Travel back in time to Mackinac Island

Few films ventured off the sound stage during Hollywood’s Golden Age, as major studios found it more profitable and efficient to film from the comfort of their atmosphere-controlled grounds. However, a rare film would supplement its studio footage with choice footage shot in a single location. One film that did this is MGM’s “This Time for Keeps” from 1947.

This film is a musical produced by the studio’s Joe Pasternak unit. The Hungarian-born producer loved stories centered on music and family, and this film typifies his style. Award-winning swimmer-turned-movie star Esther Williams plays the lead role, opposite crooner Johnny Johnston, a singer who never really made it in the movies.

Esther Williams as Nora Cambaretti and Johnny Johnston as ex-GI Dick Johnson get to know each other in “This Time for Keeps.” (MGM)

Much of the duration is filled with melodic fun provided by three great, yet very different, musical talents: Lauritz Melchior, Jimmy Durante and Xavier Cugat. While Cugat is mostly there to provide Latin beats with his band, including those from charming vocalist Lina Romay, Melchior and Durante play important roles in the story. Plus, former Metropolitan Opera star Melchior sings amazing tunes in his powerful voice, and Durante delivers some hilarious piano tunes in his inimitable style.

In the second half of the film, Williams’ character visits his hometown, which happens to be Mackinac Island, Michigan. In 1947 Mackinac Island was something of a rarity in that no automobiles were allowed on its streets – only horses and bicycles. Seventy-five years later, the tradition lives on, making it the only car-free city in the United States. Instead of using a backlot, MGM filmed on location on the single island. All the beautiful landscapes you see in the movie are still there today.

A lovely movie

Nora Cambaretti (Williams) stars in a New York aquacade, accompanied by longtime family friend and secret admirer Ferdi Farro (Durante). One evening, handsome ex-GI Dick Johnson (Johnston) arrives backstage. He reminds her that they met when she was entertaining herself at a military hospital, where her cheeky behavior bored her. She becomes friendly when she deduces that he is out of work.

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Jimmy Durante as Ferdi Faro (C) and Lauritz Melchior (R) as Dick Johnson’s father in ‘This Time for Keeps. (MGM)

To keep him off their show, Ferdi gets him a job as a vocalist with Cugat’s band; yet, Nora and Dick begin a whirlwind court anyway. She does not know that Dick is the son of the famous opera singer Richard Herald (Melchior). Dick’s father has planned his whole life, including Dick becoming an opera singer and marrying a girl he doesn’t love: Frances Allenbury (Mary Stuart). Dick doesn’t have the heart to tell his father, Frances, or Nora the truth.

Esther Williams shows off her amazing swimming skills in this film, cleverly integrated through performances, rehearsals and a swimming lesson on Mackinac Island. Whether she’s performing incredible underwater feats that the show’s audience couldn’t see, demonstrating a perfect dive or teaching her niece how to do the backstroke, she’s always looks elegant even when soaked.

You’d think water ballet would be a rather limited specialty, but MGM has managed to flaunt the swimming actress and her snug one-piece swimsuits in enough blockbuster movies to make her one of the biggest stars in film. Hollywood.

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Esther Williams as Nora Cambaretti shows off a perfectly fitted swimsuit in “This Time for Keeps.” (MGM)

At the film’s driest moments, there are enough musical styles in this movie to keep everyone entertained. None of the songs are an out-of-context “burst-in-song” moment, so they don’t slow the pace; the characters involved perform all of the featured music.

Lauritz Melchior brings opera to the masses through four classic arias, many of them in operatic performances in film. He also shows impressive acting skills as Dick’s strong-willed but loving father. Jimmy Durante performs more musical numbers than usual in this film, as he too renders four songs, including his signature “Inka Dinka Doo,” while pounding on the piano and cracking jokes.

Although he cannot compete with the fame of other male singers, Johnny Johnson proves his dignity of being in the movie with his beautiful folk style voice. He sings a few songs with Xavier Cugat’s band, including Cole Porter’s old MGM standard, “Easy to Love”. He also sings a very tender rendition of “Apple Blossom Time”.

Mackinac Island

“This Time for Keeps” was the first film to be shot on the island. Filming took place between July and October 1946, part of which was spent on the island. The summer scenes feature a delightful, “When It’s Lilac Time on Mackinac Island” by Lesley Kirk, which was written for a 1944 MGM travelogue about the unusual destination. Lilacs are indeed a specialty of the island of Michigan, which began hosting a lilac festival in late August two years after this film was released.

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The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island where ‘This Time for Keeps’ was filmed. (drdpw/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The facts Nora tells Dick about Mackinac Island are true today. While the island is visited by thousands of tourists in the summer, its population dwindles to a few hundred during the snowy winter. In fact, the city’s permanent population was actually larger in 1950, at 572, and then in 2020, at 470. As the 18-mile-wide island is surrounded by Lake Huron, it can only be accessed by ferry in summer, ice bridge in winter, and air charter.

As summer rolls in, as Jimmy Durante meets the oncoming boat, I’m sure the other onlookers in the crowd are actual Mackinac Island tourists and locals rather than extras.

One of the most famous locations on Mackinac Island is the Grand Hotel, built in 1887. Dick returns to Mackinac Island later in the film with Xavier Cugat’s band to perform at the hotel. You can see the beautiful architecture of this magnificent Victorian structure, including the longest porch in the world, where Thomas Edison first publicly demonstrated his phonograph.

Nora brings her niece, Deborah (Sharon McManus), to the hotel pool for her swimming lesson. Since the movie used the real hotel pool to film this scene, it was later named the Esther Williams Pool, a dedication that remains to this day. The hotel offers 388 rooms and suites, each decorated differently, including the Esther Williams suite with a view of the lake.

Time travel

In these troubled times, it’s nice to escape to a simpler world, like the peaceful days after World War II. “This Time for Keeps” is a vague title that fails to capture the charm of this endearing film. This is no flashy musical extravaganza. It’s a tender love story and a touching story about family obligations and the importance for parents to let their children lead their own lives. From Dame May Whitty as lovable old grandmother Cambaretti to Sharon McManus as a soulful-eyed great-granddaughter, the cast is full of once-famous performers you may not have seen before. After this movie you will remember and love them all.

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Johnny Johnston as ex-GI Dick Johnson and Esther Williams as Nora Cambaretti in “This Time for Keeps.” (MGM)

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