Million Dollar Mermaid

**1/2—Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide

The picture transfer is somewhat disappointing. The program looks quite colorful, but the colors tend to oversaturate, spoiling their effect. During the movie’s first half, the center of the image has a slightly different hue than the edges. Regardless of what we said about the story, picture quality is critical to enjoying the film, especially during the wild Busby Berkeley numbers, and the image just isn’t sharp enough to delivery them effectively.—The 199 Laser Video Disc Companion

It wasn’t a planned viewing, but with 20 inches of snow on the ground—and counting—my wife suggested that we answer our daughters’ repeated plea, “Can we watch a movie?” by putting on our laserdisc of Mervyn Leroy’s Million Dollar Mermaid.

I had bought the disc, at Sarah’s prompting, in the waning days of the laserdisc format. One of the big laserdisc retailers was closing out several titles, Million Dollar Mermaid among them, and for $10—a steal in the days when laserdiscs cost $45 for a single movie—I figured it couldn’t hurt to add an Esther Williams film to my collection.

If we watched it after buying it those many years ago, I don’t recall doing so. I had hopes that the film would be enjoyable. It has its moments, but it’s short on the magic that characterizes so many classic MGM films.

Worse, the quality of the disc is mediocre at best. Watching it on a new HDTV, I wondered if years of DVD-watching had skewed my perception of the video image. When my choices were either VHS or laserdisc, it was easy to be an image snob. But the intervening years of DVD and the advent of high-definition video left me behind. Excellent video quality became the status quo, and that was before the advent of Blu-ray. Laserdiscs no longer looked as sharp as they once did, but did they really look this soft? The colors appeared to bleed on the disc, and the transfer was lacking.

Million Dollar Mermaid is “inspired by a true story,” the life of Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman, but it’s pure Hollywood formula biopic, albeit a bit messy. Kellerman is a crippled child who overcomes her handicap in the film’s first 10 minutes. That aspect of her triumph is barely touched on for 90 minutes, then raised in the film’s closing moments, when Kellerman addresses a young girl whose legs are in braces, just as Kellerman’s once were. Between those moments we get the story of a promoter, James Sullivan (Victor Mature), who manages Kellerman, turning her into a star through a publicity stunt and a water ballet show that draws hordes who watch Kellerman and her cast (the performance numbers were choreographed by Busby Berkeley).

More off-putting is Kellerman’s romance with Sullivan, a fast-talking promoter who gives Kellerman a break when she and her father have no other prospects. Kellerman falls for Sullivan, but circumstances beyond their control eventually separate them, leaving Kellerman to be wooed by a new love interest, the unfailingly decent Alfred Harper (David Brian). He treats her with respect, provides for her in every way and wants to marry her. Sullivan’s reappearance in Kellerman’s life is a reminder of how poorly he fares in comparison to Harper—Kellerman should see how good she has it with Harper, and how close she came to making a mistake with Sullivan. But the film wants us to find Sullivan charming and irresistible. It would be easier if Harper were a Ralph Bellamy bumpkin, but he’s not. Nor is he bland or boring. Still, the rules of these films insist that Williams end up with Mature, not the second banana—distant memories of my own painful second-banana status in the lives of certain women notwithstanding. I thought marriage had softened me to these genre tropes, but apparently they still have the power to rile me in select instances.

Needless to say, my sympathies were not with Mature’s character, which made Harper’s chivalrous acceptance of Kellerman’s love for him all the more galling. Whether any of this is true to Kellerman’s real-life story I can’t say, but as a work of Hollywood matchmaking, I found it to be one of the less convincing entries from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

It’s part romance, part overcoming-the-odds story, but it’s also part feminist tract, as Kellerman—thanks, ironically, to Sullivan’s machinations—popularizes the one-piece bathing suit in America. If that sounds sexy, or revolutionary, trust me, it’s neither, although it does give the film a few moments of humor, and a contemporary relevance, without turning the film into a sermon.

The only thing I’ll remember about Million Dollar Mermaid are the Berkeley-choreographed scenes. It was worth the purchase price, but I don’t think I’ll be watching it again anytime soon. Unless my girls want to watch it again. They enjoyed it more than I did.

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