Williams at the L. Athletic Club in Williams was enthusiastic about swimming in her youth. Her older sister, Maurine, took her to Manhattan Beach and to the local pool. She took a job counting towels at the pool to pay the five cent entry fee, and while there, had swimming lessons from the male lifeguards. From them, she learned the 'male only' swimming strokes, including the butterfly , with which she would later break records.
In , Williams expressed interest in pursuing a degree in physical education in order to teach it one day. Magnin department store, where she also modeled clothing for customers and appeared in newspaper advertisements. Magnin, she was contacted by Billy Rose 's assistant and asked to audition as a replacement for Eleanor Holm in his Aquacade show. Williams impressed Rose and she got the role.
Despite this, Williams remained with the show until it closed on September 29, MGM's head, Louis B. Mayer , had been looking for a female sports star for the studio to compete with Fox 's figure skating star, Sonja Henie. Williams wrote in her autobiography, "If it took nine months for a baby to be born, I figured my 'birth' from Esther Williams the swimmer to Esther Williams the movie actress would not be much different.
At this point, Williams had achieved pin-up status because of the number of photographs of her in bathing suits. Williams also invited GIs to dance with her on stage and take part in mock screen tests. The men would receive a card telling them their lines, and they would act out the scene in front of the other soldiers. These tests were always romantic scenes and included Williams begging the men to have sex with her character, to which they were required to refuse The scenes would always end with the men giving in and kissing her after that stunt.
Sheila was a coed with whom Andy falls in love. It was here she first worked with Van Johnson , with whom she would partner in five films. This was her first Technicolor musical.
The studio changed the title of the film to showcase Williams. Almost all of the film's posters featured Williams in a bathing suit, though the swimming sequences make up a small portion of the film. For the event, MGM publicity set up a six-story-tall billboard of Williams diving into Times Square with a large sign that said "Come on in!
This was followed by the musical Thrill of a Romance. Van Johnson co-starred as a decorated war veteran who falls in love with Williams while on her honeymoon. Thrill of a Romance was the 8th highest-grossing film of The studio's publicity department tried to put the two together in public as much as possible in the hopes of encouraging a romance, even though Williams was involved with Gage at the time. When asked why they didn't date, Johnson replied, "because I'm afraid she can't get her webbed feet into a pair of evening sandals.
Audiences expected Powell's Nick Charles persona and rejected the idea of a romance between Williams and Powell onscreen. Production was difficult with a multitude of problems.
By , Gage and Williams were married. Gage had traveled to Mexico for the making of the film. He got into a fight with an employee of the cast's hotel, was arrested, and subsequently thrown out of the country.
Many of the film's stuntmen were sent to the hospital after being gored by bulls. Director Dick Thorpe hadn't wanted the bulls killed as they usually were at the end of a bullfight because he believed them to be too expensive to replace. In , Williams signed a contract with swimwear company Cole of California to appear as their spokesperson, and Williams and the other swimmers in her films wore Cole swimsuits.
Since the aqua-musicals were an entirely new genre, the studio's costume designers had little experience creating practical swimsuits. Cole swimsuits used latex, which meant zippers were no longer necessary. While filming Skirts Ahoy , Williams discovered that members of the WAVES program received thin, cotton, shapeless swimsuits as part of their uniforms.
Williams modeled a Cole swimsuit for the Secretary of the Navy and explained that the new swimsuits helped support women's figures. The United States Navy ordered 50, suits immediately. A period musical starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra , the two male leads character's were players in a baseball team owned by K. She claimed that Kelly and co-writer Stanley Donen treated her with contempt and went out of their way to make jokes at her expense.