Everyone hates being lied to, right? As a kid all those years watching entertaining biographical films – I took it for granted that what I saw actually happened that way. George M. Cohan, played by James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, was a swell dancer who gracefully slid into retirement. The Von Trapp family in The Sound of Music adroitly outmaneuvered the Nazis and climbed the Alps mountain to safety. General George Custer, plated by the gallant Errol Flynn in They Died With Their Boots On, was tricked by Sitting Bull and his cutthroats and died a heroic death. The list goes on and on.
Now I can add to the list of deceitful plots. Annette Kellerman, the first great female swimmer of the 20th century, as portrayed by Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid was a sweet athlete torn between her career and the man she adored. Her awkward lover, played by strong-chinned Victor Mature, finally finds that after she achieves much success there is room for both in her life.
In the 1952 bio-pic,, the movie makes it seem as if she is raised only by her father. He observes her teaching herself how to swim in a local pond to overcome walking with braces due to weakness of leg muscles. He immediately changes his protective stance and encourages her to swim competitively as time marches on. In reality, both her parents were alive and decided to enroll her in formal swim classes hoping it would strengthen her legs as a desperate attempt to cure her.
Another false premise in the plot has her gaining initial notoriety by swimming the Thames River from the heart of London to a suburb, well over twenty miles. She succeeds in this publicity stunt concocted by her manager, the same man who will become her husband at the end of the picture. In reality, she attempted to swim the English Channel thrice and each time failed to reach her destination.
The movie does not delve much into her film career and for good reason. She did most of her acting in silent films long before censorship rules were put into place. She was famous for doing a nude scene in A Daughter of the Gods.
As for the three movies mentioned earlier- in real life, George Cohan became embittered when as producer of Broadway shows he lost a precedent setting legal battle with union equity actors to get guaranteed pay for rehearsals among other amenities. Cohan became more and more surly as he got older and near his death was practically estranged from the Entertainment Industry.
Hollywood made the Von Trapps ordeal more dangerous than it was. They had dual citizenship and were able to take a non-threatening train ride out of Austria to Switzerland. The erstwhile nun-turned-nanny married the captain because of love- not of him, he was much, much older than her, but because of deep affection for the children. In fact, when they came to America after the war, the captain died not long after.
George Custer was often a gambler. It paid off in the Civil War where he first earned his stripes for gallantry on the battlefield. He looked too quickly for glory without calculating the risks. He made a couple of bad decisions the day which led to his as well as many loyal troop’s deaths.
Truth tends to be selective. As we baby boomers age, we sometimes look back at events in our own lives that get murky in recall. I’ve already decided that when they make the movie of my life, the actor must be 5’10” tall, weigh 175 lbs, have a full head of hair, sing like Caruso and dance like Astaire. He should fall in love with (not in any specific order) a redhead, brunette and blonde and be able to jump out an open window to the street below without getting hurt. Speaking four languages equally well, he will save America from doom when called upon using his weapons of choice.
Wikepedia can follow up and write the truth about me – that’s okay. Most people don’t read anyway. Just pass the popcorn and enjoy.