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Get in the swim with restored “Million Dollar Mermaid”

Updated: Feb 13, 2021


With the biggest smile in Hollywood, Esther Williams plays champion Australian swimmer, vaudeville, and film star Annette Kellermann.

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Blu-ray; 1952; Not Rated

Best extra(s): “The Wise Little Quacker” Tom and Jerry cartoon, plus Audio-Only Radio Show with Esther Williams and Walter Pidgeon

THERE’S big mix of fiction as well as fact in this MGM biography of Australian swimmer, vaudeville and film star Annette Kellermann. Fantasy, too, thanks to Busby Berkeley’s underwater dance choreography.

Extravagant swimwear, clouds of colored smoke and blazing sparklers accent “Million Dollar Mermaid” starring swim champion and film idol Esther Williams as Kellermann. Williams just missed competing in the Olympics with the onset of World War II. Her talent, beauty and personality led her into show business and film, where she stared in MGM “aquamusicals” from the 1940s through the early ‘50s. Injuries she acquired, such as a broken back on “Million Dollar Mermaid,” finally ended her big swimming roles, although she continued in film through the early ‘60s. Williams met Kellermann, a consultant on the film, although the encounter fell flat. Kellermann, a star herself with a long career, was unimpressed by the actors and bioflick, sanitized and embellished by studio bigwigs.

(1) The MGM film opened at Radio Music Hall in New York City on December 4, 1952. (2) Child actress Donna Corcoran plays 10-year-old Annette Kellermann and Walter Pidgeon plays her father Frederick William Kellermann. (3) Young Annette teaches herself to swim in a nearby pond. (4) Annette becomes New South Wales's top female swimmer.


It was helmed by Mervyn Leroy, who also directed “The Wizard of Oz,” “Mister Roberts,” and “Gypsy.” He was taking a much-needed rest after finishing “Quo Vadis,” leaving much of the aquacade chores to Berkeley. Everett Freeman, best known for “The Glass Bottom Boat” starring Doris Day, wrote the script. George J. Folsey of “Forbidden Planet,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” and “Meet Me in St. Louis,” was Oscar-nominated for his cinematography.

The movie begins with a broad look at Kellermann’s childhood in New South Wales. The daughter of musicians Frederick William Kellermann, played by Walter Pidgeon, and Alice Ellen Charbonnet, the child was enrolled in swimming classes to strengthen her legs after a weakness led to wearing braces. “Million Dollar Mermaid” dispenses with the mother. In the film, Annette is recovering from polio and teaches herself to swim in a nearby pond, frightening her father when he goes in search of her after she goes missing – and we’re off into an imaginative concoction of events.

Annette eventually meets carney/vaudeville promoter James Sullivan (Victor Mature) and his partner, Doc Cronnol (Jesse White), who offers her a deal, which she and her father refuse. A short while later, circumstances force her to accept a 26-mile swimming challenge to promote Sullivan’s boxing kangaroo. The kangaroo act flails and dies; Annette, with Sullivan’s assistance, is on her way to stardom.

Romance takes a backseat to adventure, but it’s there. Chemistry is good between Williams and Mature, who enjoyed a hot and heavy affair during filming. Annette, Sullivan and Doc take off for the Hippodrome in America, hoping to create a huge water ballet show, but America is unimpressed. Annette begins the tedious task of re-gaining fame in the states with another swim challenge, but is arrested for indecent exposure when her one-piece bathing suit creates a small riot on the beach. Still, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, even though she and Sullivan split up. With the design of a new suit, Annette is able to swim her way back into stardom and Hollywood. Cue the Berkeley aqua-dance sequences. There are two and they are breathtaking even for today’s audience.

(1&2) Victor Mature plays carney/vaudeville promoter James Sullivan, who meets Annette on an ocean liner heading to the U.S. (3) Jesse White plays Sullivan's partner Doc Cronnol, and their boxing kangaroo. (4) Annette and Sullivan develop feelings for each other.



Once again the Warner Archive Collection creates a 1080p masterpiece with a 4K restoration from the original three-strip Technicolor negatives. Color, loaded with bright primaries, looks great throughout, with Berkeley’s costumes and effects outrageously gorgeous. Country, street, stage and interior scenes almost glow. Meanwhile, skin tones look healthy and natural. Contrast and detail are very good. Cinemaphiles will enjoy the fine wash of film grain.

A DTS-HD mono track delivers clear dialogue and crisp effects. An uncredited Adolph Deutsch, Oscar winner for “Oklahoma!,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” and “Annie Get Your Gun,” composed the music. Dialogue, effects and score balance perfectly throughout.


Tom and Jerry are always fun. In “The Wise Little Quacker,” Jerry saves a baby duck from Tom’s ferocious appetite. The “Audio-Only Radio Show” with Williams and Pidgeon highlights some of the film’s scenes. A vintage short film by Pete Smith, “Reducing,” makes light of a woman’s attempt to lose weight in broad and not-so-funny scenes.

“Million Dollar Mermaid” never takes itself too seriously, keeping the charm front and center – a great way to enjoy a hot summer night.

— Kay Reynolds

(1-2) Annette swims 26-miles down the Thames River from London to Greenwich, while her father and spectators cheer her on. (3) The media interviews her after the grueling swim against a stiff current.


(1&2) Once in the U.S., Annette begins to revive her career at a Massachusetts beach, where she's arrested for indecent exposure for wearing a one-piece armless and legless swimsuit. Tame by today's standards. (3&4) Frank Ferguson plays the Boston prosecutor during Annette's court case.


(1-4) MGM's Busby Berkeley of the famous Ziegfield Follies choreographed the extravagant water dance numbers. Among other accidents - one in which her lungs collapsed - Williams broke three vertebras while performing the film's signature high dive.




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