The Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)

annette kellerman
How can anything hurt when it makes you feel so good?’
– The young Annette Kellerman, Million Dollar Mermaid

Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) tells the story of the controversial Australian swimmer, Annette Kellerman. Brought up by musical parents, Annette grew up with rickets. Each day she would teach herself to swim and overcame her disorder contrary to what she was told by her doctor and others. She broke records in the water and was given the opportunity to go overseas to share her talent, despite her father’s wishes that she maintain herself within a musical environment.

Fortunate enough, Annette swam the Thames River in London, creating a massive reception and of course making headlines. The movie frames Annette as a remarkable woman, whom created much controversy over her one piece bathing suit deemed as skimpy and inappropriate for a woman to wear in that time. However, steered towards her success more than her rejection.

In 1908 Kellerman was arrested on Rivere Beach for baring her legs. These days it’s hard for us to believe that she was accused of indecent exposure for wearing a one piece bathing suit and not for tanning topless! Regardless, she compromised and sowed stockings to her one piece so that it was accepted.

I quite  enjoyed this film, perhaps because I had chosen to create a 7 minute drama solo on Annette Kellerman for year 12. The major differences from the screen compared to reality were strikingly evident that in reality Annette was a busty, fuller figured woman who can be argued as much less attractive as her casted on screen representation played by Esther WIlliams. Also Sydney looks incredibly ‘hollywoodized’ in the film and the Australian accents are not evident in the movie at all. The film is still reasonably censored by the Hays Code, which was still in effect during the production of this film in 1952.

The scenes where Annette is performing at the hippodrome may have been a bit far from mirroring the reality, Busby Berkeley does an outstanding job in the choreography and staging and you can see his musical influence in his work. He creates effects on stage rather than relying on the post production of the film, which creates more of a spectacular admiration of the performance.

I think that I am more attached to this film than I would normally be to any other 1950s, drama-genred film. When I first watched Million Dollar Mermaid in 2010, my viewing was more for a ‘confirmation of research’ and I watched this film more intensely than normal. I really do enjoy this film and if you get the chance or find a copy, I would highly recommend you give it a go! It is long but doesn’t drag on as much as I found other 1950s and prior, films to traditionally do. It tells the story of Annette, (and does glorify it a bit) but Esther Williams does a remarkable job and you will fall in love with her performance as much as I did.

Recently completed my degree in Media co majoring in Film and Television at Swinburne University. I love theatre, musicals, stand up comedy, acting and of course film!

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