The title “Dangerous When Wet” almost sounds like a noir, like Esther Williams, star of the show, should come equipped with a bathing suit and a cigarette, lit and ready to cause mayhem around the pool in Acapulco. It's not to be. Why there is even a sequence when Williams is about to slip into a bikini, a moment that could have played in an extremely predictable way, and instead the movie stops itself in its own tracks to acknowledge the steamy potential as Williams breaks the fourth wall with discernible amusement by looking directly into the camera as if to say “Nuh uh, ain’t gonna happen” and feigns pulling down a shade. The camera then cuts away. Nope, there might be a bikini on the poster, but “Dangerous When Wet” is gonna be wholesome through and through.
The film opens with the Higgins family, fitness freaks every one, from Pa to Ma to Junior to Katie (Williams), as they proudly parade from their farmhouse to a nearby lake for a daily swim to stay in shape because staying in shape comes first. It comes even before, it seems, the farm itself, which we never really see them working on because this is less about hard labor than making dreams come true. That dream will arrive in the form of Windy Weebee (Jack Carson), a traveling salesman, who runs into the family at a local event and instantly finds himself smitten by Katie, sensing immediate star potential in her comportment, as Hollywood did with Esther Williams herself, and hits on the idea to have the entire aquatic-obsessed family enter in a swim contest across the English Channel.
Complications arise, as they must, in the form of an emergent love interest for Katie, the obligatorily handsome Frenchman André Lanet (Fernando Lamas) who Katie meets upon her family’s arrival in England, and who foils Windy’s desires for her, though this triangle never quite gets going because of course Andre is always right for her. This is embodied in one of the film’s most wonderful scenes, set on Andre’s sailboat, where he croons “In My Wildest Dreams” to his possible paramour. Though director Charles Walters might have made his bones as a fine musical choreographer on “Meet Me In St. Louis” before moving on to direct “Ziegeld Follies”, amongst others, the best moments in “Dangerous When Wet”, despite the presence of a delightful little animated Tom & Jerry ditty, and a moment when Katie & André momentarily make like mixed synchronized swimmers, are often akin to “In My Wildest Dreams”, restrained and surprisingly soulful.
In this sailboat scene, Walters needs but a single prop – the rudder, which Andre moves over and under as he sings. That nothing but the prop is needed speaks to the nobility of his intentions; he doesn’t need a gargantuan production number, just a ballad in a boat. Katie, meanwhile, repeals his affection, merely in that playing hard to get way, before finally acquiescing as Walters dispenses with the watery backdrop, pushing in so completely on the to-be lovers that they are all that’s left in the frame. Later, during a heart to heart between Katie and Pop, when he is forced to admit that he has assumed massive debt to make improvements on the farm, making the cash prize of the upcoming English channel that much more important, a steady rain falls in the background, though its sound is wiped entirely from the soundtrack, simply allowing for a sweet optic backdrop balanced against the tenderness of the conversation.
Inevitably “Dangerous When Wet” concludes with Katie paddling the English channel, from France to England. In another movie, this sequence might have been the focal point, and while it’s true that it has a twist and a turn, it’s not really all that dramatic, as foregone as the She’ll-Do-It-Don’t-Worry music that accompanies it. For most of the movie, in fact, the English Channel doesn’t look as much forebodingly choppy as it does jauntily blue, as if they are off the coast of Saint-Tropez. And that matches the movie’s overall tone, jaunty and winning. Katie wins the cash, everyone gets paired off, and they join together for one final group song, marching out the door with smiles on their faces, no doubt intending to squeeze in at least a few laps in a nearby pool. Winning loads of cash is fine and all, but you gotta keep fit.