Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)

Esther Williams had a unique film career, spending most of her time in a swimming costume. Often cast as an aquatic-ballet dancer, her personal favourite and best remembered role was as another star who also created a lot of attention in a swimming costume – Annette Kellerman.

 

Opening in Sydney Australia circa 1900, Million Dollar Mermaid charts the aquatic star’s life from her childhood battle with crippled legs, through to her record-breaking swim in London and on to her success at New York’s Hippodrome Theatre. Managing her affairs is brash American promoter James Sullivan, who initially sees an easy way to make a quick buck before becoming attracted to Annette when she’s out of the water as well.

Even if synchronised swimming isn’t your thing (and whose is it?), there’s still a lot of enjoyment to be had by watching this film. Esther Williams has never been better, or more radiant, and the much underrated Victor Mature proves he can act when he keeps his shirt on. Much fun is provided by Jesse White as Mature’s partner and the collective shocked residents of Boston when Annette appears in her famous one piece bathing suit . To top it all off, also featured are Pavlova, Rin Tin Tin and a boxing kangaroo!

So closely associated was Esther Williams with this role, Million Dollar Mermaid not only became her nickname but also the title of her autobiography.

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Esther Williams
Esther Williams

as Annette Kellerman

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Rather than object to her aquatic career, Kellerman’s father asked her to take up swimming and diving professionally to support the family. Furthermore, it was her father who suggested Annette should swim twenty-six miles down the Thames as a publicity stunt.

Annette Kellerman stated that, contrary to Victor Mature’s portrayal of her husband in the film, there was nothing cheap about James Sullivan, and that he was actually a shy, quiet man.

James Sullivan had no association with canine star, Rin Tin Tin.

Apart from being a swimmer, actor, aquatic performer and swimwear designer, Annette Kellerman was also an author. Click on the Neptune’s Daughter poster to read an excerpt of her 1918 book 'How to Swim', which covers the same period in her life depicted in Million Dollar Mermaid.

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Though this biopic only fleetingly touches of Kellerman’s film career, its climax depicts an accident that occurred during the filming of Neptune’s Daughter. Not much footage exists of this film, however Kellerman’s own account in her 1918 book How to Swim differs from what is portrayed in Million Dollar Mermaid. Among the changes are the location (Bermuda not Hollywood), the scenario (fight scene not ballet) and the placement of the director (in the tank not outside)

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