Despite being a huge star for MGM in the 1940s and 50s, Esther Williams’ most famous connection to Australia is arguably her role in the film Million Dollar Mermaid where she portrayed the early life of Annette Kellerman.
There were remarkable parallels between the two women, even though Kellerman preceded Williams by some 40 years as a swimming champion and film star. Both were outstanding swimmers of their generation, with Kellerman winning at state level and Williams making the American Olympic swimming team, though ultimately, neither got the chance to represent their countries. Also at certain points in their respective film careers both suffered considerable injuries when performing stunts as the cameras were rolling.
For Williams, shooting Million Dollar Mermaid in 1952 while wearing a golden crown made of metal and performing a swan dive into a pool from a high platform, her head snapped back when she hit the water, breaking her back and requiring six months in a cast.
With Kellerman it was during the filming of Neptune’s Daughter whilst shooting underwater scenes with Herbert Brenon (who was also the film’s director) in a glass tank. Walter Bernard an eyewitness recounts ‘We saw them take a deep breath and once more go under the water. Hardly had they disappeared when there was a ‘Boom!’ like the echo of a firing cannon and immediately the canvas passage was swept away and tons of water rushed through the smashing glass. Their bodies lay motionless among the wreckage. They were shockingly cut and bleeding and we thought that surely dead.’1 Both recovered from bad cuts to finish the film after lengthy stays in hospital. The scene is recreated in the final scenes of Williams’ film Million Dollar Mermaid.
The Powerhouse Museum holds a number of Esther Williams related items used during her filming career at MGM, including a swimsuit used in the film Million Dollar Mermaid
A one piece women’s swimsuit designed by Helen Rose and made of coral satin finish (silk). The bodice has a princess line neck with zigzag pattern extending over the bust. The suit is panelled to be tight fitting and has a short skirt made of diamond shaped panels. A sewn-in fabric label has the handwritten words ‘1567 EDITH MOTRIDGE’. The number refers to Million Dollar Mermaid being MGM’s production number 1567. Edith Motridge worked for MGM as Williams’ swimming double. She was a member of the US swimming team at the Berlin 1936 Olympic Games. It is likely that Williams would have worn an identical costume rather than this one.
Williams’ portrayal of Annette in the 1952 film biography carried Kellerman’s story to a new audience. A famous scene from the film is set on RevereBeach in Boston where Kellerman in 1907, went for a swim in her trademark one-piece – hardly eyebrow raising by today’s standards, but shocking enough for the local constabulary to have her arrested. Williams, as Annette, reflects the changing attitude toward what women could wear as acceptable swimming attire in public. This change continued to the present, where looking back, the costume would hardly be considered outrageous.
Written by Einar Docker, 2013
1.The Original Million Dollar Mermaid-The Annette Kellerman Story– Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, Allen & Unwin, 2005.
Swimming Champ to Film Star, The New York Times.; Sydney Morning Herald, Aljean Harmetz, – 08/06/2013.
The Million Dollar Mermaid, Esther Williams an autobiography with Digby Diehl, Simon; Schuster.1999.