Release Date(s)1953 (June 27, 2023)
Studio(s)Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B+
How does one explain Esther Williams? A champion swimmer with a great figure and a pretty face, she got by in Hollywood on charm rather than dramatic ability. She couldn’t sing, couldn’t dance, but made a splash as America’s Swimming Sweetheart in a series of highly successful musicals at MGM. Not since ice skater Sonja Henie starred for 20th Century Fox had a studio invested its considerable resources in a female athlete in musical after musical.
Dangerous When Wet focuses on Katie Higgins (Williams), the eldest of three daughters in a health-conscious Arkansas farm family. They could use a prize steer, but money’s tight. A traveling salesman, Windy Weebe (Jack Carson), comes by, hawking the health tonic Liquapep. Windy takes to attractive Katie and suggests that she and her family sign up for an international competition to swim across the English Channel. Liquapep will sponsor them. The large cash prize would solve their money woes.
Mom and Dad Higgins (Charlotte Greenwood, William Demarest) and the two younger Higgins girls, Suzie (Barbara Whiting) and Junior (Donna Corcoran), are sold on the idea and they start training. Katie, however, is distracted by the attentions of handsome Champagne mogul Andre Lanet (Fernando Lamas), whose charm and persistence have their intended effect. Windy, meanwhile, is pursued by French swimmer Gigi Mignon (Denise Darcel).
Songs include the Arthur Schwartz/Johnny Mercer I Got Out of Bed on the Right Side, an earworm to end all earworms. It’s the first song we hear, performed by the whole Higgins clan as they start their day with exercises and a swim, and it’s reprised orchestrally throughout the film. The cheery number introduces us to the Higgins family and their obsession with healthy living. Comically, Williams’ Katie dips her toe in the lake and decides instead to read while the rest of her family splash. I Like Men is sung by Susie, played by Barbara Whiting (younger sister of songstress Margaret Whiting), as a bevy of young good looking guys surround her. The romantic ballad In My Wildest Dreams is delivered by Lamas to Williams, and Ain’t Nature Grand, the most elaborately staged number, is performed by the entire cast, with Charlotte Greenwood showcased in a comic dance featuring her mile-long legs and trademark high kicks.
But the most memorable moment involves Williams swimming with animated characters Tom and Jerry in a dream sequence. This scene involves a blue octopus serenading Katie in Andre’s voice, a turtle doing the backstroke, a family of musical sea horses, and an angry swordfish chasing Katie. Jerry the mouse co-starred with Gene Kelly in a great dance number eight years earlier in Anchors Aweigh, so he was already a pro working with movie stars. Though the sequence is charming, it has no purpose other than to give Williams additional time in the water.
Lamas is suave and ardent as Lanet, but Williams’ limited acting chops never let their scenes together generate heat. He accompanies her in his pool, romancing her in the way best suited to her interests, but is otherwise merely window dressing in a weak sub-plot.
The last fifteen minutes of the movie deal with the strenuous Channel swim. Accompanied by their coaches in row boats, with larger boats on hand in case of medical emergencies, the swimmers start at 4 A.M. in darkness for the lengthy swim. The tone shifts from romantic comedy to drama as Katie, increasingly exhausted, has to push herself to reach the shore unassisted. There should be suspense, but director Charles Walters seems more concerned with finishing the picture than creating dramatic tension.
Married to others at the time they made this picture, Fernando Lamas and Esther Williams would marry 16 years later and remain married until Lamas’ death in 1982.
Dangerous When Wet was shot by director of photography Harold Rosson with spherical lenses on 35 mm film, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The Blu-ray disc features a brand new 4K scan of the original nitrate Technicolor camera negative. The picture is exceptionally rich in texture, with a deeply saturated color palette. Primary tones pop and more subtle pastels balance the spectrum. Complexions are rendered naturally, with Williams looking particularly attractive, even when emerging from the water. In non-water scenes, she has a fresh glow courtesy of Rosson’s flattering lighting and make-up by William Tuttle. The night scenes are troublesome in that beyond a point, the picture becomes completely dark. Process photography is used when we see Williams and Lamas aboard his boat. They are in the studio, the sea projected on a screen behind them. The Ain’t Nature Grand number features the entire cast, in turn, singing a chorus, as the camera moves from one location to the next in the most cinematic staging of the musical numbers. In the Tom and Jerry sequence, bubbles are added to blend the live action and animation, though Williams appears pasted on.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and distinct. Musical numbers were pre-recorded in the manner of the period, so they sound rich. Ambient noise of a crowd cheering, small boats accompanying the swimmers, and actual swimming strokes amid a tumultuous sea are well mixed. Background music is used mostly in the Channel swim sequence to amp up drama.
Bonus materials on the unrated Blu-ray release from Warner Archive include the following:
- Musical Outtake (2:52)
- The Cat and the Mermouse Cartoon (7:40)
- This Is a Living? (9:19)
- Demo Recordings (11:04)
- Interview with Esther Williams and Dick Simmons (4:51)
Musical Outtake – Fernando Lamas and Denise Darcel perform C’est La Guerre seated at a table in a garden. This number was cut from the theatrical release.
The Cat and the Mermouse – In this 1949 cartoon, directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, a day at the beach isn’t going well for Tom. He wants to lie in the sand, but his rest is disturbed by Jerry, who walks by to go fishing. Tom winds up falling off the end of the pier as he chases Jerry and lands underwater, falling unconscious and hallucinating that he can breathe underwater. At the bottom of the sea, he encounters a mermouse, and evil swordfish, and a deadly octopus.
This Is a Living? – In this 1953 Pete Smith short, narrator Smith takes a look at people who do strange jobs. Trapeze artists, horseshoe throwers, a woman and horse who dive fifty feet into water, high jumpers, and other workers at odd jobs are profiled.
Demo Recordings – Lyricist Johnny Mercer is heard singing and accompanying himself on piano (audio only) to songs he wrote for Dangerous When Wet.
Interview with Esther Williams and Dick Simmons – In this audio-only interview, Williams talks about her recent travels and provides pointers about swimming, concentrating on safety tips. Among them: don’t swim alone; avoid horseplay in the pool or ocean; and be sure the ocean is calm.
Someone once noted about Esther Williams that “Wet, she was a star.” This is certainly true. Watching her movies these days, viewers will not marvel only at her gracefulness in the water, but at how scripts were devised to get her into the water as much as possible. As a musical, Dangerous When Wet is not in the class of such MGM classics as Singin’ in the Rain or The Band Wagon, but it’s pleasant, tuneful, and a window into the post-war period when even musicals with slight plots found a receptive audience.
- Dennis Seuling