A madcap plot, Frank Loesser score, and splashy (pardon the pun) finale propel Neptune's Daughter, another aquatic showcase for MGM swimming star Esther Williams. Latin lover Ricardo Montalban, the always hilarious Red Skelton, and pert Betty Garrett also shine in this lively bit of fluff that looks fantastic on Blu-ray, thanks to a brand new 4K scan of the original nitrate Technicolor negatives. Some audio issues slightly dull the disc's luster, but the luscious picture quality and all the extras from the 2007 DVD make upgrading a no-brainer for fans of the wet and wonderful Williams! Recommended.
Esther Williams seems to be everywhere these days. Kino Lorber recently released a couple of the star's dramatic forays (The Unguarded Moment and Raw Wind in Eden) that followed her MGM musical career and now Warner Archive jumps back into the pool to once again showcase the aquatic talent that put Williams on the cinematic map. On the heels of Million Dollar Mermaid, Ziegfeld Follies, and Take Me Out to the Ball Game, the beguiling Neptune's Daughter arrives on Blu-ray with the promise of more Esther in the offing.
Directed by journeyman Edward Buzzell, who also helmed a couple of Marx Brothers movies (At the Circus and Go West) and a Thin Man film (Song of the Thin Man), Neptune's Daughter resembles several mistaken identity screwball comedies from the 1930s. When a South American polo team comes to town, swimming-star-turned-bathing-suit-designer Eve Barrett (Williams) and her perennially smitten business partner Joe Backett (Keenan Wynn) see a marketing opportunity...and Eve's man-crazy younger sister Betty (Betty Garrett) sees a chance to snare a Latin lover. Betty hopes to meet the team captain, José O'Rourke (Ricardo Montalban), but after José advises bumbling masseur Jack Spratt (Red Skelton) to speak with a Spanish accent if he wants to attract women, the fickle Betty mistakes Jack for José and falls madly in love with him, much to the bewildered Jack's dismay.
Predictably, Eve catches José's eye, but she thinks he's beholden to Betty, who he's never met. Eve disapproves of their "relationship" and José agrees to "break up" with Betty if Eve will go out with him. To keep her sister away from José, Eve agrees, then finds herself falling for José against her better judgment. More zany complications ensue, including one involving a mobster (Ted de Corsia) and his burly henchman (Mike Mazurki), before everything gets ironed out in the end.
Though an opulent water ballet featuring Williams and Montalban caps this light, airy musical, Neptune's Daughter is best known for introducing the popular - and now controversial - holiday song "Baby, It's Cold Outside" to the moviegoing public. The tune won a Best Song Oscar for composer Frank Loesser, who would mine Broadway gold a year later with the premiere of the instantly immortal Guys and Dolls. Ironically, "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which has become the musical poster child for 21st century sexual harassment, was a last-minute replacement for "(I'd Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China," which the censors deemed too suggestive for contemporary audiences!
Though "Baby, It's Cold Outside" gets a bad rap today because it details a man's brazen attempts to ply a woman with alcohol so he can dull her defenses and seduce (sexually assault?) her, the song, as performed in Neptune's Daughter, gives both a man and a woman the chance to be the aggressor (see clip below). The duet is first sung by Montalban and Williams (with Montalban trying to cajole an unwilling Williams), then immediately reprised by Skelton and Garrett, with Garrett trying even harder to stoke the passions of the shy, insecure Skelton. If only someone had dragged out a print of Neptune's Daughter when the furor over the song erupted, we all might have been spared the ridiculous controversy. (The song is also somewhat of a misnomer here, because Neptune's Daughter takes place in balmy Southern California, where it's rarely cold outside.)
The broadly comic story doesn't make much sense, but it breezes along, thanks to a lively script by Dorothy Kingsley, who wrote screenplays for seven - that's right, seven! - Williams pictures and received her sole Oscar nomination for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The madcap antics especially suit the always hilarious Skelton, who appeared with Williams five years earlier in her breakout film Bathing Beauty, and the spritely Garrett, who would pursue Frank Sinatra with the same shameless vigor in the much more acclaimed On the Town later the same year. Sadly, following that film Garrett and her husband Larry Parks would be blacklisted after Parks refused to name names when he was called to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. (He later capitulated.)
If Williams' swimming in the movie seems more sedate than usual, it's because the star discovered she was pregnant with her first child just before shooting commenced. As a result, the "chorus" performs the sliding and diving stunts during the finale while Esther cheers them on from a platform above. Montalban, who previously appeared with Williams in Fiesta and On an Island with You, more than holds his own in the water, matching Williams stroke for stroke, and his vocal talent and Mexican charm make him a vital and virile musical leading man. Neptune's Daughter is also notable for a rare on-screen performance by Looney Tunes voice virtuoso Mel Blanc, who debuts the nasally, Spanish-accented voice he would later adopt for the animated Speedy Gonzalez character.
Though Neptune's Daughter occasionally goes overboard, it remains a colorful, tuneful, and entertaining diversion that showcases all of Williams' myriad talents. They certainly don't make 'em like this anymore, which is why it's always fun to take a dip in the pool with the wet and wonderful Williams.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Neptune's Daughter arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand new HD master struck from a 4K scan of the original nitrate Technicolor negatives yields a glorious 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that faithfully honors the cinematography of Charles Rosher, who won Oscars for Sunrise and The Yearling. Excellent clarity and contrast and perfect color timing distinguish the film-like presentation, which is free of any nicks, marks, or scratches. Faint grain provides a palpable film-like feel, rich blacks and bright, stable whites nicely offset the vibrant hues, and good shadow delineation keeps crush at bay. Bold reds, crystal blues, sunny yellows, verdant greens, and a host of delicate pastels delight the eye, flesh tones appear natural and remain stable throughout, and the lush close-ups ooze Hollywood glamor. A few soft moments crop up here and there, but can't tarnish the transfer's brilliance. Once again, Warner Archive proves it's the industry leader when it comes to Technicolor transfers of classic movies, and fans of Williams, MGM Golden Age musicals, and vintage films will be thrilled with this latest release.
Unfortunately, the audio can't match the video. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track exhibits some faint surface noise during a few quiet scenes and a bit of distortion when the drums of Xavier Cugat's orchestra shift into high gear. Levels fluctuate wildly. I needed to turn up the volume to properly hear the dialogue, which sounds surprisingly flat and muted, then turn it down when the more elaborate musical sequences began. I usually welcome a hint of volume boost and increased fidelity at the onset of musical numbers, but the shift is too drastic and jarring here. When levels are properly tweaked, all the dialogue is easy to comprehend and the songs and orchestrations sound bright and full. This track delivers solid audio most of the time, but doesn't quite reach the high bar that's become the standard for Warner Archive's classic releases.
All the extras from the 2007 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release, and it's quite a bounty!
Esther Williams Guest Appearance in Callaway Went Thataway (SD, 2 minutes) - Williams pops up briefly in this black-and-white MGM comedy that features scads of cameos from the studio's star stable. Howard Keel, Fred MacMurray, and Dorothy McGuire encounter Esther in the lobby of the famed Beverly Hilton Hotel.
Vintage Short: Water Trix (SD, 9 minutes) - This episode in the long-running Pete Smith Specialty series chronicles the exploits of cinematographer Charles Trigo, who photographs the daredevil stunts of a few water skiers from a helicopter.
Deleted Musical Number: "I Want My Money Back" (SD, 4 minutes) - Betty Garrett shows off her comic talent in this amusing yet somewhat tedious number that was well left on the cutting room floor. Nevertheless, it's a treat to see it here.
Vintage Cartoon: Hatch Up Your Troubles (HD, 8 minutes) - This top-notch Tom and Jerry animated short, which looks wonderful in HD, depicts the havoc (and hilarity) that ensues when a baby woodpecker wanders into Jerry's mouse hole and catches Tom's roving eye.
Vintage Radio Interview (5 minutes) - Dick Simmons talks to Williams in this scripted interview that promotes Neptune's Daughter. Esther also talks about bathing suits, reveals she's expecting a child, and shares a few swimming tips.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview calls Williams and Montalban "the dreamiest love team under the moon" and Skelton and Garrett "the funniest laugh team under the sun."
As bright and buoyant as Williams herself, Neptune's Daughter floats amiably along. It may lack substance, but it brims with glossy MGM style and features an array of energetic performances. A brand-new 4K scan of the original nitrate Technicolor negatives makes this musical look like a million bucks and all the extras from the 2007 DVD sweeten the deal. Though some audio issues slightly dampen enthusiasm, they're not severe enough to deter fans from diving into this good-looking release. Recommended.