Esther Williams, whose swimming talents translated into over-the-top production numbers for MGM in the 40s and 50s, has died at the age of 91. Her movies, with their forgettable titles and meaningless plots, were ultimately memorable for the lavish scenes that saw Williams performing otherworldly tricks in the water accompanied by spurting fountains and innumerable synchronized swimmers.
Born in the Los Angeles area, as her Associated Press obituary by Bob Thomas explains, Williams was a competitive swimmer aiming for the 1940 Olympics until they were cancelled. MGM found Williams when she was working as a bathing beauty at the San Francisco World's Fair. Her career, in films that might have been forgotten were it not for her water ballets, was a microcosm of the sorts the power the Hollywood studio system wielded—it turned an untested Olympic-caliber swimmer into a movie star with a $250,000 pool. The pool was nicknamed, according to Aljean Harmetz in the New York Times, Pneumonia Alley by swimmers. From the Times' obit, the critic Pauline Kael put it this way: "Esther Williams had one contribution to make to movies — her magnificent athletic body.... And for over 10 years MGM made the most of it, keeping her in clinging, wet bathing suits and hoping the audience would shiver."
The AP's Thomas quotes Fanny Brice: "Esther Williams? Wet, she's a star. Dry, she ain't." Though that might have seemed like an insult, Williams was known for her "frankness and self-deprecating humor."
See, for instance, this trailer for Bathing Beauty opposite Red Skelton. The "aqua-ballet" was billed as the "most dazzling color spectacle ever filmed:"
Or this water-skiing bit from Easy to Love:
But perhaps this clip from 1974's That's Entertainment!, part of a series of films MGM released in the commemorating the studios glory years, is the easiest primer on Williams.