Mackinac (pronounced “Mackinaw”) Island, Michigan, is a picturesque island located between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. I have many fond summertime memories of driving up from Chicago and visiting the island with my family. While any summer vacation was a delight to me, Mackinac Island was always so special for a number of reasons.
First of all, it is quite small. Mackinac Island has a small circumference of about eight miles–just enough to make for a lovely bike ride around the island. Additionally, no motor vehicles are allowed. The preferred methods of transportation are horse-drawn carriages or bicycles. Motor vehicles, save for emergency and service vehicles, were outlawed at the end of the nineteenth century, as cars were frightening the horses. Moreover, the natural as well as architectural beauty is astounding. Though the island is busier with tourists during the warmer months, especially on Main Street, the architecture of locations such as the Victorian Grand Hotel, Governor’s House, the Old Fort, and quaint little churches are well worth visiting. Aside from the buildings, more than 80% of the island has been preserved as Mackinac Island State Park. The entire island also happens to be a National Historic Landmark. Its natural glory is easily enjoyed during the Chicago to Mackinac Race as well as the gorgeous Lilac Festival Accessible by ferry or private boat in the summer or via snowmobile in the winter, Mackinac Island makes for a beautiful getaway. Though the winter season is the off-season for tourists, approximately 500-600 people reside on Mackinac Island on a year-round basis, living a quintessential small-town life.
Near the very top of my list as to why Mackinac Island is so special to me is its connection to the film industry. Such a unique location has no doubt caught the eye of artists on many occasions and the island has been featured in two key films: This Time for Keeps (1947) and Somewhere in Time (1980). Both of these films continue to be well represented and remembered on the island, with each having points of interest for film fans to visit. Both feature the Grand Hotel in some capacity as well as the natural beauty of the island across various seasons.
This post, however, will be focusing upon This Time for Keeps, which specifically links the island to some classic Hollywood history. The film is the third installment of Esther Williams’s many water ballet musicals, with roughly one-third of the film being set on Mackinac Island. When the film was in pre-production, one of the individuals scouting locations for the next Williams film happened to view a brief 10-minute travelogue about the island from 1944. The charm of Mackinac Island seemed like a fine fit for a new Williams film.
While many exterior shots and all interior scenes set on the island were filmed back at MGM in Culver City, California, several outdoor scenes were indeed shot on the island, featuring various points of interest on the island. Though the film did make use of doubles for its stars, the principal cast members also traveled to the island. Williams, Johnnie Johnston, Jimmy Durante, and Lauritz Melchoir all came to Mackinac Island to shoot exterior shots along Main Street and in front of the Grand Hotel, in addition to roughly 200 extras employed for the film.
The film is a romantic musical, shot in color, and directed by Richard Thorpe. Produced by Joe Pasternak and written by Lorraine Fielding, Erwin S. Gelsey, Gladys Lehman, and Hans Wilhelm, the film tells the story of the son of an opera star father. Rather than following in his father’s operatic footsteps, the son pursues a career in popular music, while also romancing an aquatic ballet dancer who hails from Mackinac Island.
The film’s cast members are as follows:
- Esther Williams as Leonora Cambaretti
- Johnnie Johnston as Dick Johnson
- Jimmy Durante as Ferdi Farro
- Lauritz Melchior as Richard Herald
- Xavier Cugat as Himself
- May Whitty as Grandmother Cambaretti
- Mary Stuart as Frances Allenbury
- Ludwig Stössel as Peter
- Sharon McManus as Deborah Cambretti
- Dick Simmons as Gordon
The film also happened to be the screen debut of Anne Francis, carrying out a bit part as a bobby-soxer.
Overall, the plot of the film is quite light–a fact which Williams points out regarding many of her films in her autobiography. Nonetheless, the shots and music are lovely, with a score featuring pop, classical, and Latin music. There are also fine renditions of “Easy to Love,” performed by Johnston; “Inka Dinka Doo,” performed by Durante; and “I’ll Be with You in Apple Blossom Time,” performed by Johnston. Of course, there are also water ballet scenes performed by Williams and choreographed by Stanley Donen.
Behind the scenes, Williams coped with many challenges. For one, she was pregnant during filming but sadly suffered a miscarriage. In addition, this would be another film in which she would be directed by Thorpe. The two had a contentions professional relationship, with Williams claiming he disliked her for naturally being cheerful and would also have her perform a long list of re-takes.
Moreover, Williams’s renowned swimming sequences also posed trouble. Costume designer Irene aimed to showcase a sense of country life in her work by designing swimsuits for Williams made of plaid flannel. Unfortunately, the suits absorbed water quickly, weighing Williams down. Williams equated the experience to “swimming in a wet Army blanket,” with one of the nine swimsuits designed even taking her down to the bottom of the pool. Williams had to shed the swimsuit and have a crew member throw her a wrap to cover herself with as dozens of film fans on the island watched the “million-dollar mermaid” at work.
Additionally, the pool itself at the Grand Hotel also posed another issue: it was not heated. The staff had to creatively work out a way to waterproof a cast iron stove and sink it into the pool with tubes for coal and tubes for air to be pumped in. One of the individuals working the air pumps was Robert D. Musser Jr., father of the current Grand Hotel President R. Dan Musser III.
Today, many of the locations featured in This Time for Keeps remain on Mackinac Island. The Grand Hotel continues to house guests from all over the world. Incidentally, its outdoor swimming pool has been renamed the Esther Williams Swimming Pool, in honor of Williams swimming in the pool for the film.
Williams also received a suite at the hotel in her honor, which she used throughout her lifetime. The Esther Williams suite remains at the hotel.
The Woodfill House, visible in the film, can also be spotted on the island today.
Though the film received mixed reviews, it remains a breezy little gem that may ignite–or reignite–your interest in taking a trip to lovely Mackinac Island.
Update 2021: The Grand Hotel celebrated the Esther Williams centennial in style with various tribute events, the restoration of the pool, synchronized swimmers, and a big birthday cake!