Dangerous When Wet

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Charles Walters re-teamed with Esther Williams after Texas Carnival (1951) for MGM’s fanciful retelling of Dorothy Kingsley’s swimming of the English Channel Dangerous When Wet (1953). By this time in her career Esther Williams was a bonafide leading lady at MGM who was struggling not to repeat herself. Walters had success in taking Williams’ water-ballet out of the pool in Texas Carnival and pursues that even further in Dangerous When Wet, resulting in the most famous sequence of Williams’ career.

The sequence, of course, is that in which Esther Williams swims with Tom & Jerry in the underwater world imagined by the team of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. As a visual effect it is every bit the equal to Disney’s Mary Poppins (1964) and a vast improvement over Anchors Aweigh (1945). Aside from the strides in visual effects, this dream sequence is also notable for how the themes of the movie become manifest in allegorical ways. The most unusual being the rendering of Williams’ love interest, Fernando Lamas, as a crooning octopus. The desires that threaten Williams’ ability to swim the Channel are personified by a cartoon character that evokes the sirens of Greek myth and Hokusai’s The Dream Of The Fisherman’s Wife.

Dangerous When Wet is subtly subversive in other ways as well. Like so many MGM musicals of the fifties Dangerous When Wet promotes the ideals of the nuclear family although in this instance the types that usually comprise the family unit defy their archetypal behaviors. For instance, Williams’ sister as played by Barbara Whiting is the “boy crazy” sibling that should always get into trouble or be reprimanded for her promiscuous behavior. But in Dangerous When Wet those “boy crazy” shenanigans are celebrated twice in song and without any moral judgements by filmmakers or characters alike.

However, these are only interesting threads that run throughout Dangerous When Wet which is primarily what one would expect. MGM churned out Dangerous When Wet with the intention of delivering a few catchy songs, a love story, and brief foray into animated adventure. On all of these counts Dangerous When Wet delivers. What keeps this film from being as successful as Texas Carnival (1951) or Bathing Beauty (1944) is that there’s no consistency to the pacing. The condensed sense of time in the climactic swimming of the Channel feels somewhat rushed and a bit at odds with the lighter tone of all that has preceded it.

As a whole, the films that Esther Williams made at MGM can be categorized as mediocre pictures with at least one outstanding sequence in each. It is these sequences, like the one with Tom & Jerry, that make these films essential to the study and understanding of classic Hollywood techniques and production. Esther Williams, though always beautiful, is at her best submerged in a watery world that could only ever exist in dreams.