Saturday, June 15, 2013

Stubs – Neptune’s Daughter

Neptune’s Daughter (1949) Starring: Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Ricardo Montalban, Betty Garrett, Keenan Wynn, Xavier Cugat. Directed by Edward Buzzell. Screenplay by Dorothy Kingsley.  Produced by Jack Cummings. Music by Frank Loessier Run Time: 95 minutes. U.S.  Color. Musical, Comedy, Romance

With the recent passing of Esther Williams and the current release of Man of Steel, there were two possible choices for Friday night. Either we could watch something Superman related: Superman (1978), Superman II (1980), Superman III (1983), Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) or Superman Returns (2006), or take a chance on seeing a good movie. We chose the latter and opted for one of the recent films TCM had shown in tribute to Williams, Neptune’s Daughter.

Now as I admitted in a Facebook post earlier, I had never seen an Esther Williams film before. And my lack of knowledge regarding her career came back to bite me. This is not the great Esther Williams film, though it does have its good parts. Williams was a unique star in Hollywood, an aquatic actress. The only other swimmer turned movie star (and I’m not counting novelty appearances post-Olympics by (fill in athlete’s name here _________________)) would be Johnny Weissmuller, but he was more known for swinging above the water as Tarzan, rather than swimming and singing through it.

While Esther Williams was not an Olympian due to World War II, she most likely would have at least made the U.S. team. So, instead of Olympic gold, she had to settle for Hollywood stardom. A pretty face (though I have to say she looks like a glamorous Betty Crocker) and a swimmer’s body could take you pretty far in those days, especially if the biggest studio at the time, MGM, decided to put you in the movies. While she appeared in such films as A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1943), she had been signed by Louis B. Mayer as an athletic star to compete with Fox’s recent signing of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie. Sonja skated, so Esther would swim.

It may be hard to imagine it now, sort of like ventriloquist Edgar Bergen being a major radio star, but Esther’s swimming musicals were very popular and even helped inspire the Olympic competition Synchronized Swimming.

By the time of our movie, Williams had appeared swimming in Bathing Beauty (1944) with Red Skelton, Thrill of Romance (1945) with Van Johnson, On an Island With You (1948) with Peter Lawford and Ricardo Montalban, but also on dry land in such films as Fiesta (1947) with Montalban and Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949) with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.

Neptune’s Daughter finds Williams once again back in the water as swimming sensation Eve Barrett who catches the eye and the heart of businessman Joe Backett (Keenan Wynn), who starts a swimming suit company around Eve’s designs, called Neptune (partial title drop).

Coming along for the ride is Eve’s sister Betty (Betty Garrett), who is as man-hungry as Eve is all business. Try as he might, Joe doesn’t seem to be able to make Eve understand he’s in love with her. His unrequited love and their business arrangement seem to be working until the South American Polo Team comes to town, led by Jose O’Rourke (Montalban), a Latin sex symbol/playboy to play a match against an American squad.

Publicity Still with Wynn, Williams and Garrett.
During practice, Jose gets a chuck to the shoulder and masseuse Jack Spratt (Red Skelton) is sent to massage away the injury. Jack is as shy around women as Jose is aggressive and the virgin gets advice from the Casanova. Jack idolizes Jose and even pretends to be him.

Red Skelton and Ricardo Montalban in Neptune's Daughter.
Betty, who can’t wait to meet Jose, drives out to the polo grounds to find him. Mistaking the red-haired Jack for the Latin Jose (really?), Betty is aggressive and Jack takes on a jokey version of Jose to appease her. Speaking with an accent and broken English, he accepts an invitation for a date. To keep the illusion of speaking Spanish, Jack brings along a record of Beginner Spanish and convinces her that a recitation of a table setting is romantic.
Cuchara and servilleta are romantic Spanish words for spoon and napkin.
But big sister Eve does not approve and tells Betty to stay away from Jose. The next day, when Jose arrives to see Eve, she tells him the same thing. But Jose doesn’t know what Eve is talking about, but since he finds her attractive, he goes along and agrees to break his date with Betty as long as Eve will go out with him. Determined as she might be to have a bad date, she instead finds herself falling for Jose.

So, she’s naturally confused the next day, when Matilda (Theresa Harris) tells Eve that Betty has left for another date with Jose, but that Jose is really Jack (wink). Eve goes to Jose’s hotel room, but her search comes up empty, except for a really cool bar set up behind what appears to be a bedroom door.

No sister, but there is a really cool bar on the other side of the door.
Just after Jose comments about how warm the summer night is, Eve thinks she should leave. The two break into song, “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, which would win the Academy Award for Best Song. Mirroring Jose and Eve’s rendition, Betty and Jose/Jack do a comical version with Jack thinking he should leave and Betty begging him to stay. (Ironically, “Baby It’s Cold Outside”, despite its summer setting in the movie, is now considered a winter/holiday standard.)

Williams and Montalban followed by Skelton and Garrett sing "Baby, It's Cold Outside".
Meanwhile, Joe is trying to use Eve to get some publicity for their swimsuits, by getting the owner of the club where the polo match will take place to let them stage a swimsuit show at poolside. But Eve is too busy keeping Jose away from Betty to help him, even going so far as to break a date with Joe. Joe ends up at a nightclub featuring Xavier Cugat and his orchestra. Cugat was a big band leader of the day, featuring Spanish songs (of which we’re “treated” to in the movie, even if they don’t have anything to do with the plot).

Joe has a conversation with club owner and racketeer Lukie Luzette (Ted de Corsia) about Eve and Jose. Lukie is not up on polo, but he smells a bet, especially when Joe mentions how important Jose is to the South American team. While they’re talking, who should come into the club, but Jose and Eve. Joe is jealous, but is helpless to stop the romance. He does catch a break though, when Jose’s womanizing past catches up to him as women throng around his table and Eve asks Joe to take her home.

Lukie meanwhile dispatches Mac Mozolla (Mike Mazurki) to kidnap Jose and, of course, Mac, with Betty’s help, mistakes Jack for Jose. Meanwhile, Jose proposes marriage to Eve, who accepts. (Have they even been on a real date?).

Eve Barrett (Esther Williams) is swimming when Jose proposes.
Where else would she be?
But when Eve tries to tell Betty of her engagement, Betty informs her that she and Jose are engaged. (Jose/Jack never proposes as much as Betty buys herself an engagement ring and informs him they are betrothed.)

Joe (Skelton) hiding from Mac, disappears into a group of bathing beauties.
How dumb is Mac supposed to be?

Jose, however, is abducted by Lukie’s henchmen, while Jack outsmarts Mac and escapes captivity. Jack makes it back to the polo match, where Betty, still thinking Jack is Jose, convinces him to mount a horse and save his team. As Jack is leading the South American team to victory, the real Jose is being freed by the police.

Arriving at the polo match just in time to accept the trophy, Jose clears up Eve’s confusion. Jack comes clean and Betty forgives him. A double wedding is planned for both couples. So everyone is happy, well maybe not Joe, but he gets Neptune swimsuits all to himself.

Red Skelton to the rescue. The physical comedian
 naturally rides a bucking bronco in the Polo Match.
This is a plot that would only work in a musical comedy, since it is so unbelievable and crazy. One wonders how the mistakes in identity could go on without someone ever looking at a photograph. How many red-headed South Americans are there; or O’Rourkes, for that matter? But the thin plot barely holds together with these inconsistencies, it would be shredded without them.

Having Xavier Cugat’s appearance in the film was probably a big deal at the time. How else can his musical numbers, which seem to be spliced into the film and made to fit, sort of like a round peg in a square hole. His musical roots are right for South American themes in the film, but the songs themselves seem to have almost nothing whatsoever to do with the film, especially the big production “Jungle Rhumba”.

You can tell this film was made before the era of political correctness. While I’m not a fan of films and TV shows that bend over backwards to be PC, which is a floating standard, I can’t imagine Red Skelton's mock accent would be well received these days, nor would Mel Blanc’s Tweety bird-voiced Pancho, who appears a couple of times in the film mostly to help misdirect the action.
Mel Blanc (r) as Pancho, misdirecting Betty (Betty Garrett).
I would not recommend Neptune’s Daughter if you were like me and had never seen an Esther Williams film before. There are a couple of big musical numbers, but nothing approaching the spectacle they show in those That’s Entertainment tributes. There have to be better films with her out there, or else she wouldn’t have been a star. It’s films like Neptune’s Daughter that remind you that filmmaking in those days was as much about the assembly line as it was about creating art.

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