Esther Williams in Dangerous When Wet

Went trolling through the satellite TV a few weeks ago, specifically on AMC, and found a movie about an Arkansas girl who attempted to swim the English Channel. So of course, I did the only thing I could. I recorded it.

Finally, this morning I watched it. It was billed under the humor genre, with musical thrown in. The first and only person I knew in the movie was Pa, played by the guy who was Uncle Charlie in My Three Sons. I recognized him immediately from his voice, despite the odd reverse-fuzz lens they used on him. (It looked like they blurred his face while keeping Esther Williams’s face clear.)

The woman playing the channel swimmer had such a beautiful stroke that I had to look her up. Well, lo and behold but Esther Williams. I remembered immediately. When Ms. Williams died this year (she was 91, God bless her and her wonderful genes), there was much talk of her “aqua-musicals” and the fact that she was a great swimmer. Well, great she was. She was a three-time U.S. National Swimming champion, missing the 1940 Olympics because of WWII. She did some diving and synchro, as well, as evidenced by her performances in these aqua-musicals.

Dangerous When Wet was a cute little family movie, hokey and corny at the same time, but sweet. It was filmed in 1953, and set at the same time. Esther played Kate Higgins, a farmer’s daughter from a physically fit family who daily swam laps in a swimming hole on their farm. Kate desperately wanted to make the farm profitable, but lacked the money to fix the barn, get a new milking machine, and buy a prize-winning steer. When a snake-oil salesman comes to town, he talks the family into swimming the English Channel. You see, he’s a promoter, and he can get his boss (the elusive Colonel, creator of the tonic Liquipep (a predeccesor of Maxim, perhaps?)) to bankroll their training and travel. And they could win money in the EC race to buy all the equipment they need for the farm.

So he does, and most of the film is of Kate training (the family is quickly forgotten by the writers), while falling in love with a French champagne salesman. Not sure where it was filmed, but “Dover Harbour” is filled with channel aspirants, all training for the Daily Mail EC race. There is even a large actor portraying “The Egyptian” which is obviously Abu Heif, one of the best marathon swimmers of all time.  (Openwaterpedia says that the Crocodile of the Nile’s career spanned 1953-1972, so I wonder if a channel expert on the film knew of him this early?)

What I liked most about the film was not the Tom & Jerry sequence (cheesy to the extreme) or the love story, although that is funny in the end. No, what I liked was that the film stuck to the rules of channel swimming throughout. At the start of the race, the director announces to all of the dozen or so swimmers:

Do not touch your rowboat. Or your trainer. Or you will be disqualified. When you reach Dover, you must wade ashore unaided.

Could you have asked for anything more for a movie about the English Channel? Not only that, but when the family first step foot on Dover beach, they meet an old fisherman that tells them they’re not going to swim 20 miles, but more like 30-40. “But I looked myself, it is only 20 miles to France!” The fisherman explains to them about the tides and how you can’t swim straight. “It is 20 miles as the fish fly.”  When Kate is doing poorly near the end of her channel crossing, her love interest jumps in the water. As he approaches her, she says, “Stay back, don’t touch me.”  When she finally makes it to England (sorry…spoiler!), she repeatedly tells him to back off and not touch her. Now, for the movie’s sake she crosses some imaginary finish line which is still wet (albeit, only about an inch or two of water), but she finishes the swim.

And in good old 1950’s style, during the ending sequence, as the family are all singing, carrying their luggage to leave England, Pa knocks on Kate’s hotel door but the Frenchman answers. All are aghast. A man in my adult single daughter’s room? How dare he. Then Andre produce’s Kate’s hand, with a ring on it. And they all go dancing and singing into the credits.

So, a fun movie, with an actor who actually knows how to swim, and swim well. (Compare that to action films with “tough broads” who, when they run, well, you know, run like girls.)

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