Esther Williams Breaks Her Neck, Finds Fulfillment Post-Stardom, Becomes a Godmother to an Olympic Sport, and Proves This Million Dollar Mermaid Could Act!
Esther Williams Could Act: The Unguarded Moment (1956)
1956’s The Unguarded Moment was the second of three “dry” films, as Esther Williams herself would call them, that she made during her career.
Perhaps the most dramatic role of her years in Hollywood, Esther’s portrayal of a super cute high school teacher being stalked by a deranged student was a far cry from the glittering swimsuits and extravagant swimming numbers audiences had come to expect from her movies.
Esther Williams: An Underrated Actress
Reactions to the film would be mixed, but I must say, seeing Esther in a dramatic role at this stage of her career really underscores just what an actress she had 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 would also offer its unique challenges as she adjusted to life post-stardom. But our girl Esther would come out on top, find Mr. Right, begin a successful line of swimwear, and become a godmother to an Olympic sport in the process.
If you haven’t seen The Unguarded Moment, you can purchase this fascinating and gripping film here on Amazon [aff. link].
To the plot!
Lois Conway (Esther Williams), 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, and it seems she lives a rather charmed life as the favorite teacher at Ogden High 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, and Lois initially decides to just ignore it, not wanting to get anyone in trouble. She’s also certain she won’t be getting any more of these notes.
Well, she’s wrong.
The notes continue, and even escalate in their creepiness….
Finally, 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, and, still unaware in the dark who this guy is, tries to make a run for it. He manages to tear her dress in the process, and Lois drops her purse, but she makes it out 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. (Watching Esther’s Lois tell Lieutenant Graham not to shout at her is something I totally see Esther doing in real life, by the way. !!!). There’s clearly some romantic tension in the room, and Graham’s worry that Lois will be next in the string of murders recently plaguing the town is obviously more than professional.
Then something freaky happens: Lois gets home, only to discover 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, RIGHT NOW.
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 to Lois: it’s Leonard Bennet (John Saxon), the school’s star football player.
Torn between the welfare of other potential victims, yet not wanting to ruin Leonard’s future, Lois decides to tell the school’s principal about the attack. But Principal Pendleton (Les Tremayne) doesn’t want to believe her, as Leonard is the school’s chance at glory this football season. Pendleton invites Leonard to his office while Lois is there to discuss the situation, but it’s clear he doesn’t plan to do anything about it.
So now Leonard knows that Lois knows that he’s her stalker, and 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, even making up a bogus story to explain his fingerprints in Lois’ home from when he returned her purse and stole the nasty notes he wrote her.
Leonard’s father (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 again 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 that he’s climbed. The fall kills him, and the town is 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, and enjoy a milkshake at the local diner as the film ends.
The Injuries and Near-Death Experiences of Esther Williams
The Unguarded Moment was Esther Williams’ first non-swimming film since The Hoodlum Saint in 1946.
And if I were Esther, I probably would have welcomed the change! As the only movie star who could do what she did, MGM and her various directors placed impractical and often dangerous demands on Esther’s shoulders:
“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 of Esther Williams’ injuries and near-death experiences in the water over the years:
Pagan Love Song (1950)
While filming Pagan Love Song in Kauai, Esther discovered she was pregnant. So 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 also have an increased rate of infection and scarring.
Who wouldn’t want to navigate a canoe in the ocean while pregnant over this stuff!!!!
Of course, the waves on the day Esther was 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 is swimming around in his hotel room, which, of course, is now underwater. The darkened, underwater set was complete with the walls, floor, and window of Keel’s room in the film.
And, oh yeah—as, Esther would say in her autobiography,
“Some idiot put a ceiling on the room.”
What a great idea.
Only a small trap door was left for Esther to open to get in and out of this set, which was effectively a black box full of water. After a 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 Esther was running out of oxygen and about to drown literally right in front of their eyes. One guy was eating a sandwich, another was on the phone. Finally, the prop man walked by, saw what was happening, 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 the filming of Million Dollar Mermaid, when our girl 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.
Esther describes the thought process that went through her head as she realized the dangerousness of her situation 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, her 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 those three broken vertebrae ended up fusing together:
“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
So yes, maybe 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, the man who replaced Louis B. Mayer as head of production in 1951. Slowly, things at MGM changed under Schary’s leadership. Schary wasn’t into musicals, glamour, or big movie stars.
Which meant he wasn’t into Esther Williams.
Esther quite literally 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 roles in terrible films. 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…
So 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, but salvage her career and keep her dignity.
Can you imagine making such a tough decision?
In the end, Esther knew the lack of fulfillment in her work would be stifling, and 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.”
Esther Williams Äfter MGM
The Unguarded Moment would not just be Esther’s first dramatic role in a decade, it would also be her first film away from MGM.
And in fact, 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.”
So Esther accepted the role: the rapidity with which her husband, Ben Gage, spent or gambled her money away meant Esther literally couldn’t afford to say no.
Behind the Pen Name
The screenplay of The Unguarded Moment was written by C. A. McKnight.
Should that name be familiar to you?
Well, no, but it was the pen name of a star any Classic Hollywood fan definitely knows: Rosalind Russell.
How cool is that??
Esther Williams' "Very Good" Performance
Roz used her mother’s name as her pen name, and actually completed the screenplay for The Unguarded Moment in 1951. And, as Esther writes in her autobiography, Roz told Esther that’s she’d originally written the role for herself, but got “too old” by the time the film was made.
Russell would giver her stamp of approval to Esther and her portrayal of Lois Conway, calling her performance “very good.”
Roz would make light of her screenplay in her autobiography, Life is a Banquet [aff. link], saying
“I wish I could tell you it was Gone with the Wind,”
but the fact is, Russell’s story effectively covered important subject material—sexual assault and the treatment of women in the workplace—that many were just not discussing in the 1950s.
Well done Roz!
Unfortunately for Esther, that $200,000 that had been her incentive to make The Unguarded Moment also alerted the IRS to husband Ben Gage’s shady financial dealings over the years.
How, you may ask?
Well, Ben simply didn’t report the income, a move guaranteed, in Esther’s words “to get their attention.”
When Esther returned to the US after filming Raw Wind in Eden in Italy, she discovered that in her absence, the IRS had audited the Gage Family, and put a lien 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…!
Esther later said in her autobiography that [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…”
Perhaps needless to say, this was the last straw for Esther, and she and Ben officially separated in November of 1957.
Enter Fernando and 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 why I think Esther didn’t have a successful second phase of her career after proving herself an actress in The Unguarded Moment: Fernando simply wouldn’t have allowed Esther to make films. Comedian Don Rickles would joking ask Esther one evening during her years with Fernando 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
My favorite sassy Esther anecdote from her years with Fernando is when she had to bribe a cop to get Fernando’s dinner home in time.
During her years with Fernando, Esther spent the day with her children at Ben’s home (where he never was, according to Esther), made dinner there, and said goodbye to the kids in time to bring Fernando’s meal back to their home. One evening, Esther, excellent cook that she was, prepared veal Milanese. On the way home, her self-described “erratic driving” as she adjusted the foil on the roasting pan, caught the attention of a policeman, and she was pulled over.
The policeman 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.”
How awesome is that??? Gotta love Esther’s confidence, sass, and daring!
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 reentered public life, 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
Esther could finally enjoy spending time with her children without having to juggle the demands of Fernando, and reveled in her new role of grandmother with the birth of daughter Susie’s son.
And 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 is still successful and stylish today.
An Olympic Legacy
One of Esther’s greatest legacies and rewards from this time of her life was unquestionably 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 graciously 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 no doubt contributed to synchronized swimming being recognized 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 finally recognized as an Olympic sport, and it seemed 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 her signature charisma to her commentary. (I can’t post the video here, but click the link to see Esther’s commentary. Her section begins at 1:38.)
An Esther Williams Fan FOR LIFE!
Highlighting Esther Williams, one of my role models since childhood, has been a complete joy this month. I feel so lucky to have grown up with Esther and her aqua musicals. The enchantment of seeing Esther gracefully glide through the water is just as powerful today as it was for nine-year-old me, newly introduced to Esther andher beautiful films. I know there are many who feel the same way.
One thing’s for sure: there will never be another Esther Williams. And what a privilege it is to have been touched by her magic.
And that wraps up our glorious month with Esther Williams!
Join me next week as we begin a new month with a woman I’ve been dying to write about for years, a talented and tragic trailblazer in Hollywood, the beautiful Dorothy Dandridge.