1956’s The Unguarded Moment was the second of three “dry” films Esther Williams made throughout her career.
With Esther’s realistic portrayal of a super cute high school teacher being stalked by a deranged student, The Unguarded Moment is devoid of the glittering swimsuits and extravagant swimming numbers that audiences had come to expect in an Esther Williams film. There’s not a pool to be found in this gripping thriller.
Esther Williams Acts in The Unguarded Moment
Reactions to the film were mixed, no doubt influenced by the fact that The Unguarded Moment was such a departure from anything Esther had done before. Despite the mixed reviews, seeing Esther in a dramatic role at this stage of her career underscores just what an actress she’d become, and how underappreciated her ease and comfort on screen were.
Behind the scenes, Esther would find her seemingly perfect world turned upside-down with the waning popularity of aqua musicals, and the financial ruin brought on by the irresponsible spending of husband number two, Ben Gage.
Esther’s cloistered existence with third husband Fernando Lamas also had its unique challenges as she adjusted to life post-stardom. But, as usual, Esther eventually came out on top: she found Mr. Right, began a successful line of swimwear, and became the godmother to an Olympic sport.
You can purchase The Unguarded Moment here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s go through the plot, then behind the scenes of the film.
The Unguarded Moment: The Plot
Lois Conway (Esther Williams) is a small-town high school music teacher and cheerleading instructor who’s cuter than all the students at the school. As we’d expect from the athletic and graceful Esther Williams, Lois even puts the cheer team to shame with her demonstration of cheer moves at the start of the film, our only taste of Esther’s aqua musical past.
Ms. Conway is clearly beloved by her students. It seems she lives a charmed life as the favorite teacher at Ogden High.
That is, until she discovers a super creepy note in her purse about the “beautiful music” she and the mystery writer of the note could make together.
The note is clearly from one of her students. Lois initially decides to just ignore it, not wanting to get anyone in trouble. She’s also certain she won’t get any more notes like it.
Well, she’s wrong.
The notes continue, and even escalate in their creepiness….
Eventually, Lois receives a note from the unstable mystery admirer instructing her to meet him in the locker room at night. Confident Lois decides to go meet the guy ALONE at the designated time, convinced she can talk him to his senses.
Well, she’s wrong. Again.
The Unguarded Moment
In the locker room with this creeper, Lois realizes she’s trying to reason with an unreasonable person. Still unaware in the dark who this guy is, Lois tries to make a run for it. Her assailant manages to tear her dress in the process. Lois drops her purse, but she makes it out of the locker room before anything else happens.
The police get involved after spotting the emotionally frazzled Lois running home. She’s brought in for questioning, and gives Lieutenant Harry Graham (George Nader) a talking to when he pushes her too hard for information. There’s clearly some romantic tension in the room. Graham’s worry that Lois’ attack is somehow linked to the recent string of murders in town, and that she could be the next victim, is obviously more than professional.
Then something freaky happens.
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Lois gets home and discovers that her purse—the one she dropped in the locker room—is sitting on her coffee table…
She quickly realizes that her assailant is IN HER HOME.
Lois convinces the kid that if he leaves now, while she’s got the lights out and the door open, she won’t try to see who he is. The kid takes her up on the generous offer, but as he runs out of the house, a car almost hits him, and the headlights reveal the stalker’s face: Lois sees that it’s Leonard Bennet (John Saxon), the school’s star football player.
Torn between the welfare of other potential victims, and not wanting to ruin Leonard’s future, Lois decides to tell the school’s principal about the attack.
But as Leonard is the school’s chance at glory this football season, Principal Pendleton (Les Tremayne) doesn’t want to believe Lois’ story. Pendleton invites Leonard to his office while Lois is there to discuss the situation. It’s clear Pendleton doesn’t plan to punish Leonard in any way.
So now Leonard knows that Lois knows that he’s her stalker. He begins ruining her reputation around school, saying it was Lois who put the moves on him.
This, coupled with Lieutenant Graham’s fears that Leonard is the town’s murderer, and that if Lois doesn’t do something now, Leonard will soon murder other women, convinces her to take action.
Leonard is brought into the police station for questioning, but won’t confess to anything. He even makes up a bogus story to explain his fingerprints in Lois’ home from the evening that he returned her purse and stole the nasty notes he wrote her.
Leonard’s father, Mr. Bennet (Edward Andrews), soon gets involved and begins threatening Lois.
Another Unguarded Moment...
The night before Lois is to go before the school board to defend her case against Leonard’s accusations that she’s the aggressor, Lois discovers Mr. Bennett in her bedroom, watching her undress.
Understandably freaked, Lois somehow manages to remain calm as she tries to defuse the situation. It’s clear that Mr. Bennet is the man who’s been murdering women around town, and that he intends to make Lois his next victim so she can’t discredit his son.
All the sudden, Bennet goes nuts, and lunges for her. While Lois tries to escape Bennet’s grasp, Lieutenant Graham luckily stops by to check on her. Hearing her screams, he breaks in the door, and sees Bennet, who makes a run for it.
A chase ensues, and Bennet almost makes it into his home before falling off a trellis he climbs. The fall kills him.
The town is now safe from a continuance of his murderous spree.
A Happy Ending
It’s a happy ending as Leonard confesses to stalking Lois, thus restoring her reputation and position at the school. Leonard then joins the military and sends updates to Lieutenant Graham of his progress. It seems Leonard will turn out alright.
And of course, Lois and Graham get together. The film ends with the two enjoying a milkshake at the local diner.
The Injuries & Near-Death Experiences of Esther Williams
The Unguarded Moment was Esther Williams’ first non-swimming film since The Hoodlum Saint in 1946.
It was a welcome change of pace. As the only movie star who could make aqua musicals, Esther constantly found herself placed in dangerous situations that MGM and her directors just assumed she could safely handle:
“Whether it was diving out of trees or handling an outrigger, it took every bit of the courage and discipline of a champion to do all the things the studio kept inventing for me to do. MGM figured anything that had to do with water was swimming, and that therefore Esther could handle it. No problem…
…Part actress, part stuntwoman, I knew I was doing all this on my own, and that’s how it was always going to be.”
Here’s the short list of the most shocking injuries and near-death experiences Esther endured in the water over the years:
Pagan Love Song (1950)
While filming Pagan Love Song in Kauai, Esther discovered she was pregnant.
As a result, all of her “chancy” swimming scenes had to be shot ASAP, before she got too far along or started “to show.”
One of these dangerous scenes required Esther to row in a double outrigger canoe in the ocean, at a beach with a steep drop between the ocean floor and the shoreline. Worse still, the ocean bottom in this particular spot was covered with dangerous black coral, which looks like—and can cause injuries similar to—broken glass. Black coral abrasions on the skin also have an increased rate of infection and scarring.
The waves on the day scheduled to shoot this scene were particularly large. But the director didn’t seem to care.
So, out Esther paddled in the outrigger, only to find herself:
“Perched on the crest of a wave, I looked down and saw there was no water beneath me at all, just the dreaded black coral on the ocean floor.
I rolled myself into a ball and clung to the side of the outrigger, holding on for dear life. The canoe cracked against the coral, splintering the lower outrigger. At a moment like that…you can’t even pray. I looked down at that mutilating glassy rock and figured I’d be lucky if I were only scarred for life. I would lose my baby.”
Luckily, Esther was tossed from the canoe, and a geyser of water from a blowhole in the coral shot her up and away from the coral, into the ocean water. It was the first of several life-threatening situations MGM didn’t think twice about before sending their stuntwoman-swimming star into the water.
Texas Carnival (1951)
In Esther’s next film, Texas Carnival, there was a fantasy swimming number where Esther appears in the dream of her leading man, Howard Keel. In the dream, Esther swims around Howard’s hotel room, which, of course, is now underwater. A darkened, underwater set was created for this sequence, complete with the walls, floor, and window of Keel’s room in the film.
The underwater set had one other element of realism that most definitely should have been left off. As Esther succinctly put it in her autobiography:
“Some idiot put a ceiling on the room.”
What a great idea.
So…the set was effectively a black box full of water. To get in and out of this black box, Esther was provided with nothing but a small trap door. After one rehearsal of the scene, Esther needed to come up for air, but:
“The black walls made it impossible to see the hatch in the trapdoor from the inside. I kept swimming around, trying various spots in the ceiling, but every place I tried, I hit solid wood. I couldn’t see any way to get out because it was wall, wall, ceiling. I was trapped with no air…”
No one on set realized that Esther was running out of oxygen and about to drown, literally right before their eyes: one guy was eating a sandwich, another was on the phone.
Finally, the prop man walked by and saw what was happening. He dove in, and saved Esther’s life.
Near-death experience number two.
Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)
Esther’s most harrowing brush with death over the years probably occurred during filming of Million Dollar Mermaid, when she was expected to swan dive off a tiny platform from 50 feet above the pool, wearing a sequined full-body suit, turban, and a heavy gold crown on her head.
Doesn’t that sound safe.
Unfortunately, only Esther realized the dangerousness of her situation.
But not until she was mid-dive:
“Hurtling down…I suddenly realized what was going to happen next. The gold crown on my head. Instead of being made with something pliable like cardboard, it was lightweight aluminum, a lot stronger and less flexible than my neck.
I hit the water with tremendous force. The impact snapped my head back. I heard something pop in my neck. I knew instantly that I was in big trouble.”
Unable to move her legs, and barely able to tread water with her almost paralyzed arms, Esther worried she’d never get out of the pool alive, for immediately after she hit the water, lunch break was called, and everybody left the set.
An Injury with Permanent Consequences
Luckily, the wardrobe lady was still there, and, finally realizing the seriousness of the situation, ran to get a few members of the crew to help Esther out of the pool and to the hospital.
The dive broke three vertebrae in the back of Esther’s neck:
“I’d come as close to snapping my spinal cord and becoming a paraplegic as you could without actually succeeding.”
Esther lived in a full body cast for six months as she healed. But another complication arose when those three broken vertebrae fused together during the healing process:
“I had headaches for a long time afterward. I still do. Whenever I’m stressed out, I get a headache from that solid piece of bone that I grew in the back of my neck. I was just lucky that it didn’t turn out worse.”
This close-call during Million Dollar Mermaid was enough to make Esther wisely turn down a few very dangerous stunts in the future: after that full-body cast, there was no way she’d say yes to Busby Berkeley’s request that she dive from a swing hanging from a helicopter while pregnant in 1953’s Easy to Love. She also refused when MGM asked her to jump off a cliff and into the ocean while on horseback for Jupiter’s Darling (1955).
A Dramatic Change for Esther Williams
Esther was ready to get out of the pool after years of harrowingly close calls. And really, she didn’t have much of a choice…
After the disappointing box office return of her last MGM aqua musical, Jupiter’s Darling, Esther found herself being pushed out of the studio by Dore Schary, who replaced Louis B. Mayer as head of production in 1951. Things slowly changed at MGM under Schary’s leadership. Schary wasn’t into musicals, glamour, or big movie stars.
Which meant he wasn’t a fan of Esther Williams.
Esther represented all the things Schary would move MGM away from in the ensuing years. To get Esther out of MGM after the failure of Jupiter’s Darling, Schary began offering her exclusively terrible film roles. As per her contract, if Esther turned these roles down, she would be put on unpaid suspension.
Worse still, if Esther simply left MGM, the studio wouldn’t have to pay her the $3 million dollars she’d earned as part of her deferred payment plan. The plan stipulated that a certain amount of Esther’s salary would be withheld over the years—a built in retirement plan—and that she’d get the money only at the end of her contract. Failure to complete the contract meant that MGM wouldn’t have to pay her this money that she’d technically already earned.
Esther had a hard choice to make: stick around, accept the terrible roles, and collect her $3 million in a few years, or leave MGM and the money behind and keep her dignity.
Ultimately, Esther knew that the lack of fulfillment that would come from accepting terrible film roles would be stifling. So one day, she simply left MGM:
“I packed all my terry cloth robes, my tired saggy bathing suits in which the elastic had died…and drove toward the East Gate…
At the gate, the guard on duty…smiled at me as he had for fourteen years, every morning I came to work…
And off I drove. I did’t say good-bye to anyone else. There was no point. Everyone I cared about was already gone. I heard Gable left the same way.”
The Unguarded Moment & Esther Williams After MGM
The Unguarded Moment was Esther’s first dramatic role in a decade. It was also her first film away from MGM.
When Universal Studios offered Esther the role of Lois Conway, she was more than a bit surprised:
“I thought it was a curious choice for Universal to offer me the lead in a ‘dry’ psychological thriller, and I wasn’t sure the public would accept me without my glittering crowns and sparkly swimsuits…Nonetheless, Universal offered me $200,000, which was more than I ever made for a single film at MGM in or out of the water.”
Esther accepted the role. The rapidity with which her husband, Ben Gage, spent or gambled away her money meant Esther really couldn’t afford to say no.
Behind the Pen Name
The screenplay of The Unguarded Moment was written by C. A. McKnight.
Also known as Rosalind Russell.
Using her mother’s name as her pen name, Roz completed the screenplay for The Unguarded Moment in 1951. Roz told Esther that’s she’d originally written the role for herself, but was “too old” to play it by the time the film was made.
Russell gave her stamp of approval to the casting of Esther, and to her portrayal of Lois Conway, calling Esther’s performance in the film “very good.”
Russell made light of her screenplay in her autobiography [aff. link], saying:
“I wish I could tell you it was Gone with the Wind,”
But Roz is too modest. Her story effectively presents important subjects—sexual assault and the treatment of women in the workplace—that were just not discussed in the 1950s.
Well done Roz.
That $200,000 from The Unguarded Moment
Unbeknownst to Esther, her husband, Ben Gage, opted not to report the $200,000 that she made on The Unguarded Moment to the IRS. Which, as Esther later pointed out, was a guaranteed way to attract the agency’s attention.
When Esther returned to the US after filming Raw Wind in Eden in Italy, she discovered that the IRS had audited the Gage Family in her absence, and uncovered Ben’s shady financial dealings over the years. A lien was put on their home.
Esther spent the next several years paying off the $750,000 the IRS calculated was owed them.
That’s the equivalent of $7 million dollars today.
As Esther reflected in her autobiography[aff. link]:
“I probably should have done a better job of policing our family finances…[but] looking back, I suppose that when you find yourself using the world ‘policing’ in connection with the activities of your spouse, it should be a red flag…”
Esther and Ben officially separated in November of 1957.
Fernando Lamas & the Cloistered Existence of Esther Williams
Esther didn’t fair much better with her next marriage to Fernando Lamas.
But at least the guy didn’t spend all her money.
During her years with Fernando, Esther lived a cloistered existence. Fernando’s insistence that she “stop being Esther Williams,” and dedicate her time solely to him is the primary culprit for why Esther’s post-aqua musical film career never took off.
One evening during her years with Fernando, comedian Don Rickles jokingly asked Esther how she liked it in the nunnery. But the question really wasn’t that far from the truth: Fernando expected Esther to give up her career, and even her children, for him.
Another Sassy Esther Anecdote
Here’s a sassy Esther anecdote from her years with Fernando that demonstrates Fernando’s demands on her time and attention, as well as the creative lengths Esther had to go to in order to spend time with her children.
During her marriage to Fernando, Esther spent the day with her children at Ben’s home. (According to Esther, Ben was never home.). She made dinner there, and said goodbye to the kids in time to bring Fernando’s meal back to the home he and Esther shared.
One evening, Esther, excellent cook that she was, prepared veal Milanese. When it came time to taxi the meal across town to Fernando, Esther’s self-described ‘erratic driving’ as she adjusted the foil on a roasting pan, caught the attention of a policeman, and she was pulled over.
The officer asked to see Esther’s license, but was quickly distracted by the delicious smells of garlic and rosemary emanating from the car. He asked Esther what is was:
“‘It’s veal Milanese. The foil was slipping and I didn’t want the gravy to spill.’”
Esther replied. The policeman complimented her, and then asked if he could taste the veal Milanese.
“‘Sure, you can taste; you can even have one. But then you can’t give me a ticket. You can only give me a warning.’ I wondered whether this could be considered bribing a policeman.”
You’ve got to love Esther’s confidence, sass, and daring. Take a look at my Vegan Tofu Milanese recipe here, inspired by Esther’s story.
Fernando Lamas got his veal Milanese that night, and every ounce of Esther’s attention until his death in 1982. With Fernando’s passing, Esther said goodbye to her cloistered existence in the nunnery, and in her own words, now had to figure out what do with the rest of her life. As it turned out, her most rewarding years were just ahead.
Esther Williams: Mermaid Tycoon and Godmother of a Sport
Finally, Esther could spend time with her children without juggling the demands of Fernando. With the birth of daughter Susie’s son, Esther reveled in her new role of grandmother.
At the end of 1983, Esther met Edward Bell, the man who proved to be her Mr. Right. The two remained happily married until Esther’s passing in 2013.
Bell was instrumental in helping Esther get her swimwear line up and running. All those years of testing swimsuits for her films, discovering what fabrics worked best in the water and what cuts were most flattering, certainly paid off. Esther’s gorgeous swimwear and accessory line continues to be successful and stylish today.
An Olympic Legacy
One of Esther’s greatest legacies and rewards from this time of her life was the recognition of synchronized swimming as an Olympic sport.
After she introduced the world to the magic of “swimming pretty” in 1944’s Bathing Beauty, synchronized swimming meets began popping up all over the country. Esther received fan mail throughout her Hollywood years from young women asking her how to swim pretty, and how to start a water ballet group. With the help of her mother, Esther responded with packets of information answering all these questions, even detailing the technical aspects of her signature underwater moves.
Esther’s example and generosity of time contributed to the recognition of synchronized swimming as an event at the 1955 Pan American Games, and, as a demonstration sport at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia.
In 1984, synchronized swimming was officially recognized as an Olympic sport. It was only fitting to have Esther, the undisputed godmother of the sport, join the NBC Sports broadcasting team as a commentator at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Esther was a joy to watch and listen to, bringing great insight, charm, and charisma to her commentary.
The Beautiful Trooper
At the end of a charming 2007 interview with Diane Sawyer, the eighty-six year old Esther Williams turned to Sawyer and said:
“We’re a couple of troopers aren’t we? And we both stayed so pretty. Isn’t that the best part?”
It’s an accurate and succinct self-assessment, delivered with the impeccable timing and dry humor fans of Esther Williams know and love.
From dashed Olympic dreams to the heights of film stardom; to the ups and downs of three marriages before finding her lasting love; from reinventing herself as a business woman to reveling in her roles as doting grandmother, and godmother to an Olympic sport; Esther Williams was a trooper.
A beautiful trooper, inside and out.
She’ll forever be Classic Hollywood’s one and only (sassy) Mermaid.