Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) – full review!
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy (Random Harvest (1942)) with a screenplay by Everett Freeman this above average Esther Williams vehicle is a biographical drama about Annette Kellerman who despite being born with crippled legs became a championship swimmer in her native Australia achieved notoriety for being the first woman to wear a one-piece bathing suit at a public beach (near Boston) and made several movies in Hollywood. The film which was Oscar nominated for its Color Cinematography (George Folsey’s ninth of thirteen unrewarded Academy Award nominations) features several spectacular Busby Berkeley-choreographed aquatic ballet sequences ostensibly performed at New York’s Hippodrome. Donna Corcoran plays Annette as a ten year old child with a disability.
Walter Pidgeon plays Annette’s father Frederick Kellerman who because he lacked the students and the funding necessary to continue his music conservatory decided to take his daughter to London where he hoped to work as an assistant to another teacher. No mention of her mother is ever made (unless I missed it). On their voyage the Kellermans met James Sullivan (played by Victor Mature) and his assistant Doc Cronnol (Jesse White) and their boxing kangaroo named Sydney. Sullivan a carnival man and self promoter recognized Annette’s name immediately per her swimming successes and tried unsuccessfully to hire her – he’d wanted to promote her as a mermaid from ‘Down Under’ but her father refused to consider it per his plans for his daughter in the ballet or as a musician. However Sullivan’s persistence and the Kellermans’ poverty eventually leads to a publicity stunt whereby Annette swam a 26 mile marathon down the Thames River to Greenwich. With her popularity soaring Sullivan sells the kangaroo for their passage to New York where he attempts to sell an unprecedented water ballet idea to the Hippodrome’s manager Alfred Harper (David Brian).
Unable to convince Harper to take a chance Sullivan takes Annette and her father up the coast to the Boston area where while attempting to create more publicity she’s arrested (by Charles Watts) for indecent exposure for wearing a one-piece swimsuit in public. During her trial Annette proposes a compromise design which the judge (James Bell) accepts despite the prosecutor’s (Frank Ferguson) protestations. Interest in Annette soars and the four of them make a bundle of money during nine consecutive weeks of swim stroke and diving demonstrations by Annette; Doc is the bookkeeper. But when another promoter named Aldrich (Howard Freeman) proposes a lecture tour for her Sullivan blows his top; in lieu of proposing to her he insults her saying she’s no more than a trained seal. In the days when airplanes are an untested fascination he buys one from still another carnival promoter and he and Doc hit the road. Meanwhile Annette receives a telegram from Harper who’s finally willing to give her a change to perform at the Hippodrome on the same bill as prima donna ballerina Pavlova (Maria Tallchief).
Annette’s success at the Hippodrome leads to a marriage proposal from Harper and a movie offer from Hollywood. On their way West Annette and Harper meet Sullivan who’s heading to Hollywood with Doc himself with their new act Rin Tin Tin (obviously this is a fictionalized biography)! An accident on the set of Annette’s movie Neptune’s Daughter (which was released in 1914 and not to be confused with Williams’ own 1949 film) brings Sullivan and her together again. In real life they were married but this movie ends with Harper bowing out so that true love can run its course.