The Van Johnson Blogathon: Easy to Wed (1946)

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Hi, everyone! I couldn’t be happier to keep trucking along with continuous blog posts through the end of the month by participating in incredible blogathons like this one! I’d like to start out, as always, by thanking our gracious host, Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood. I’m still in the process of becoming a major Van Johnson fan, so this gave me the perfect chance to check out another film of his that I hadn’t seen before. I couldn’t think of many stars more deserving of some extra attention in a tribute like this one, I hope the blogathon is a great success, and I hope that I can keep discovering more films starring this iconic actor to enjoy! I’d also like to wish Van Johnson himself the happiest of birthdays today, and I can’t wait to read everyone else’s entries about such a wonderful person!

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Theatrical poster for Easy to Wed (1946).

I have to admit that I was fairly hesitant to watch Easy to Wed (1946), as I had a very disappointing experience back in June watching a different remake of one of my favorite films that also starred Van Johnson, In the Good Old Summertime (1949). However, I knew that I wanted to pay tribute to Van by reviewing something new to me, and the fact that this film also stars Esther Williams (one of my favorite actresses of all time) sweetened the pot and made this opportunity too enticing to pass up. As you might imagine, the film is a line for line remake of the classic 1930s screwball comedy Libeled Lady (1936). In Easy to Wed (1946), and essentially in the original film as well, the newspaper The Morning Star publishes a false story in which heiress Connie Allenbury (Esther Williams) steals another woman’s husband. With the assistance of father JP Allenbury (Cecil Kellaway), Connie sues for libel, hoping to earn $2 million and sink the paper in the process. The Star’s business manager Warren Haggerty (Keenan Wynn), who seems to often ditch his personal life for the sake of the newspaper that he works for, leaves his bride Gladys Benton (Lucille Ball) at the altar in order to fix the situation. Of course Gladys is none too happy about this, but somehow gets tangled up in Warren’s scheme to put womanizer and former employee of the paper Bill Chandler (Van Johnson) on the case, marry him to Gladys, and have Bill romance Connie at their hotel in Mexico City in order to turn the artificial story calling Connie a husband-stealer into the real McCoy. But will the underhanded plot work, or will complications arise and lead to the gang finding another way to get the Star out of the jam that it’s in?

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Van Johnson, Ethel Smith, and Esther Williams performing “Boneca de Pixe” in a scene from Easy to Wed (1946).

This is a change of pace in many respects for our man of the hour, Van Johnson. Easy to Wed (1946) attempted to force the star into two things that he definitely wasn’t: a philanderer and anything but all-American. When William Powell took on the role of Bill Chandler in the original film Libeled Lady (1936), he was a debonair man of the world whom the audience could easily believe as a ladies’ man. I’m sure that audiences were stunned by this personality change in Van Johnson just as I was, but he makes the part his own in ways that I would never have thought possible. While the four stars of Libeled Lady (1936) fight it out for screen time, it’s clear that Johnson earned top billing in Easy to Wed (1946) for a reason, and he dominates the film without seeming like he’s stealing the spotlight from any of his costars. Even more impressive were his Latin singing and dancing numbers with Esther Williams, which was out of both stars’ comfort zones, especially Williams as it was her first time singing at all in a film. The Spanish reprise of “Acérate Más” was by far the more critically acclaimed of their two compositions, but the one that delighted me and caught my attention the most was the Portuguese song “Boneca de Pixe” (also known as “Boneca de Piche”). The tune was based on a Portuguese fable and was originally performed by Carmen Miranda with different Latin male singers in recordings as early as 1938. Miranda herself taught Johnson and Williams how to sing the song, and her teaching certainly paid off with a performance that was absolutely marvelous despite how much it derailed the plot. Nowadays, the number would likely receive a scathing review and perhaps even be accused of whitewashing or cultural appropriation, but I feel that I have to give credit to both actors where it’s due, as the song seems incredibly difficult to master and I understand that Portuguese is one of the harder languages to learn.

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Esther Williams, Van Johnson, and Lucille Ball in a publicity still for Easy to Wed (1946).

Easy to Wed (1946) was Johnson and Williams’ second film together after Thrill of a Romance (1943), and the two were looking forward to working together again, but not all was well between the members of the cast. According to Williams’ autobiography Million Dollar Mermaid (1999), an offscreen rivalry began between Esther Williams and Lucille Ball while the two actresses were getting their hair styled on set. Lucy accused Esther of stealing her husband of six years, Desi Arnaz, and Esther claims that the redhead did this often to other leading ladies that she knew, as she was “wildly jealous” and considered every woman a “natural enemy to her”. To quote Esther further, “Desi called several times asking me for a date, even though he was already married. I told him that I was in love with Ben Gage [her husband of fourteen years] and had no interest in anyone else. I told that to Lucy, too, and added that even if I had not been in love, I wasn’t interested in her silly Latin singer. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the right thing to say either. The fact that I didn’t find Desi attractive made her cry.” Regardless of how the actresses clashed, Lucy gave a standout performance in the film as well as Van and Esther. Jean Harlow’s shoes were in my opinion the most challenging to fill in the remake, and Lucy recreates Harlow’s brashiness in the part of Gladys without disrespecting her and making the dialogue that she originally spoke seem trashy. Even Van Johnson himself added in his own autobiography that her portrayal “reveals the embryo of her Lucy Ricardo role in the later I Love Lucy television series”. Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Keenan Wynn, who rounded out the leading cast. With the exception of Esther, I was most excited to see him in the film as I’m a great fan of his work, and Keenan doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. As a man who was often corraled into supporting or even throwaway parts, I was overjoyed to see the actor battle it out with the best of them in a leading role, and I only wish that he could have snagged more screen time in this type of movie more often. I mentioned last month when I reviewed In the Good Old Summertime (1949) that there were a lot of components to it that should have made me enjoy that film, but somehow I ended up not enjoying it at all. Surprisingly this time around, the opposite turned out to be the case. There are so many reasons why this picture should not work, but everything comes together seamlessly, and while it’s not the pinnacle of filmmaking, I’m incredibly pleased to say that I loved Easy to Wed (1946) and would highly recommend it to any Van Johnson fan looking for a fun film of his to watch on what would have been his 101st birthday!

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The 2016 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon: My Top Five Picks for Esther Williams’ Birthday

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It’s Day Eight of my favorite time of year on TCM: Summer Under the Stars! If you’re not a Turner Classic Movies connoisseur like myself, Summer Under the Stars honors a different classic film star during each day in August by showing a twenty-four hour marathon of their films! When I found out that one of my favorite actresses of all time would be honored, I was thrilled and knew that I had to write about it, especially for all of you who have never witnessed Summer Under the Stars and find watching all twenty-four hours of one person’s films daunting. So, if you don’t know where to begin or simply want to see my top picks for what to watch on Esther Williams’ birthday, keep reading!

5. Dangerous When Wet (1953) On TCM at 4:15pm EST

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Esther Williams wearing the black lace and rhinestone swimsuit in question, with costar and future husband Fernando Lamas in Dangerous When Wet (1953).

Esther shows her competitive swimming chops in this captvating picture when she plays Katie Higgins, a perserverant farm girl who hopes to become the first woman to cross the English Channel. Of course her journey to the finish line comes with its fair share of trials and tribulations including a face-off between her manager Windy Weebe, played by Jack Carson, and charming Frenchman André Lanet, played by Fernando Lamas, who would become Esther’s real life husband a full sixteen years after the completion of this film. In fact this picture is perhaps known as the most famous that she made with an offscreen love, as much as it’s known for the iconic dream sequence in which Esther swims with Tom and Jerry and the black lace and rhinestone swimsuit that adorns her towards the end of the movie. A delightful afternoon treat, Dangerous When Wet (1953) has all of the great themes and tropes associated with a great women’s sports film.

4. Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) On TCM at 10:00pm EST

If Esther had to be defined by the title of one of her films, Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) would probably be it. It was the name of her 1999 autoboigraphy, after all, despite the fact that the film itself is a biopic of Australian swimming star Annette Kellerman. Kellerman herself had a great deal to do with the filming of the picture, and was initially pleased with the decision to cast Esther to portray her. Later on, however, the film’s subject found Esther to be “too beautiful” to play her and thought Victor Mature’s cheapskate depiction of promoter Jimmy Sullivan was “the antithesis” of his real life counterpart because “he never did anything cheap”. In addition, this film is one of many that put Esther Williams’ life at risk after the star broke her neck while diving off a fifty foot tower. She spent six months in a body cast before recovering to complete the film, but boy are we glad that she did. If you have the time to spare this evening, I certainly recommend that you check out this masterpiece of Technicolor and gold lamé swimuits.

3. Easy to Love (1953) On TCM at 12:30pm EST

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A great behind the scenes shot of Esther and costar Tony Martin relaxing by the Florida-shaped swimming pool at Cypress Gardens on the set of Easy to Love (1953).

It certainly is easy to love this star-studded vehicle set against the background of Florida’s Cypress Gardens amusement park. Williams stars as Julie Hallerton, a busybody aquatic performer who can do it all from waterskiing to modelling, from clowning to pageantry, except land the man she wants, her manager and agent Ray Lloyd (played by Van Johnson, who else?). When her swimming costar Hank (John Bromfield) and singer Barry Gordon (Tony Martin) start to pine for her as well, what was first a complicated relationship for two becomes an unbelivable love square. In fact, all three men hold their own so well that if you aren’t too familiar with Esther Williams’ vehicles like I wasn’t when I first saw this film, you might have no clue which man she ends up with until the very end! The true highlights of this film include a great glimpse of Esther’s waterskiing abilities in a fantastic number choreographed by the great Busby Berkeley as well as some lavish costumes and scenery including a Florida-shaped swimming pool made on location in Cypress Gardens just for the movie (which I was surprised to find out is now a part of Florida’s Legoland park and is currently filled in with thousands of Legos!). Outside of the pool, I also feel that crooner and husband of Cyd Charisse (watch out for my picks for her on the 14th!) Tony Martin stole the show, and I found myself rooting for him to end up with Esther in the end. All in all, I definitely suggest that you check out this midday extravaganza, and keep a sharp eye out for a cameo of Cyd Charisse in the flesh towards the end!

2. Thrill of a Romance (1945) On TCM at 4:00am EST

I know, I know. It really is cruel of me to recommend a film that will only be showing at four in the morning, but this wartime romance is without a doubt the film that I am

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Esther and frequent costar Van Johnson looking too perfect for words in Thrill of a Romance (1945).

most excited for that I haven’t seen yet. Esther stars as swimming instructor Cynthia Glenn who marries businessman Bob G. Delbar (Carleton G. Young) almost as hastily as he ditches her on their honeymoon for a business deal. Of course, who better to distract the scorned newlywed than Major Thomas Milvaine (Van Johnson, again, who else?) as a slippery slope of a love triangle begins. Of course not knowing the ending myself, I find this film to be very intriguing because there are only two possible endings, and both go against the film codes of the era. Either Cynthia follows her heart and ends up with Thomas, resulting in an annulment which would leave Bob in the dust and be quite the scandalous move in 1945, or Cynthia chooses to stay with her husband and this could possibly be the first Williams-Johnson film that chooses not to pair the constant onscreen couple, also a very scandalous move in 1945. Either way this film promises to be entertaining and beautifully shot, and I know that I’ll be pulling an all-nighter tonight to see how it ends!

1. On An Island With You (1948) On TCM at 2:15pm EST

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Esther and Peter Lawford sharing a dance in On An Island With You (1948).

What couldn’t I say about this film? It’s my favorite Esther Williams picture that I’ve seen so far, and the fact that it was also the first one that I ever saw gives it a special place in my heart. It starts off as a movie within a movie when Esther plays Rosalind Rennolds, who in turn plays a native on a tropical island fighting with fellow native played by Yvonne Torro (Cyd Charisse) for the affections of a naval officer, played by Ricardo Montez (Ricardo Montalban). Lieutenant Kingslee (Peter Lawford) reports on the set as a technical advisor, but instantly forgets his duties and focuses all of his attention on Rosalind. Determined to make her remember the time that they spent together three years ago, he kidnaps her and whisks her off to the island where they first met. This film has everything, from exotic locales to delightful swimming sequences with Williams and Lawford (her most attractive costar, in my humble opinion), but the dancing sequences out of water with Montalban and Charisse are what truly set this film apart from most Esther movies in which all of the notable action is underwater. Jimmy Durante and Xavier Cugat steal the show a little more than most viewers would want, but despite the distraction I find the riveting plot, magnificently beautiful stars, and diverse characters make this film an absolute must-see.

Of course there are so many perfect Esther movies in her filmography that it was almost impossible to compile this list, and I definitely think that today’s Summer Under the Stars tribute will be one to remember! I’d like to thank Journeys in Classic Film from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to participate in this blogathon, and make sure to keep an eye out for my other two entries on the 10th and 14th!