Victor Mature, David Brian, and Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)


(director: Mervyn LeRoy; screenwriter: Everett Freeman; cinematographer: George J. Folsey; editor: John McSweeney Jr.; music: Adolph Deutsch; cast: Esther Williams (Annette Kellerman), Victor Mature (James Sullivan), Walter Pidgeon (Frederick Kellerman), David Brian (Alfred Harper), Noreen Corcoran (Annette Kellerman at age 10), Jesse White (Doc Cronnol), Maria Tallchief (Pavlova, ballet dancer); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Arthur Hornblow Jr.; MGM; 1952)
“If you can get past the tedious love story, then you will be rewarded in seeing the absolute best water-ballet routines ever filmed.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A dull and inaccurate biopic on Aussie swimmer Annette Kellerman. Its only saving graces are the beautiful underwater ballet sequences choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Esther Williams, the film’s star, did 25 films for MGM. This one is typical, as it shows Esther magnificently doing her swimming thing and struggling mightily to act when out of the water. The script is handled by Everett Freeman; Mervyn LeRoy (“Gold Diggers of 1933”) is the director.

It begins in the early 1890s in Sydney, Australia, where crippled Annette Kellerman as a ten-year-old surprises her musical tutor father Frederick (Walter Pidgeon) by swimming in a pond without braces. When dad’s conservatory goes bust, the now teenager and fully developed Annette (Esther Williams) is recognized as an amateur swimming champion of Australia. Dad takes a teaching job offer from a conservatory in London, and the two travel by ship. En route they meet wannabe showbiz entrepreneur Jimmy Sullivan (Victor Mature) and his loyal assistant Doc Cronnol (Jesse White), who own a kangaroo that can box. Jimmy proposes Annette hook up with him in London and develop a mermaid swimming act to go along with his boxing kangaroo act. Dad shuns the offer, saying Annette’s enrolled in a ballet school. In London, dad’s conservatory closed and the family is scrapped for bread. Jimmy, attracted to the beautiful swimmer, drops by and offers her good money to do a publicity stunt for his kangaroo act. Annette swims 26 miles down the Thames and the public cheers her on. The Brit press runs with the human interest story and she unexpectedly becomes a celebrity.

Jimmy goes to New York and tries to get Annette a booking at the Hippodrome (legendary theater built in 1905 with the largest seating capacity in the world of 5,200 people. The most popular vaudeville artists of the day, including Harry Houdini, performed at the Hippodrome during its heyday. But by the late 1920s, the growing popularity of motion pictures replaced the vaudeville acts and circus spectacles presented there). Alfred Harper (David Brian), the Hippodrome producer, turns her act down. Jimmy brings Annette to Boston where she again goes for a long swim as a publicity stunt. The slick Jimmy then arranges to have her arrested for wearing a revealing one-piece swimsuit and notifies the press. She creates a splash that’s reported across the country, and Jimmy is able to snowball the publicity into a lucrative contract as a water-ballet underwater star. The two become lovers but have a falling out, as he becomes jealous of her success. Annette gets hired by the Hippodrome to swim in their immense tank, while her dad is hired as the orchestra maestro. When Annette’s dad dies and Jimmy stubbornly refuses to see her, she is drawn to her kindly benefactor Alfred and they become engaged.

The climactic scenes involve Annette’s accident while making a pic, and the pining Jimmy coming back into her life as she lies crippled in a hospital bed. Jimmy equals his discovery of Annette by next discovering none other than Rin Tin Tin.

If you can get past the tedious love story, then you will be rewarded in seeing the absolute best water-ballet routines ever filmed.


REVIEWED ON 9/21/2005 GRADE: C +