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When it comes to Roman epics, I usually figure they are going to be big productions full of battles and bloodshed. Underwater musical numbers are not usually on the docket. However, for the 1955 Cinemascope spectacle Jupiter’s Darling, the star is Esther Williams. She’s gonna get we at some point. Heck, she could’ve starred in a film that took place in the middle of the desert and still there would be a reason to get her underwater. Needless to say, this is not the same ancient Rome I remember studying in my high school history class.
Williams plays the lovely Amytis, who is engaged to Roman general Fabius Maximus (George Sanders). She’s not really that into Maximus, though; putting off their nuptials for years. However, she does find herself, shall we say, curious about this manly man known as Hannibal (Howard Keel) who is about to storm into the city with his huge army of soldiers and elephants. So, she decides to head off with her slave girl Meta (Marge Champion) to sneak a look at Hannibal for herself. Of course, the two are captured as spies.
Naturally, Hannibal soon finds himself quite taken with Amytis, who he does not suspect is betrothed to the leader of his enemy’s army. In fact, he becomes so smitten with her that he keeps postponing the attack in favor of…well…what do you think Howard Keel and Esther Williams would be doing in a private tent all day? Of course, they do interrupt those activities to burst into song from time to time.
I’m not going to sit here and say that Jupiter’s Darling is a particularly good film. However, it is one of the more delightfully campy films I’ve seen in quite some time. You know you’re in for a strange ride when one of the first big musical numbers features a character singing about how happy is to be a slave. Of course, that’s because he’s just been purchased to be someone’s love slave, so maybe that’s understandable. If that number doesn’t freak you out enough, though, you need only wait a few minutes to hear Howard Keel belt out a tune called “I Never Trust a Woman.” Simply put, this is a weird bunch of songs.
Weirder, though, are the production numbers themselves. As stated earlier, our headliner is Esther Williams, so underwater action is a given. Her first big number has her performing a tune called “I Have a Dream” while fondling a bunch of statues that come to life and frolic around in the pool with her. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Williams’ aquatic abilities. She was an amazing talent, and I admit she’s one of my classic movie crushes. As captivating as the sequence is, though, it’s nuttier than the Planter’s peanut factory. Speaking of peanuts, there’s also music number in this flick that features dancing elephants. Again, a charming sequence, but one that makes the viewer question their own senses. “Am I really seeing this, or is this one of those Pink Elephants on Parade things?”
The camp factor extends beyond the musical numbers, though. Many sequences are all about playful banter between Williams and Keel, and the script does have some funny moments. This would be the last of three films Williams and Keel would star in together. They had a degree of chemistry, but there is no attempt to portray that subtly here. One scene in particular has Keel describing to Williams how a general needs to put his armies into the right “position” as she reclines and allows pieces of her garment to fall away. Both actors are pretty cartoonish in how they approach the scene, and yet it still manages to be steamy in a bizarre sort of way.
I definitely had fun with many aspects of Jupiter’s Darling, but it’s a film that struggles a lot. It wants to have elements of both a Roman epic and a light-hearted musical romp, but doesn’t quite strike a good balance between the two. The scenes that really try to go for the epic feel seem constricted, even when there are tons of extras and elephants marching around. The film does not make good use of Cinemascope. However the smaller moments, where our two leads get to flirt with each other are charming and playful. Jupiter’s Darling is a film that does manage to entertain, just so long as you’re in the mood for something kind of strange and cooky.