Blu-ray Review: The Million Dollar Mermaid | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, January 16th, 2021  

The Million Dollar Mermaid

Studio: Warner Archive

Jul 23, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

My personal familiarity with The Million Dollar Mermaid was as the swimming pool musical that almost killed its star, Esther Williams. (Her life story—and this frightening ordeal, in particular—were covered in a semi-recent episode of You Must Remember This.) As I’ve been burning through Busby Berkeley musicals as comfort food to get through the pandemic, this is one I couldn’t pass up.

The actress’s near-death experience occurred during the movie’s signature Berkeley number. Williams, dressed in a gold-sequined body suit and heavy, aluminum crown, is lifted sixty feet over MGM’s swim tank as fountain jets rise around her. Of course she jumps, and the stunt looks magnificent—but the crown prevented her head from entering the water as normal, snapping her neck backwards and breaking three vertebrae on impact. The rest of the crew left for lunch, never bothering to notice that Williams hadn’t re-emerged from the pool. Only her costume handler was there to save her from drowning, as the champion swimmer had lost the use of her arms and shoulders. Williams eventually recovered from the incident, have come absurdly close to dying for one of Berkeley’s gaudy musical numbers.

The behind-the-scenes near-tragedy doesn’t take away from the movie’s fluffy entertainment value. Williams stars as real-life swim champion, silent star, and bathing suit pioneer Annette Kellerman, an Australian who came to America in the early 1900s and became a celebrity. The movie begins during her girlhood, where her father ran a musical conservatory where the young Annette would watch morosely out her window as other little girls took backyard ballet classes. Annette herself couldn’t participate, because an early illness had left her with braces on her legs. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Annette would sneak off to a local swimming hole and train, strengthening her legs to the point of usability, and becoming a swim sensation.

Financial destitution eventually leads her dad to sell the school and take a job in London. On the boat, they meet a pair of hucksters – Sullivan (Victor Mature) and Doc (future Maytag repairman Jesse White) – en route to England with plans to build a circus attraction around their newly-acquired boxing kangaroo. Sullivan falls hard for the comely, bathing beauty, and sees her as a potential circus attraction – quickly signing on as her manager.

Most of the movie follows Kellerman’s rise to fame, and her developing relationship with frankly wishy-washy slimeball, Sullivan. The plot’s less important than the swimming, particularly the water ballets and over-the-top synchronized swim shows staged by Berkeley. These are among the upper tier of his works, and a must-see for classic musical fans. A sequence involving colored smoke, trapeze swings, and a dozen divers over MGM’s massive pool is as mesmerizing as you can imagine.

Three-strip Technicolor was tailor-made for the reds of circus tents, clear blue waters of diving tanks, and Williams’ green shawl. Warner Archive’s Blu-ray is engaging and vibrant, and certainly a welcome upgrade to Blu-ray. Extras include a very dated educational short about dieting, an Esther Williams radio appearance, and vintage movie trailer.



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