Barely remembered Australian swimming, vaudeville and silent film star Annette Kellerman receives long overdue recognition in documaker Michael Cordell’s worthy — but unexceptional — tribute. Charting of Kellerman’s ground-breaking exploits — dramatized in 1952 Esther Williams’ film “Million Dollar Mermaid” — promises much in opening stanzas but is hampered in later stages by lack of archival material and repetitive use of freshly shot underwater sequences to cover the gaps. Still, docu’s subject matter alone should ensure plenty of splashes in fest pools before emerging in tube arts slots.
Instructed by medicos to take up swimming to cure a childhood bout of rickets, Kellerman (1886-1975) gained fame as a distance swimmer before hitting the heights on both sides of the Atlantic with a vaudeville act combining musical numbers, water ballet and what’s known today as synchronized swimming.
Her film career peaked in 1916 with starring role in the lost epic “Daughter of the Gods,” produced by studio founder William Fox. Her later days were spent writing women’s health and beauty books.
Film follows traditional TV-docu format with experts and admirers lined up to pay respects in between archival clips, dramatic reconstructions and first person voiceover adapted from Kellerman’s writings. Highlight is Esther Williams who initiates commentary and illuminates proceedings at every appearance. Footage of Kellerman in Sydney, London and U.S. is nicely arranged, but lack of later letters and other personal effects is problematic in final section of film.
Dreamy underwater shots and melancholic piano track are at odds with the exhilarating personality and deeds of Kellerman. Lack of proper TV formatting of clips from Kellerman starrers “Neptune’s Daughter” (1914) and “Venus of the South Seas” (1924) as well as Williams’ “Million Dollar Mermaid” is a disappointment. Docu remains fascinating thanks to amazing career path of subject, though her spirit doesn’t shine as brightly as it might have.