Directed by George Sidney
Written by Dorothy Kingsley (based on the play The Road to Rome by Robert Sherwood)
Spoiler alert: unless you're somehow surprised to learn that Rome won the Second Punic War, actually quite mild
There are three big movements defining the populist American cinema of the 1950s. The third one, cheesy science fiction, doesn't concern us this time around; but then there are the other two, the colorful musical and the sword-and-sandal epic, and I always wondered why they never combined, at least outside of the "exotic" dance numbers that became such a perennial fixture of the latter. After all, they had a lot in common: both tend to fit neatly in the spectrum between camp and kitsch, and both had a penchant for throwing hefty sums of studio money at sets and costumes in pursuit of transporting their audiences out of the world they knew. Musicals were frequently period pieces, of course, but they virtually never reached beyond the 19th century, and rarely went back further than the 20th century they were already a part of. And so, despite their aesthetic overlap, the two genres never seemed to touch. Well, those familiar with 50s ephemera know that one should never say never.
There was at least one, and in the form of a 1955 offering from MGM, maybe we've found an answer for why two of the decade's quintessential genres didn't cross over more often. For this offering—this Jupiter's Darling—was a tremendous, terrible flop. It derailed two film careers; it more-or-less concluded two more, though I don't think that anybody held Jupiter's Darling against Marge and Gower Champion particularly (nor that the Champions had any pronounced animus against it, though they probably chafed at having their ballet number cut for no apparent reason, especially when the movie only runs 95 minutes). Either way, when it's remembered (which isn't often) it's as a failure. The only person I can name who did like it was its male lead, Howard Keel, and that might just be because it gave him another opportunity to play a singing insult comic shouting inane, sometimes-funny misogynist nonsense at people, which appears to have been his jam.
It was certainly not a favorite of its female lead, Esther Williams, though it was down to her participation that Jupiter's Darling wasn't just a sword-and-sandal musical, but a sword-and-sandal aquamusical, this being the subgenre of the mid-century musical that is almost entirely coextensive with other Esther Williams movies.* I expect that its name was arrived upon by reference to those movies, too, as it was clearly intended to remind audiences of 1949's Neptune's Daughter, which had been one of Williams's biggest hits despite being modestly awful. (I half-suspect that at some point during its development, while Williams was still attached, 1954's Athena also used the naming convention; "Minerva's Sister," perhaps.) It is, anyway, a damned odd title otherwise, insofar as Jupiter's Darling is about a woman who betrays Rome for its greatest enemy and therefore would be just about the last person Jupiter would love. I suppose Melqart's Darling doesn't have the same punch. Then again, given the mode of seduction condoned by so many of these mid-century musical romances, including this one, Pluto's Bride would've been just as appropriate.
Well, if Williams ensured that it would be an aquamusical, it was also her last—though this was a long time coming, Williams having grown weary of risking her life doing dangerous work for a studio that didn't value her for much of any other reason. The most irritating thing, it seems, was the way they treated her as a cog, despite her irreplaceability: Williams had co-written the original script for Athena, and thus had naturally assumed that she'd star in it, too; upon her return from giving birth to her daughter, she discovered that MGM had started shooting a rewritten, very-un-watery Athena with Jane Powell, and that they had assigned Williams to whatever the hell this obvious boondoggle was. It was the next-to-last straw, and she walked off production on what would've been her next film for the studio, The Opposite Sex, never to look back.
For its failure and for its indirect role in putting an end to a legendary and profitable collaboration, someone had to take the blame. This turned out to be its producer, George Wells; mostly a screenwriter (on, for example, 1952's Lovely To Look At), Wells had recently pushed his way into production at MGM. Jupiter's Darling pushed him right back out. Now, I should stake a claim on it: I like the silly thing. But I can see how it could've alienated fans of both its genres. Jupiter's Darling proposes to tell the tale of the dark days after Cannae, when it looked like Hannibal Barca (Keel) would crush the Republic beneath a Punic boot; obviously, it's a comedy.
It gets out in front of this immediately, with an intertitle explaining that Hannibal's invasion of Italy is not well understood—and that this movie isn't about to help. It continues with a prologue offered by Horatio (Richard Haydn), Hannibal's historian—which indicates the level of fidelity we have here, inasmuch as Hannibal's historian was a Greek named Sosylus, and sure as hell wouldn't have been named Horatio—who uses magic or something to show a class of young women visions regarding the love that (largely by accident) proved to be Rome's salvation. This brings us to Amytis (Williams), whom we meet as she and her handmaid Meta (Marge Champion) go to market. There, they purchase a recently-enslaved Carthaginian officer, Varius (Gower Champion), who sings of how it might not be so bad to be a slave if his mistresses are such hot babes, but puts most of his efforts towards escape anyway, at least such as we can discern from the truncated mess of the Champions' plotline here. Amytis, on the other hand, is betrothed to Rome's newly-elected dictator, Fabian Cunctator (George Sanders)—but it turns out that Fabian's the one getting cunctated, because his bride-to-be is not nearly as happy about their arrangement as he is, and she suggests they get married the following year, much as she did last year and, we presume, the year before that. Fabian suggests that they be married in a week, unless she'd prefer to take Vestal vows instead.
But Amytis, hearing of Hannibal's elephants, brings Meta along to spy the fabled beasts. They are, of course, captured by Carthaginian sentries in short order, though Amytis deploys all her feminine wiles—and her detailed knowledge of Rome's layout, Jupiter's darling indeed—to delay their execution, by which point Hannibal has, as was inevitable, fallen in love with this pretty Roman. Yet by no means does he intend to put aside his grudge against Rome—and when he discovers she's to marry his adversary's leader, his suspicion that she was always an enemy spy roars back to life, and things look bleak for their star-crossed, war-torn affair.
So what we already know about Jupiter's Darling is that it's been built, it seems, to take the piss out of the po-faced sword-and-sandal epic, and therefore the pointed indifference to history, the silly farce of the plot, and the basic fact that everybody's singing are all meant to underline how seriously we're supposed to take it, which is not seriously at all. And yet you sometimes get the feeling that this is just the unexpected outcome of forcing musical romantic comedy formula onto ancient history. Even the choice of subject matter comes off arbitrary, potentially just the artifact of the play it was based on, The Road to Rome, having been bought by MGM over a decade earlier and left to collect dust until Wells got ahold of it. The frequency with which Hannibal is scorned as a "barbarian," not to mention the way he's characterized as a uncouth idiot—this is the movie where Hannibal, of Carthage, can't swim—suggests that they may've been happier using Gauls or Goths. But Hannibal is a recognizable name, and those guys had no elephants. Of course, by 216 B.C., neither did Hannibal, besides his personal pet, Surus, but let's call this acceptable license.
Anyway, I have a faint suspicion that that prologue, which all but flat-out tells us that this will be a parody, may've been added only after it became obvious just what a frivolous goofball motion picture Wells and director George Sidney had made. (I note that Horatio's prologue ditty was written by Wells, and is the only song in the film not written by Burton Lane & Harold Adamson.) Here's the thing: if it is a parody, it frequently plays itself very straight—that is, as a musical romantic comedy that incidentally happens to be set in ancient times—and only occasionally appears to be designed to land historical gags or genre mockery. It's not exactly History of the World, Part I, nor even A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum. But then something comes up to make you reappraise it, like the unstressed gag of Amytis constantly delaying the Delayer, which is erudite as hell, if intentional; or the sharp poke at ancient historians who inflated numbers by a factor of ten to make their subjects seem more epic, which is clearly intentional. And then there are moments, like when Hannibal declares that he's going to kill Amytis with his own hands, and his guard asks, lewdly, "Can I watch?", where it's impossible to think that direct parody wasn't the idea. Yet when that idea really cohered is equally hard to say—possibly very late, and possibly around the same time that Sidney realized he had no idea how to direct battle scenes, so he just kept intercutting low-angle shots of Keel yelling "charge!" or "fire!" or possibly "rrrahh!" whilst extras playing Romans dump water on some elephants' heads and everyone else, except for the elephants, pretend it's boiling oil. In a similar vein, Cedric Gibbons and Urie McCleary's art direction is gratifyingly colorful, but not especially monumental. At $3.3 million, it had about half the budget of the same studio's Quo Vadis, and I don't know if even that much shows up onscreen—although stock footage from Quo Vadis does.
Still, if it mixes its genres awkwardly, Jupiter's Darling is always just a second away from doing something enjoyably wacky, remaining entertaining even when it's a self-evident mess. Sometimes, however, it is very good, and most of these things have to do with it being a musical. There are the Champions, naturally, with two remaining numbers, and while neither occupy the top-tier of their film work, they're both engagingly weird, with the first, "If This Be Slav'ry," involving a lot of showboating stuntwork and, more interestingly, a smart awareness of how to fill a CinemaScope frame with just two dancers, with a heavy emphasis on lateral staging across the image. The dancing itself is sort of obtuse—very modern, almost abstract, and not really very clear what it's attempting to communicate (if anything), but the song's okayish and the dancing is technically quite fine. The second, "The Life Of an Elephant," is much more memorable, above all because it involves the Champions dancing with the elephants, which is a charming, whimsical blast.
The song compares the lot of a wife to that of a trained elephant, and it's a pretty fun little song albeit a touch sexist—though practically nothing could seem especially sexist, at least after Keel's done clearing the field of all competition with "Never Trust a Woman." It's an amusing number (for certain values of amusing) in its blast of open misogyny (Keel's singing here is pretty fantastic, and he revels in the prospect of not having to make it pretty, just forceful); and, in its defense, every other lyric in the song is vastly superior to the opening verse's "a man who is a he-male/should never trust a female," though so are all other lyrics in every other human song. Meanwhile, there's the Carthaginians' war song, "Hannibal's Victory March," which introduces us to the general—riding very he-malefully atop his elephant—and which, in its reprise, manages to be the second-funniest thing in the movie after "can I watch?", as the Carthaginian army sings, ready for battle, only to be put off repeatedly, because Hannibal is too busy (ahem) "reconnoitering" with Amytis. Which, if nothing else, takes advantage of the pre-Christian milieu, as all good sword-and-sandal films should; it provides Jupiter's Darling the distinction of being the rare mid-century musical where the leads have already started fucking, right here in the middle of the movie.
That leaves us with Williams's special contributions to the proceedings, which include both its greatest accomplishment and the worst thing it has going—as far as the latter goes, the third act involves a protracted chase across and underneath a lake, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to do with an adventure-adjacent movie if you have an Olympic-level swimmer at your disposal, but unfortunately bears the weaknesses of virtually every other underwater chase in cinema, in that it's molasses-slow and eventually boring despite involving feats that could (and in this case did) seriously injure a stunt artist. Williams, of course, had spent a decade demonstrating what the half-speed floatiness of underwater scenes was much better at doing than providing thrills, and that's showcasing delicate grace and a well-trained human body, with splashes of otherwordly color and visual phantasmagoria.
As her last film aquamusical sequence (which may mean the last film aquamusical sequence ever, at least that was treated as anything besides a joke—History of the World again says "hi"), I don't know if Williams could have ended this phase of her career on a higher note. "I Had a Dream" begins with a recitation of the nice-if-sleepy ballad, as Amytis sings her feelings about being forced into marriage to a man she has no passion for. As she circles an enormous pool ringed by statues of gods and heroes that give substance to her desires, Amytis's surroundings promise the dreamy spectacle to come, and, teasingly—indeed, at some length, though I think this winds up being a good choice—spectacle is what we get, when Amytis dives beneath the water, and her Atlantean reverie is signaled by the orange and red dyes that fill the screen, revealing the statues still boxed in by their colonnade, now down here with her. I'm loath to spoil it, but suffice to say that the backdrop becomes Williams's full partner in this number. "I Had a Dream" is extremely inventive in its narrow niche of filmed water ballet—I've not seen enough to make the claim myself, but if you told me it was the most imaginative of them, there'd be absolutely no reason not to believe it.
In any event, it's leagues away from the high-pitched pomp and circumstance associated with Williams's most iconic numbers; those, beginning with 1944's Bathing Beauty, tend to be variations on Busby Berkeley's extraordinary "By a Waterfall" number in 1933's Footlight Parade—one of his masterpieces—so much so that it's no surprise that Williams eventually just started collaborating with Berkeley himself. Being Berkeleyesque, then, they are typically abstract, ornamental, and narrative-free. But "I Had a Dream" is different, exploring the expressive possibility of water ballet with great sensitivity and clarity, emphasizing the impossible yearnings of a headstrong young woman trapped in a barbaric society. (And so if Jupiter's Daughter captures "ancient times" in no other way, it reflects their hyperpatriarchal awfulness pretty well.) That it manages such surprising and beautiful visuals in the midst of all this makes it one of the best sequences in any musical—there's a joy of creation here that very few match. I probably like Jupiter's Daughter more than I should, simply because it's the rare combination of two of my favorite aspects of 50s cinema; but this is where it actively justifies any claim that it deserves better than to be forgotten.
*I'm not even 100% sure I need to qualify that with "almost," but there's probably some other movie with a water ballet or aquacade show.