Esther Williams always knew her career wasn’t permanent. So when the quality of her films hit a certain level she walked away, and it’s all Jupiter’s Darling’s fault. The film that compelled Williams to give up her aquatic ballets – though she made three more films before retiring completely in the early ’60s – is a bizarre Grecian tinged mess that’s entertaining in how weird it is.
The beautiful Amytis (Williams) is set to marry the dictator of Rome, Fabius (George Sanders), who she doesn’t love. When the conquering Hannibal (Howard Keel) arrives, Amytis wants to catch a glimpse of him but is taken for a spy. Hannibal and Amytis soon go about a game of wills, with each not fully trusting the other.
Jupiter’s Darling could easily be a sequel to another George Sidney-directed musical starring Howard Keel, 1953’s Kiss Me Kate. Like that interpretation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, Jupiter’s Darling features Keel as a jolly misogynist who doesn’t trust women. Amytis’ arrival causes him to question all that he knows, but he refuses to give her the upper hand. Unlike that film, best known for its score, use of CinemaScope and 3D, Jupiter’s Darling just missed the party. That’s not to say attempts aren’t made at justifying a 95-minute runtime that feels about 15 minutes too long. Real-life lovers and dancers Marge and Gower Champion play Amytis’ maid and a slave, respectively and do their requisite shtick. They dance wonderfully and act passably (Marge is the better actor, Gower just feels like a Fosse ripoff). By the time the two do a number that involves riding on elephants it’s hard not to believe the whole thing hasn’t become a circus.
Williams’ career flourished on putting her in anything, plot be damned, and letting her swim her way into your heart. The problem is, some of her storylines couldn’t be saved with a breaststroke and the more enduring Williams films are the ones where her characters are believable. Jupiter’s Darling occupies the same space as her role in Fiesta (1947); so if you can’t buy her as a Mexican twin to Ricardo Montalban, you probably won’t buy her (or the rest of the cast) as a Roman woman. Williams certainly tries her hardest, swathed in beautiful Grecian-esque garments with long flowing locks. The underwater theatrics are noticeably muted this go-round, as Williams was nursing a punctured eardrum and was generally feeling the effects of years spent underwater. The few scenes where she employs a body double evident. However the film’s main claim to fame is an underwater moment wherein Amytis swims with a cadre of sculptures who come alive in the water. It’s beautifully shot though it lacks the fiery flair and acrobatics of her previous films. It’s easy to chalk the scene up as “to be expected.”
The rest of the cast seems equally tired. As the mama’s boy dictator of Rome George Sanders provides little more than a whiny foil to Keel’s Hannibal. It’s easy to see why Amytis wouldn’t want Fabius; she needs a man! Howard Keel is Howard Keel, all cocked legs and bass voice. Hannibal is no different than his “louse,” Fred Graham from the aforementioned Kiss Me Kate, and the fact that this film doesn’t end with him taking Amytis over his knee seems like a missed opportunity.
Jupiter’s Darling is a bloated and tired film that shows the worst excesses of ’50s filmmaking. Esther Williams was never going to make Citizen Kane, but her films are peppy and upbeat, none of the emotions you’ll get in this feature. You can understand why she hung up her swimsuit after this one.
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