“On An Island With You” opens with Rosalind Reynolds (Esther Williams) doing the backstroke through an idyllic lagoon while an apparent captain in the armed forces, Ricardo Montez (Ricardo Montalban), leans against a tree, crooning a tune and strumming a ukulele, though it turns out he’s not just serenading Esther but serenading Yvonne Toro (Chyd Charise) too. Then, we realize this is merely a Hollywood production, some sort of vaguely defined movie within a movie, which is a pretty shrewd strategic move. Esther Williams movies were less about the story than the show tunes and bouts of aquatic merriment during show tunes, and so having your movie of show tunes and bouts of aquatic merriment during show tunes be about making a movie of show tunes and bouts of aquatic merriment during show tunes sounds like the best of both worlds.
Sounds like it, I said, because director Richard Thorpe chooses to overly focus on story – story!!! – ballooning a begging-to-be 75 minute trifle to 107 minutes instead, bogging down the movie with the presence of Lt. Lawrence Kingslee (Peter Lawford), a military advisor to the movie within a movie, who fell in love with Rosalind during a USO Tour and now aims to win her hand in marriage, even though she’s engaged to Ricardo, a classic love triangle that packs minimal heat and even less entertainment value. Esther Williams had her charms as an actress but she needed something or someone to play off of and in this scenario gets neither. Instead she gets a barely invested Lawford who spends the entire movie reciting his lines as he’s absent-mindedly saying them while sitting in a hot tub. At the same time, the screenplay by Charles Martin and Hans Wilhelm forgets it needs to make Ricardo an unlikable character until Rosalind suddenly needs a reason to love Lawrence and then hastily tries to turn us against Ricardo by making up some baggage on the fly. But who even knows why she loves Lawrence in the first place. While having dinner one night Lawrence tells Rosalind to take her last bite, “like a good girl.” “You would have made a good mother,” she says. “I was thinking the same about you,” he replies. Wait, the mother for his hypothetical kids or his mother?
“On an Island with You” takes its title from the sequence in which Rosalind and Lawrence wind up stranded on an island where she will ostensibly finally fall for his charms. Of course, they only become stranded there because Lawrence actively absconds with her, which sounds an awful lot like being held against your will. That probably would have flown if these scenes had any sort of amusing earnestness, but they don’t. It’s the weirdest thing: he’s not trying to make her fall in love with him, he simply expects her to reciprocate his own love, as if he’s entitled to it. You keep wishing she’d just sock him in the jaw and swim away.
What’s more, the movie itself seems to know just how little bounce there is to this stranded-on-an-island storyline, considering that it doesn’t show up until the movie’s mid-portion and then cuts back a couple times to action in the main location which betrays the film’s casting of Jimmy Durante to prop up a few Esther Williams-less scenes, and even goes so far as to add a dream sequence on the island to ensure that we don’t go too long without a song and an aquatic ballet, as if it inherently knows no one is watching for the story and yet cannot help but keep sticking to it anyway.
Though “On an Island with You” is the kind of movie that benefited handsomely from Technicolor, and as such probably looked real good on a legit big screen, it also made me think that it would have been right at home in the Youtube era, when Esther and everyone else could have just said good riddance to the piddling narrative, sang, swam and danced, recorded it, and uploaded it to the Internet. There's music! There's dancing! There's romance! And all in five minute bursts at a time! What else do you need?!