You wouldn’t expect me to devote a week to Van Johnson and avoid reviewing his work with Esther Williams, would you? Actually, he and Williams teamed up so frequently I could have devoted this week to their films alone, but in the interest of fairness I went with one. The second of six films starring Johnson and the cinematic mermaid Williams, Thrill of a Romance is one of Williams’ better aquatic adventures, with Johnson in fine form as the right man for her.
Cynthia Glenn (Williams) is a swim teacher who captures the eye of businessman Robert Delbar (Carleton G. Young). The two quickly marry and go on their honeymoon, but business pulls Robert away from his blushing bride, leaving her all alone at the hotel. She soon meets war hero Thomas Milvaine (Johnson) which sparks their first “thrill of a romance.”
Williams’ films share several commonalities with the work of Carmen Miranda: both became actresses based on their rare talents, and their movies shoehorned in said talents alongside unnecessary musical numbers. Williams had her fair share of great material (Dangerous When Wet is still her swan song…or dive) and Thrill of a Romance is up there. The script writes Cynthia as an average Jane working with children, never having a frown on her face. (This also saves director Richard Thorpe the stress of figuring out how to get her in the pool in the shortest amount of time.) Williams actually did teach children swimming lessons, albeit after her career ended
With the war winding down, Thrill of a Romance quietly comments on soldiers lives upon returning home. Cynthia and Tommy are “just folks;” Cynthia works while Tommy opines about his time as the editor of a small paper in Omira, Nebraska. It’s almost a shame Carleton G. Young doesn’t get the chance to fight for his bride. No man in their right mind would leave a woman like Esther, on their wedding night of all times? The way Johnson says “He left you” points out this lunacy. But Robert is also a “Businessman” who sees courtship as a “sales campaign.” And, let’s face it, as these movies have taught us, anyone with money is automatically an unsuitable companion for our stars.
Johnson and Williams’ rustic nature, coupled with their A-list status, doesn’t leave much surprise in whether their romance succeeds, but that’s inherent in Williams films; they’re undistilled entertainment. The third act receives the most padding to unify everyone – and the lost in the wood’s/lover is mistrustful element is a bit too close to Doll Face (1945) for my liking.
A little over 90-minutes, there is some padding and typical plot contrivances; Cynthia isn’t the best judge of character, marrying Delbar because “he was important and attractive looking.” As with most Williams’ characters, Cynthia lives with her aunt and uncle, adorably played by Henry Travers and Spring Byington who pop up from time to time to ask Cynthia where stuff is. (Williams’ characters were always take-charge ladies who often raised their caregivers.)
Once Tommy and Cynthia pair up, the overused musical numbers take over, although there aren’t as many nor are they as long-lasting as in other Williams films. Ripping a page from Carmen Miranda’s playbook, opera sensation Lauritz Melchior plays a character known as Nils Knudsen who can’t eat rich foods and sings about it. The rest of the side characters – other than Travers and Byington – aren’t nearly as funny and integrated into things compared to the ones assembled for Carmen Miranda’s films.
Williams is beautiful, as to be expected, and her fashion here is jaw-dropping – those shoes! the hair! Her and Johnson were more than comfortable with each other and, in fact, the two’s meeting as Cynthia teaches Tommy to swim is true; Johnson didn’t know how to swim and Williams had to help him in their films together. She acknowledged he never was a strong swimmer, but was game.
Thrill of a Romance is a sweet ’40s romance that other studios were eager to replicate themselves. Williams and Johnson are such fun together and the script tightens up many of the problems that plagued Williams career.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.