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Jupiter's Darling (DVD Review)

15 Jul, 2013 By: Mike Clark

Available through online retailers via Warner Archive
$18.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Esther Williams, Howard Keel, Marge Champion, George Sanders, Richard Haydn, William Demarest.

I’ve never subscribed much to the concept of “guilty pleasures,” reasoning that pleasure can be so hard to come by, at least at times, that it’s counterproductive to feel guilty about them in any form. But this not un-famous folly is kind of in that realm, even though it’s more like a guilty amusement, as opposed of an all-out (or even half-out) pleasure. I can recall a USA Today work colleague (combo drama/music critic) falling into convulsive laughter years ago describing the time he’d had the night before with the JD laserdisc — and when I recently dashed off a jiffy “I’m watching Jupiter’s Darling, and you’re not” Facebook note to comedy writer and great college friend Bruce Vilanch, he instantly replied, ”My wet fingerprints are all over that picture.” I’m not completely sure what he meant by this, but the comment seems to suggest more than tepid affection.

Adapted from the play Road to Rome by tony Robert E. Sherwood, who also wrote Waterloo Bridge, The Petrified Forest and Abe Lincoln in Illinois, this has been described as the movie that ended the MGM musical — which isn’t precisely true but close enough. It is the last movie in which Esther Williams swam, her last at MGM and her only musical in CinemaScope, which is probably the right aspect ratio in which to show a caravan of elephants who’ve either been painted or dyed in an array of colors (this you-didn’t-ask-for-it visual comes right at the end). Set in ancient you-know-where, the 1955 film purports to tell what happens when invading Carthaginian Hannibal (a great friend of elephants, as we all know) clashes geographically and romantically with Rome’s Fabius Maximus – he played by George Sanders in what I assume is the only role that the All About Eve Oscar winner ever had where he was henpecked by his mother. And whaddya know? — William Demarest is in this, too, which means he had the fortune to appear in two of the year’s biggest box office disasters: this and in Sincerely Yours (playing Liberace’s manager/roomie).

No one ever talks about it much because her swimming seemed to trump every other component of her career, but Williams, who died last month, had to be one of the major screen babes of the era, which is probably one reason I find it easy to flow with this nonsense. Indeed, the straight drama Williams followed up with over at Universal-International is one of the big ones of my misspent childhood: when she played the hot high school teacher in The Unguarded Moment who’s spied upon while undressing by the peeping-tom student in her bedroom closet (John Saxon). We get no such luridness here, though, yes, it might have helped. Betrothed minus enthusiasm to the wimpy Fabius, Williams’ Amytis character is vulnerable to Hannibal’s advances (that is, when he’s not threatening to execute her) after she and her servant/slave (Marge Champion) are captured nosing around his encampment. This, however, is only after the warrior shows up 20-some minutes into the picture after his athletic co-star has already taken part in what is probably the high point here —an underwater ballet with male statues that come to life (a number that required Williams to wear prosthetic devices around her ears because her eardrums had burst). Later, there’s a cool bit where her pursued chariot sails over a cliff and into the Big Drink (a scene she refused to perform without a stunt double, with apparent good reason).

Whenever dancer Marge shows up in a musical, her then-husband and dance-team partner Gower Champion can’t be too far off. In this case, he’s a member of Hannibal’s army who has somehow gotten himself sold into slavery, whereupon he is purchased by Williams to become the plaything of Marge. The team’s big number is with elephants (these of conventional pigments), and it’s one of those images that stay in the memory, comparable to when another elephant suddenly lifts Dean Martin off his feet in the previous year’s 3 Ring Circus at a time when Dino was having enough trouble dealing with his on-the-set feud with Jerry Lewis. And yet, just five weeks after MGM put JD in theaters, the studio served up Blackboard Jungle; clearly, a new era was dawning, one where “j.d.” stood for juvenile delinquent and all that portended for entertainment. And even without 1955’s coming cultural upheaval, Williams teaching Hannibal to swim (it happens) was a tough concept to put in one of my hometown’s nearly 3,000-seaters — especially when the competition at literally surrounding theaters included The Bridges at Toko-Ri (a big hit) and Battle Cry (a monster one). The fourth downtown theater that same week was playing Rod Cameron in Republic’s Hell’s Outpost, which hopefully (though I’m not sure) racing chariots and Eastman Color elephants were able to out-perform. By the way, there was some major talent here laboring for ridicule if you read the credits: Charles (Sunrise) Rosher with Paul C. Vogel as cinematographers; Hermes Pan as choreographer; and Saul Chaplin helping to supervise the music just at the point where he was about to win an Oscar for the previous year’s 7 Brides for 7 Brothers.

In his landmark The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris marvels that JD director George Sidney was often able to follow up disasters with hits — the most famous example being Sidney going from the colossal debacle of Pepe (which I’d nonetheless like to see Sony restore to its 199-minute version if the footage even exists) with Bye Bye Birdie. In this case, he recovered from JD with The Eddy Duchin Story, whose Decca soundtrack album of tickled ivories caught on to engender what I suspect was something of a surprise box office success. Sidney’s unevenness is a challenge to sort out, and I have a hard time forgiving his screen versions of Annie Get Your Gun and Pal Joey, neither of which is up to the task. But I have tremendous affection for The Harvey Girls and Scaramouche — and no small amount for Kiss Me Kate, Birdie, Viva Las Vegas and a few more. Jupiter’s Darling, though, is for the MGM hardcore — almost as whacky as the studio’s toga party from the previous year, Athena — which by, the way, was originally conceived as a vehicle for Williams until the studio elected to write water out of the script.

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