Hannibal of Carthage (Howard Keel) is advancing on Rome after taking an entire army along with a herd of elephants across the Alps, defeating all who stand before him. The leader of the Romans is Fabius Maximus (George Sanders), a dictator renowned for his stirring speeches but his personal life is somewhat lacking as he is dominated by his mother Fabia (Norma Varden) and his fiancée Amytis (Esther Williams) is more interested in charging around the countryside on her chariot than she is in actually getting hitched to Fabius. Nevertheless, thoughts of romance must be put on hold as the threat of invasion takes precedent; meanwhile, Amytis goes shopping with her maidservant Meta (Marge Champion) and they spot a hunky slave, Varius (Gower Champion)...
Not exactly Asterix, is it? In fact, Jupiter's Darling was one of those expensive flops which put paid to MGM's musicals, though whether it was because of changing tastes in the audiences or because works such as this sent them fleeing the cinemas thanks to how absolutely absurd they were was a matter up for debate. Perhaps inevitably, something this camp and misguided was sure to pick up a following of sorts, and so it is today the film is recognised by bad movie buffs as a minor treasure with its ludicrous take on history and artificial Hollywood gloss to a subject that nobody in their right minds should have considered would make a decent, never mind classic, musical.
It takes a good portion of the film for Hannibal to be introduced, so in the meantime there was some music, specifically a dance number about how terrific slavery is (really) performed by the Champions, a then-married couple who made a name for themselves as a team before they split up and went their separate ways into choreography: "Hooray for slavery!" sings Gower as you begin to wonder if they'd taken leave of their senses. Then there was the sequence fans of underwater celebrity Esther Williams wanted to see where she indulged in a spot of synchronised swimming with some chiselled, living statues, incidentally demonstrating she could hold her breath for at least ten minutes at a time. It's true this part is the best, probably thanks to the star allowed to show off her speciality.
Yet once that's over, the film was extremely reluctant to let Williams back in the water for a repeat performance; she does get a scene where she teaches her captor Hannibal how to swim, like you do, and a later chase through the sea to escape his henchmen (after diving off a high cliff on horseback!), but she was just that bit too dry here for it to be a hit. Co-star Howard Keel was employed to boom out the melodies of songwriters Burton Lane and Harold Adamson, but not one was up to par, most of them making Keel look foolish for attempting such rhymes. Not helping was the distracting way Hannibal in repose would lean his elbow on one knee, which in light of how short his skirt was appeared as if Esther was getting quite an eyeful - you had to assume Hannibal was wearing Carthagian underpants. Well, you'd hope.
It's the love affair between the fictional Amytis and the very real Hannibal which detains us here as an explanation, entirely invented, as to why the general didn't entirely succeed in his mission of European domination, and that boils down to the man of war tamed by her affections. Once they have met after his men capture her and Meta who wanted to see the elephants, not having ever seen the creatures before, Hannibal is fighting both the war and his attraction to this new arrival in his life, though he eventually adopts a "Treat 'em mean and keep 'em keen" approach to relationships which doesn't play too sympathetically, not even when Amytis is pulling him across a river by his chin with good humour. In the meantime, Meta and Varius offer up the other musical number this is best known for, where they prance (and they genuinely do prance) around with the pachyderms, apparently due to the producers reasoning they'd paid for the huge beasts so they might as well do something with them. Other than that, an interesting cast is game, but powerless to look anything but rather silly.
Yipes! This sounds awful. So was Jupiter's Darling an undignified farewell to movies for Esther Williams?
24 Sep 2014
No, she tried drama the following year with The Unguarded Moment (which I've reviewed), but after that there was a bit of TV and a couple of forgotten movies in the sixties before she called it a day. She'll always be a happy childhood memory for me when she swam with Tom and Jerry in Dangerous When Wet, which is a better bet than this high camp.
25 Sep 2014
My family owned Dangerous When Wet on grainy old VHS long before I knew who Esther Williams actually was. I am big fan of musicals where stars dance with cartoon characters. Doris Day singing with Bugs Bunny in My Dream is Yours (1949) is another big favourite of mine.