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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) - Amazing Technicolor, Amazing Acting, Amazing Film

This is one of the best biographies I've ever seen. Despite the usual Hollywood enhancements, it is largely true. And, best of all, it is about someone, Annette Kellerman, who is forgotten but deserves to be remembered. It is easy to give this a top rating, this is the one film of its kind (big budget Esther Williams film) that you should see.

Annette Kellerman was a top Australian swimming attraction of the early 1900s who traveled first to England, then to the US, where she finally hit it big. She did more for women's rights than just about any Suffragist by simply doing what she needed to do, by being a woman who got things done. She became a top silent film actress (though her films sadly are almost all lost), and remained in the public eye into the 1940s.

This film does her life justice. It is easy to nitpick, as everyone else who thinks they are watching a documentary seems to be doing (no, her husband had nothing to do with Rin-tin-tin, the choreography in the film is definitely 1950s Busby Berkeley and not 1910 NYC, etc.), but the basic facts are completely accurate. Kellerman became famous for some long-distance swimming, and when that played out, for wearing revealing bathing suits. The film is remarkable in claiming that her famous arrest in Boston for wearing the suit was staged by her manager, and later husband, James Sullivan. Her subsequent success in a primitive aquacade at the NYC Hippodrome is directly attributed to the publicity from this. Sullivan is given proper credit for creating the foundation of her successful film career. That is amazing candor for a 1950s biopic.

The Technicolor and the choreography are both amazing. This is a glorious, beautiful film. The synchronized swimming sequences are perfectly appropriate and not over the top, as in 1930s Berkeley productions. Swimmer Esther Williams is perfect as Ms. Kellerman, displaying the same muscular legs and strong back that photos reveal about her subject. No other actress could have done this justice, and it is obvious that Ms. Williams does all the swimming, diving and other stunts.

Victor Mature is terrific in a very tough role as Kellerman's promoter and eventual husband, managing to keep his subject's dignity and attractiveness intact despite the fact that her career took off while he (after a temporary estrangement) was reduced to hawking jewelry on trains. Their final reconciliation is quite touching. Whether all that is completely accurate, well, I don't really care, it plays well and manages to convey the deep bond those two must have had. They don't show it in the film, but theirs was a great love story of its own, staying married for over sixty years until their deaths a few days apart in 1975. Jesse White, famous later as the Maytag Repairman of TV commercial fame, comes close to stealing the film as Sullivan's sidekick.

Highly recommended. This is a forgotten film that deserves to be seen and remembered.

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