As swimsuit season nears and MGM’s Million Dollar Mermaid celebrates its 65th anniversary, Vanity Fair caught up with one of the film’s last surviving cast members
May 26, 2017 12:00 pm
Million Dollar Mermaid was the 1952 blockbuster that cemented swimmer and aqua-musical star Esther Williams as a Hollywood luminary. In a particularly captivating scene, one of the most mesmerizing of her career, the brunette beauty slides into a turquoise pool amid billowing plumes of yellow and red smoke before being hoisted above a kaleidoscopic formation of synchronized swimmers.
But it’s not the high dives or choreographed underwater sequences that Donna Corcoran, one of the films’ last surviving cast members, most eagerly remembers. “MGM had to teach me how to swim for the movie,” Corcoran says with a laugh over the phone from her home in California’s San Fernando Valley. “The studio brought me to the Hollywood Athletic Club for lessons. It was a whole thing!”
Williams starred in the film as Annette Kellerman, the real-life Australian swimmer who overcame a childhood bout of polio to achieve fame as a champion swimmer, Hollywood film sensation, and pioneer of the modern one-piece swimsuit in the early 1900s. Corcoran, eight years old at the time, played the younger version of Kellerman in the first 20 minutes of the film. “There’s the moment in the movie when I take the braces off [my legs], and go swimming in a lake before Walter Pidgeon starts yelling for me,” recalls Corcoran, who declined to reveal her current age. “But that whole thing actually happened on Lot 3 at MGM—they owned a space that had a lake in it.”
Though she and Williams shared no scenes for Million Dollar Mermaid, they did spend time together in the water. “Esther and her double, who was like her best friend in the whole world, would play around with me and do some stunts. They’d dive under and show me how to come up in the water with your feet . . . little synchronized stuff,” remembers Corcoran, who also starred alongside Williams in Dangerous When Wet. “Regardless of what the rest of her life was like, Esther was good to me. Even after the films ended, she would send me birthday cards.”
While Corcoran would go on to log screen time in nine films before the age of 13, including a loan-out to Fox for Don’t Bother to Knock with Marilyn Monroe and Anne Bancroft, she chalks up her work during Hollywood’s golden era to little more than luck. Born in Quincy, Massachusetts, Corcoran moved to Los Angeles with her family after a doctor suggested the warm weather might alleviate her mother’s arthritic pain. While visiting her father, who landed a job with the security department at MGM studios, Corcoran caught the eye of a casting director. “I remember going into Clarence Brown’s office and having an interview. He was was directing Angels in the Outfield—the original. He had interviewed something like 635 kids, but for some reason he picked me.”
For years, she says, she was the only kid on contract at MGM (“It was me. Period”). And like the child stars who pre-dated her (Shirley Temple, Lana Turner), if Corcoran wasn't at work on a film, she was either at the studio’s school bungalow with teacher Mary MacDonald—or in performance classes with celebrities like Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor. (“They were all in their 20s, and we all had a routine together.”)
Corcoran hasn't really looked back on tinsel town since leaving the industry at 18, moving on to a career in real estate and then gemology. “The times changed, a lot of nepotism started—someone’s son or nephew would come into a position and they really were not that professional. So I just said, ‘the heck with it.’” Yet unlike so many children who came before and after her, Corcoran never became a cautionary tale.
“There were eight of us in the family, and even though I was a princess on the lot—when you got home it was ‘feed your brother.’ My dad always said, ‘Never believe your own publicity.’” Her advice for kids today? “If you’re a movie star, do your job—do it well—and then go home and have a sandwich.”