The Forgotten: George Sidney's "Jupiter's Darling" (1955)

With Hannibal at the gates of Rome, can singing, swimming Esther Williams save the city from the depths of disaster?
David Cairns

The Coen brothers' recent Hail Caesar! may have seemed pretty bold in featuring both a Roman sword-and-sandal epic and a water ballet musical in its story of old Hollywood chicanery, but in 1955 MGM went several steps further in producing Jupiter's Darling, which is simultaneously a Roman epic and a water ballet musical, starring the queen (and sole proponent) of the latter genre, Esther Williams.

One of the perplexing things about the genius of the system, whereby a studio apparatus geared to make crowd-pleasing entertainment also produced, on a fairly regular basis, great cinematic art as a kind of incidental by-product (incidental except to the artists employed) is that often the mass audience, which was the ultimate arbiter of taste, would get things badly wrong. Thus Keaton's The General, his bravest and best film, was a commercial flop, and thus the climax of the Williams water-and-song cycle proved to be an expensive fiasco for the front office.

In cohabiting the realms of musical and proto-peplum, the film is, oddly enough, not unique. Roman Scandals (1933) is the pre-Code prototype, and it employs Esther Williams most famous collaborator, choreographer and maniac Busby Berkeley, to create its panoplies of ancient world show-tunes. In one celebrated moment of grotesquerie, follies star Eddie Cantor, who is both very camp and very Jewish, blacks up to infiltrate a sauna and peep at the naked showgirls as they sing "Keep Young and Beautiful (If You Want to be Loved)" before being shrunk in a steam-booth and emerging as a Nubian dwarf. Rarely can a sequence have courted offense to so many groups without, oddly enough, upsetting anyone.

A decade after Jupiter's Darling, Stephen Sondheim's stage show A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a mash-up of Plautus' greatest comedies, was filmed by Richard Lester in a version the author is still fuming about. But it does cram in more gags than perhaps any other film, especially if you count filmic gimmicks, odd sound-effects, eccentric cutaways and exaggerated reactions as gags (Zero Mostel's unexpected recreation of John Barrymore's Mr. Hyde is the stand-out here).

One of Sondheim's numbers, the Roman general's vainglorious, operatic "Bring Me My Bride," seems directly inspired by the MGM opus, in which Hannibal, played with shameless brio by Howard Keel, is introduced with a similarly barbaric ditty.

For an avowed heterosexual, Keel, like Williams, had a highly developed sense of camp, and George Sidney, an underrated figure in the Freed Unit's pantheon of directors, was the ideal man to unleash it (though see also Minnelli's Kismet) as he also did in Kiss Me Kate. And Esther Williams, perhaps the greatest ever swimmer turned actor (step aside Weissmuller, back off "Buster" Crabbe!) more than holds her own.

That poor woman made many sacrifices for her art, breaking her eardrum and nearly drowning on multiple occasions, and having to grin underwater for what seems like minutes at a time (prolonged grinning was a Freed requirement, reaching its apotheosis in Gene Kelly). She also had to be slathered in strange chemical concoctions to stay looking artfully made-up as she gyrated in a subaqueous manner.

Asides from a dramatic undersea chase, Esther only really lives up to the slur/tribute "Wet, she was a star," in one sequence—but it's quite a sequence. "I have a dream," she sings, expressing her dissatisfaction with milquetoast schnook Roman emperor George Sanders, and then slips under the surface of her Olympic-sized pool, where clouds of bright orange bubbles transport her into that dream, where marble statues of Apollo and friends come to life and woo her, and cherubs swim about darting her with arrows. If Esther's make-up was uncomfortable, spare a thought for the poor bastards who had to be caked in grey paint to simulate statuary, while endeavoring to act and avoid drowning.

Above the surface, the lunacy continues, as the respected Robert E. Sherwood's pacifist play The Road to Rome is brazenly traduced to give Esther and the audience as much opportunity as possible to marvel at Keel's enormous thighs. The lyrics are startling: Keel sings an entire song about the ways in which he will murder Williams if she deceives him. "If someone I desire / Should prove to be a liar / I'd slit her lovely throat from ear to ear / And at my leisure later / I might decapitate her / And say, "Too bad you lost your head my dear."

Asides from its Olympian leads, the film also has spirited support from Marge & Gower Champion, second-string dance stars who are for once given some funny business and help the nonsense along: Gower's paean to (his own) slavery is pretty amusing, in the same strange way Keel's homicidal ballad is.

At the climax, love, or anyway sex appeal. triumphs over war, and Hannibal paints his elephants a variety of attractive pastel hues, because there was literally nothing else left to do.

The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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