‘Neptune’s Daughter’ in this #MeToo Era

Before plunging into the controversy about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and calling a certain Latin Lover creepy, let’s soak in the aqua musical “Neptune’s Daughter.” It’s a movie where you never see Neptune and Neptune isn’t mentioned and no super heroes or former Atlanteans are involved. While “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” existed prior to the movie, the song only came to the public’s attention because of the movie and…Context is everything.

“Neptune’s Daughter” begins with a guy in a suit who tells us, “I’d like to tell you a story about a guy and a girl and a bathing suit.” The gal is Eve Barrett, a former competitive swimmer and current bathing suit designer. The guy is the star of a South American polo team, José O’Rourke. The bathing suits are the eye candy with many women wearing them for the finale–an aquatic ballet, the precursor to synchronized swimming.

The movie is the third pairing of former competitive swimmer Esther Williams and hunky Mexican-born actor Ricardo Montalbán, but top billing goes to Williams and comedian Red Skelton with secondary credits to Montalbán and Betty Garrett. I write this mostly in honor of Montalbán because someone called his actions during the duet “creepy.” He was fit and brave enough to match swimmingly with a former world class swimmer but is not as pumped up as he would impressively be years later in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”

In “Neptune’s Daughter,” the titular character Eve is first pursued by business man Joe Backett (Keenan Wynn) who becomes her business partner in the swimming suit industry. He promotes; she designs and helps model through aquatic spectacles. Eve’s sister, Betty, helps. While Eve develops into a sensible business woman, wearing suits and pumps when not modeling her own swimsuit, Betty is less sophisticated and desperately falling in love with an idea of a man. When Joe reports about the promotional potential of the South American polo team, Eve has to warn her sister, “Oh Betty, get that romantic gleam out of your eye.”

Betty is sure “this time it’s the real thing; it’s love,” even though she hasn’t yet met anyone on the polo team. Last month, she was infatuated with another particularly occupation and Eve tells her that her approach is all wrong, but Betty asks her, “What’s wrong with a woman chasing a man?”

José is already on the field, but after a slight injury and he goes to the hosting polo club’s masseur, Jack Spratt (Skelton). When Jack complains about his awkwardness with women, José encourages him to learn Spanish because it is the “language of love” (I thought it was French).  When Betty is trying to track down José, she’s sent to the massage room after José has left and Jack allows Betty to think he’s José.

José helps Jack dress to impress, but Jack also gets Spanish language instruction record to play while on his first date with Betty. The real José happens to meet Eve during a tour of her factory and she invites him to a private meeting where she asks hims to stop dating Betty and, confused, but attracted to Eve, he promises to do so if she gives him a date.

The date is their first dance number together and Eve is literally doing the driving. José pretends to need to be at the stable to check on something, but he has seduction in mind, cuing a small band to play his special song. Eve and José dance together, and Eve is attracted to him, but still gets in her car and drives away, leaving José disappointed.

Eve feels she has done her duty as a big sister until her maid tells her Betty went out that night with José. Angry, Eve goes to José’s apartment and demands to see her sister, inviting herself in for an inspection that includes his bedroom. But in the living room, she demands that he open a door which is actually a bar. Feeling ashamed, Eve apologizes and accepts a drink, confused why her sister isn’t there.

For a generation who hasn’t grown up with couple dancing and, perhaps, only seen it on “Dancing with the Stars,” a lot of the positions and interaction between José and Eve mirror dance moves moved then and now. A key element here is that José comments how delighted he is to be alone with a lovely lady on “a warm summer evening.” That is the pretext for the song.

So when Eve begins, “I really can’t stay,” and José replies, “Baby, it’s cold outside,” they both know that isn’t true and there is no fireplace roaring.  Eve then admits that “This evening has been, so very nice” while José admits that he was hoping she would drop in.  She then expresses her concerns:

Eve:  My mother will start to worry
José:  Beautiful, what’s your hurry
Eve:  My father will be pacing the floor

Yet from the story, we know (although José does not) these concerns are as false as the references to the weather. Eve and her sister Betty appear to be on their own and live alone. They do not live under parental supervision. There is no other reference to a mother or father in the movie.  Eve then asks what “the neighbors might think,” but she doesn’t seem like the kind of woman overly concerned about that. When she asks “Say, what’s in this drink,” we know that José is drinking the very same thing because when he poured the drink, she said she wasn’t interested in drinking quite that much, so he put half into his glass.  She also then immediately says, “I wish I knew how to break this spell,” trying to shift responsibility from herself to what she had to drink as if the drink was a magic potion.

Eve:  The neighbors might think
José: But Baby, it’s bad out there
Eve: Say, what’s in this drink?
José:  No cabs to be had out there
Eve: I wish I knew how
José: Your eyes are like stars right now
Eve:  To break this spell

Eve then continues to confess her attraction to José.

Eve: I ought to say no, no, no Sir
José: Mind if I move in closer?
Eve:- At least I’m going to say that I tried
José: What’s the sense of hurting my pride
Eve:- I really can’t stay
José: Baby don’t hold out
José & Eve: Baby it’s cold outside

At this point, when Eve joins José in the chorus, she agrees on a pretense, that despite it being a warm summer evening that the logical reason for her to stay is that it is cold outside.

According to Susan Loesser, daughter of the composer Frank Loesser, the song was written for Loesser to sing with his first wife Lynn Garland. It was first sung at their housewarming party to signal the end of the night. The parts are divided up into wolf and mouse. In the movie, the song is sung both by the couple Eve and José, and Betty and Jack. In the first Eve is the mouse and José is the wolf while in the second version Betty is the wolf and Jack is the mouse. There is no storm or blizzard. We never meet a brother or a vicious old-maid aunt and no one is dressed for snow.

While Betty has been the wolf in the relationship with Jack when he’s pretending to be José, Eve unintentionally has been the aggressor in the relationship with José. Eve makes the first move with José, by taking him off of the factory tour and asking him to meet her privately in her office and then accosting him at his apartment and demanding to be let in. When she becomes apologetic, then José becomes the “wolf.”  While Betty and Jack end the song at Jack’s apartment with the lights out, Eve and José are shown going to a nightclub afterward where Eve realizes that José is something of a playboy and leaves him again.

The next day, the confusion continues as Betty tells Eve she is engaged to José because she doesn’t know he’s really Jack. Other people such as the night club owner Lukie Luzette get confused, too.  Luzette wants to kidnap José, to ensure that the South American polo team will lose and thus allow him to win big money on a bet he has placed but he first kidnaps Jack before getting José.

Eventually, the confusion will be resolved with South America winning the polo match, the imposter will be revealed, but the two couples will be happily in love and it will be celebrated with a literally splashy aquatic musical number. The only person unhappy is the narrator, Eve’s business partner who belatedly realizes he was in love with Eve.

In the context of the movie, the wolf is played by both a woman and a man. The song has been sung by a variety of singers including Michael Bublé and Idina Menzel and Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as well as Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett). If one is going to contend that the actions of one wolf is creepy, then one also has to consider the actions of both wolves, including the woman (“What’s wrong with a woman chasing a man?”)  and the actual meaning of the words on a warm summer night. For me, the song is about a negotiation and a mouse considering social conventions which we know weren’t always enough to control a couple’s romantic or sexual actions even before the pill and the sexual revolution.

“Neptune’s Daughter” was the last of three films in which Ricardo Montalbán was paired with Esther Williams. He played her brother in  “Fiesta” (1947) and her fiancé who loses her to another guy in “On an Island with You” (1948). It’s unfortunate that Montalbán didn’t get more featured or starring roles, but his duet with Esther Williams “Neptune’s Daughter” (and his featured role in “Sweet Charity”) give us an inkling of what we missed.

I’m supportive of #MeToo which is about sexual harassment and sexual assault, but in the movie Montalbán’s character is not sexually harassing anyone and he doesn’t sexually assault Williams’ Eve. For me, this #MeToo musical maelstrom is misplaced.

 

 

Eve: I really can’t stay
José: Baby, it’s cold outside
Eve: I’ve got to go away
José: But Baby, it’s cold outside
Eve: This evening has been
José: Been hoping that you’d drop in
Eve: So very nice
José: I’ll hold your hands, they’re just like ice

Eve: My mother will start to worry
José: Beautiful, what’s your hurry
Eve: My father will be pacing the floor
José: Listen to the fireplace roar
Eve: So really I’d better scurry
José: Beautiful, please don’t hurry
Eve: Well maybe just a half a drink more
José: Put some records on while I pour

Eve:The neighbors might think
José: But Baby, it’s bad out there
Eve: Say, what’s in this drink?
José: No cabs to be had out there
Eve: I wish I knew how
José: Your eyes are like stars right now
Eve: To break this spell
José: I’ll take your hat, your hair looks swell

Eve: I ought to say no, no, no Sir
José: Mind if I move in closer?
Eve: At least I’m going to say that I tried
José: What’s the sense of hurting my pride
Eve: I really can’t stay
José: Baby don’t hold out
José & Eve: Baby it’s cold outside

Eve: I simply must go
José: Baby, it’s cold outside
Eve: The answer is No
José: But Baby,it’s cold outside
Eve: This welcome has been
José: How lucky that you dropped in
Eve: So nice and warm
José: Look out the window at that storm

Eve: My sister will be suspicious
José: Your lips look delicious
Eve: My brother will be there at the door
José: Waves upon a tropical shore
Eve: My maiden aunt’s mind is vicious
José: Gosh, your lips are delicious
Eve: Well maybe just a cigarette more
José: Never such a blizzard before

Eve: I’ve got to get home
José: But Baby, you’d freeze out there
Eve: Say, lend me a comb
José: It’s up to your knees out there
Eve: You’ve really been grand
José: I thrill when you touch my hand
Eve: But don’t you see
José: How can you do this thing to me?

Eve: There’s bound to be talk tomorrow
José: Think of my life long sorrow
Eve: At least there will plenty implied
José: If you caught pneumonia and died
Eve: I really can’t stay
José: Get over that old doubt
José&Eve: Baby, it’s cold outside

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