Few films ventured out of the soundstage during Hollywood’s Golden Era, since the major studios found it more cost-effective and efficient to film in the comfort of their atmosphere-controlled lots. However, a rare film would supplement its studio footage with some choice sequences shot in a unique location. One film that did this is MGM’s “This Time for Keeps” from 1947.
This film is a musical produced by the studio’s Joe Pasternak unit. The Hungarian-born producer loved stories centered around music and family, and this movie typifies his style. Award-winning swimmer-turned-movie star Esther Williams plays the leading lady, opposite crooner Johnny Johnston, a singer who never really made it in films.
Much of the runtime is filled with melody-filled fun supplied by three great, but very different, musical talents: Lauritz Melchior, Jimmy Durante, and Xavier Cugat. While Cugat is primarily there to supply Latin rhythms with his band, including those from lovely lead singer Lina Romay, Melchior and Durante play important roles in the story. In addition, former Metropolitan Opera star Melchior sings some amazing arias in his powerful voice, and Durante renders a few hilarious tunes at the piano in his inimitable style.
In the film’s second half, Williams’s character visits her hometown, which happens to be Mackinac Island, Michigan. In 1947, Mackinac Island was something of a rarity in that no automobiles were allowed on its streets—only horses and bicycles. Seventy-five years later, the tradition remains, making it the only car-less city in the United States. Instead of using a backlot, MGM filmed on location on the unique island. All the beautiful scenery you see in the movie is still there today.
A Lovable Film
Nora Cambaretti (Williams) stars in a New York aquacade, accompanied by longtime family friend and secret admirer Ferdi Farro (Durante). One evening, handsome ex-G.I. Dick Johnson (Johnston) comes backstage. He reminds her that they met when she entertained at a military hospital, where his cheeky behavior annoyed her. She grows friendly when she deduces that he is out of work.
To keep him out of their show, Ferdi gets him a job singing with Cugat’s band; yet, Nora and Dick begin a whirlwind courtship anyway. Little does she know that Dick is the son of famous opera singer Richard Herald (Melchior). Dick’s father has planned his whole life, including Dick becoming an opera singer and marrying a girl he doesn’t love: Frances Allenbury (Mary Stuart). Dick doesn’t have the heart to tell his father, Frances, or Nora the truth.
Esther Williams displays her astounding swimming abilities in this film, cleverly woven in through shows, rehearsals, and a swimming lesson on Mackinac Island. Whether she’s performing amazing underwater feats that the show’s audience couldn’t possibly see, demonstrating a perfect swan dive, or teaching her niece how to do the backstroke, she always looks elegant even when soaking wet.
You would think that water ballet would be a rather limited specialty, yet MGM managed to display the swimming actress and her well-fitted one-piece bathing suits in enough successful films to make her one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
In the film’s drier moments, there are enough musical styles in this movie to entertain everyone. None of the songs are out-of-context “bursting into song” moments, so they don’t slow the pacing; the characters involved perform all the featured music.
Lauritz Melchior brings opera to the masses through four classical arias, many in opera performances within the film. He also shows impressive acting chops as Dick’s strong-willed yet loving father. Jimmy Durante performs more musical numbers than usual in this film, since he too renders four songs, including his signature “Inka Dinka Doo,” all while pounding away on the piano and cracking jokes.
Although he can’t compete with the fame of the other male singers, Johnny Johnson proves his worthiness of being in the film with his beautiful popular-style voice. He sings a few numbers with Xavier Cugat’s band, including Cole Porter’s old MGM standard, “Easy to Love.” He also croons a very tender rendition of “Apple Blossom Time.”
“This Time for Keeps” was the first movie to be filmed on the island. Filming took place between July and October 1946, some of which was spent on the island. The summer scenes feature a delightful, “When It’s Lilac Time on Mackinac Island” by Lesley Kirk, which was written for a 1944 MGM travelogue about the unusual destination. Lilacs are indeed a specialty of the Michigan island, which began hosting a Lilac Festival in late August two years after this film was released.
The facts that Nora tells Dick about Mackinac Island hold true today. While the island is visited by thousands of tourists in summertime, its population shrinks to a few hundred during the snowy winter. In fact, the city’s permanent population was actually larger in 1950, at 572, then in 2020, at 470. Since the 18-mile-wide island is surrounded by Lake Huron, it is only reachable by ferry in the summer, ice bridge in the winter, and charter plane.
At the summer arrival, as Jimmy Durante meets the arriving boat, I’m positive that the other onlookers in the crowd are actual Mackinac Island tourists and locals rather than extras.
One of Mackinac Island’s most famous locations is the Grand Hotel, built in 1887. Dick returns to Mackinac Island later in the film with Xavier Cugat’s band to perform at the hotel. You can see the beautiful architecture of this magnificent Victorian structure, including the world’s longest porch, where Thomas Edison gave the first public demonstration of his phonograph.
Nora brings her niece, Deborah (Sharon McManus), to the hotel’s pool for her swimming lesson. Since the film utilized the hotel’s real pool to film this scene, it was later named the Esther Williams Swimming Pool, a dedication which remains to this day. The hotel offers 388 rooms and suites, each of which is decorated differently, including the lakeview Esther Williams Suite.
Traveling Back in Time
During these troubled times, it’s delightful to escape to a simpler world, such as the peaceful days after World War II. “This Time for Keeps” is a vague title which fails to capture the charm of this endearing film. It isn’t a flashy musical extravaganza. It’s a tender love story and a touching tale about family obligations and the importance of parents’ letting their children lead their own lives. From Dame May Whitty as lovable old Grandma Cambaretti to Sharon McManus as her soulful-eyed great-granddaughter, the cast is full of once-famous performers whom you may never have seen before. After this film, you will remember and love them all.