Esther Williams – The Wonder Woman of the 1950s

EstherSometimes pop culture passions of past and present converge in unexpected and serendipitous ways. This happened to me on a recent Saturday night when I watched Wonder Woman with Lynda Carter on the nostalgia-themed Me-TV network, followed by JUPITER’S DARLING (1955) with Esther Williams on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.

So, what do a low budget, live-action, 1970s superhero TV show and a lavish, MGM Sword & Sandal/musical/rom-com hybrid from the 1950s have in common? Just this: the Esther Williams of JUPITER’S DARLING would have made the perfect Wonder Woman.

Her Olympic dreams dunked by the cancellation of the 1940 summer games in Tokyo, the competitive swimmer from Englewood, California instead dove into an acting career with MGM. Over the next fourteen years, Williams appeared in more than 20 films, often engaging in complex synchronized swimming sequences shot in glorious Technicolor in pools constructed on studio stages.  JUPITER’S DARLING, a CinemaScope epic set in Rome in the year 216 B.C., was the 33-year-old actress’s final film for MGM –  and it’s the most super-heroic performance I’ve seen her give.

Williams plays Amytis Katanas, the rebellious, young Greek fiancée of the newly installed Roman dictator, Fabius Maximus (George Sanders). Unleashed from the shackles of the soundstage, Williams gets to engage in exciting exterior action sequences, culminating in a remarkable undersea chase pursued by knife-wielding Roman soldiers. Her tall (5′ 8″), muscular frame accented by the gowns and armor of Ancient Rome, Williams seems far more like an athlete than in her some of her earlier, sitcom-y romantic farces with co-stars like Ricardo Montalba, Van Johnson, and Fernando Lamas.

WW_(LC_1)But it’s not all about ass-kicking. Amytis sports a variety of delightfully sheer gowns by MGM’s Oscar-winning costume designer Helen Rose, which immediately evoked childhood memories of “my” Wonder Woman, Lynda Carter. Carter’s skimpy get-ups were a big part of why a series with a female lead was equally popular with boys and girls throughout its three-season run in the late ‘70s, first on ABC and later on CBS. While she wasn’t my first TV crush – Batgirl Yvonne Craig and her form-fitting fashions will always hold that honor – Carter’s running, jumping, kicking, punching, and penchant for binding men with her magic lasso affected me in ways I didn’t quite understand at the time.

In the 1975 Wonder Woman pilot, originally broadcast a few days before my seventh birthday, Carter’s Princess Diana discovers Maj. Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner) on the beach of an uncharted island in the Devil’s Triangle, after the pilot bails out of a dogfight with a Nazi pilot. Diana hoists the muscular military man in the air and carries him through the surf to safety, her lavender teddy billowing in the breeze. (Apparently there’s a Victoria’s Secret outlet on Paradise Island.) Despite the predictable disapproval of her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Cloris Leachman in a role later played by Carolyn Jones), Diana departs Paradise to do her bit for the U.S. war effort – and to make eyes at the handsome Maj. Trevor.

Amytis has to deal with her share of disapproval as well, mostly from her sourpuss, soon-to-be mother-in-law (Norma Varden), who disapproves of her unusually active lifestyle.

“Hunting, fishing, throwing javelins!” she sneers. “If the Gods had wanted us to propel ourselves through water, they would have provided us with fins.”

ChampionAmytis enjoys all of the above, and then some. When first we meet the beautiful tomboy she’s joyriding in a horse-drawn chariot, her cape flying behind her like, well, a comic book super heroine. Late for her future husband’s inauguration, she and her maid Meta (Marge Champion) instead decide to go slave shopping, procuring the services of the muscular young Varius (Gower Champion). Meta and Varius hit it off immediately, and immediately break into a Hermes Pan-choreographed dance number in which they repeatedly dry hump each other.

And that’s another thing to love about JUPITER’S DARLING: even mired in the still-strenuous Production Code censorship restrictions of the mid-1950s, there’s plenty of steamily suggestive action.

Sadly, this is where the similarities with Wonder Woman end. Steve Trevor and Diana Prince may flirt, but when the series jumped forward in time to the 1970s in Season 2, romance took a back seat. (Apparently the writers thought it would be weird if Diana had a thing for Major Trevor and his lookalike son, even though both characters were portrayed by the same actor.)

networksx-largeDespite her status as a popular pin-up for Catholic schoolboys who grew up to become writers of classic film blogs, Lynda Carter does an amazing job of being mostly sexless in her portrayal, which works well for the character and her heroic legitimacy. Age 24 when the series debuted, the model and singer from Phoenix, Arizona exuded a guileless good girl aura in her first leading role that probably helped the producers get away with the revealing costumes (which were expanded in later seasons to include a swimming outfit, further proving my thesis.)

Meanwhile, back in Ancient Rome, Esther Williams was getting hot and bothered with Howard Keel. Based on the 1928 play Road to Rome by Robert Sherwood (a 1947 Oscar winner for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES), JUPITER’S DARLING focuses on the unsuccessful siege of Rome by Hannibal the Barbarian of Carthage (Keel, in his third team-up with Williams). Why was his siege unsuccessful? Apparently because Hannibal was too busy hooking up with Amytis.

There wasn’t a lot of sex in the movies in 1950s and, to be clear, there’s absolutely none on screen in JUPITER’S DARLING. But it’s very obvious what’s going on off-screen, far more so than I would have expected from a studio film of the Eisenhower era. And in case you don’t get it, there’s an onscreen narrator (Richard Haydn) to engage in humorous euphemisms:

“All day long the army stood there loitering,” Horatio the Historian recites. “And where was Hannibal? Still reconnoitering. “

Wink, wink. Eventually, Amytis uses her charms to save the lives of thousands of Romans when she offers Hannibal a choice: sex or violence? Just like the funky ’70s Wonder Woman theme song proclaims, she makes “a hawk a dove, and stops a war with love.”

CastExcluded from the popular, two-volume, TCM-branded box sets of a few years ago, JUPITER’S DARLING may be a lesser-known Williams effort, but it’s peppy and diverting. The songs by Burton Lane and Harold Adamson are catchy, the Champions provide able support in their final MGM film, and Keel is always entertaining, especially as a blustery blowhard. WAC’s manufacture-on-demand DVD includes a remastered transfer presented in the original, 2.55 aspect ratio, a theatrical trailer, and a deleted musical number (in which George Sanders sings in an operatic baritone and Gower Champion dances – in chains – with his lovely wife, who is still going strong at age 94.)

But this is Esther Williams’ movie. She dominates JUPITER’S DARLING with an imposing self-possession and liberated presence that would have translated perfectly to Diana/Wonder Woman. And Carter, despite her age, brought a similar don’t-mess-with-me gravitas to the TV series, often tempered with a sweet smile. Both women make it clear who is in charge.

gal-gadot-riddick-premiere-in-westwood-08-28-13_1Undoubtedly, so will Israeli actress and FAST FIVE star Gal Gadot, who recently signed a three-picture deal with Warner Bros. to become the big screen’s first Wonder Woman (her first appearance will be in the sequel to MAN OF STEEL, which may or may not be delayed until May of 2016). It’ll be fun to see her pilot her CGI-perfected invisible jet (which will undoubtedly look better than Lynda Carter’s), but I can’t help wishing some producer had the foresight to cast Esther Williams in the role sixty years earlier. And what if they had teamed her with George Reeves, the enormously popular TV Superman of the 1950s (and a favorite of mine in ’70s reruns)? I mourn the missed opportunity for Williams (who died last June) and for me, who might have learned to love Esther Williams at a much earlier age.

Wonder Woman airs Saturday nights at 8 p.m. on Me-TV. You can check to see if you get the channel here. JUPITER’S DARLING is available on manufacture-on-demand DVD from Warner Archive. Watch them both together for twice the fun!

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About willmckinley

I'm a New York City-based writer, video producer, print journalist, radio/podcast host, and social media influencer. I've been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by Robert Osborne), NPR, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the official TCM podcast. My byline has appeared in Slate.com and more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. I'm also a social media copywriter for Sony's getTV and a contributor to four film-and-TV-related books: "Monster Serial," "Bride of Monster Serial," "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial," and "Remembering Jonathan Frid."
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