit passion, drive, or concern for anything other than which guy will end up controlling her.
I certainly won’t fault anyone for having affection for Dangerous When Wet, just as I can’t yell at viewers for taking pleasure in watching any musical designed to dazzle the eyes, soothe the ears, and nothing more. But while it did prove that Williams possessed acting shops that would serve her well even in vehicles that didn’t shoehorn a deep end into the mix, the film’s Technicolor sheen is about as deep as its ambition gets. Dangerous When Wet hasn’t put me off from trying my luck with another Williams picture in the future, but I’m sad to say that this particular song-and-swim show comes up dead in the water.