Duchess of Idaho (1950)
Let’s start off the new year with “MGM’s Musical of Sun Valley Splendor!” It’s my favorite swim musical set in Idaho, but it’s also the only swim musical set in Idaho.
Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin, a trade magazine for theater owners, called Duchess of Idaho a “box office winner” that is “light, fluffy, melodious and pleasantly entertaining.” Its forecast for the film was bright: “Bouncing with titillating tunes, sparkling dialogue, gorgeous backgrounds and costumes, and an armful of laughs, only action fans will fail to be entertained…”
Film Bulletin was right to call Duchess of Idaho a crowd pleaser: the movie was the 19th highest grossing film of 1950. It also marked the 8th time since 1945 that one of Williams’ films had scored a spot on the annual top 20 highest grossing lists.
In 1950, the year this film was released, Miss Williams ranked #8 on the list of top moneymaking stars, and was one of only two women in the top ten, with Betty Grable clocking in at #4. As you can see, Esther Williams was a very popular star and a reliable box office draw in this era.
MGM took advantage of her popularity and kept the movies coming. They even teased audiences with this inexplicable “dozen Esthers” advertisement. To clarify, there is only one Esther Williams in this movie.
Duchess of Idaho paired Williams with frequent co-star Van Johnson. They’d make a total of five films together, starring as the romantic leads in four of them. (Williams had a tiny role in her first film with Johnson, 1943’s A Guy Named Joe.)
Duchess of Idaho was their fourth film together, and Williams remembered in her autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, that she and Johnson were so comfortable working together that they even improvised some of their dialogue in this film.
Williams plays Christine Duncan, the star of a swimming spectacular called “Melody in Swimtime.” Yup.
It’s not the first nor the last time Williams plays a swimmer of some kind. Just as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly often play song-and-dance men to facilitate their musical numbers, it’s easier to get Williams in the water if her character has an excuse to be there.
The film opens on Chris’ performance in a large pool with the audience off to the side. A fountain shoots spray into the air and then falls away, revealing Chris striking a pose on the pink bridge while men in tiny white shorts gaze solemnly at her.
She does her mermaid thing and gets dragged through the deep by a vine. The underwater shots are extremely cloudy, unlike the crystal clear below-the-surface scenes in some of her later films. The vine pulls her up and out of the water, and she alights on a tree branch before diving back in.
While she backstrokes, she glimpses her best friend and roommate, Ellen Hallett (Paula Raymond), in the wings. Fun fact: Raymond is probably best known for her later work in TV and in low-budget horror films.
You can watch the number here. It’s more solemn than some of her other water scenes, and it’s also unusual in that there isn’t a swimming chorus flipping and twirling with her.
Here’s the black and silver ensemble that Williams wears in this number. Notice the substantial silver hairpiece. For more on MGM’s pioneering water cinematography, costuming, makeup, and hairstyling, visit my Esther Williams post.
Fun fact: this was the first film Williams made after giving birth to her first child in August 1949. She knew that MGM and the public expected her to be back in “Esther Williams movie star” shape immediately, so she got in the pool and swam her way back to that famous figure. Production started on Duchess in mid-October, and MGM trumpeted their mermaid’s return, with the Publicity Department even claiming she’d lost an inch off her hips and was even more perfect now than she was pre-baby!
Film Bulletin seemed to agree, writing that Williams’ “face, curves and wardrobe have never radiated more beauty both in and out of the water” than they do in this film.
Anyway, this water ballet has nothing to do with anything. It’s just here to introduce the characters, but mainly to delight our senses with MGM’s Technicolor water-ballet extravagance and their gorgeous mermaid. I love it.
That’s what this movie is about: beautiful, bright entertainment. As Film Bulletin raved, “The scenic glories of Sun Valley, the sumptuous indoor sets and water ballet scenes are breathtakingly beautiful.” And that’s what audiences wanted from an Esther Williams movie.
But back to the plot. After watching Chris’ performance, Ellen hurries away to an appointment. Cut to a swanky club where handsome, patrician Doug Morrison (John Lund) is bored with a glamorous redhead (Amanda Blake, best known as Miss Kitty Russell on the TV show Gunsmoke). Ellen arrives and the man jumps up, full of sweet greetings for his darling fiancée.
The redhead, Linda, is speechless and then very angry. She thought she was on the fast track to becoming Mrs. Morrison! She didn’t know he was already engaged! It’s a nasty blow.
Linda storms out, and suddenly Ellen becomes very professional and demure. We learn that Doug is a very wealthy businessman, and Ellen is his secretary. They’re not involved romantically at all; Doug just uses Ellen to break up his relationships when they get too serious. He’s a charming playboy with a fear of commitment and very few scruples. Fun fact: you may recognize Lund from High Society (1956), where he plays Grace Kelly’s fiancé, another rich pompous jerk.
Doug sees Ellen purely as a competent employee, but poor Ellen is madly in love with him, and has been for years. So she sits awkwardly beside him just in case Linda returns, and yearns for his endearments and kisses to be real instead of pretend.
While Ellen pines silently for her boss, they watch a performance by Lena Horne. She sings, “Baby, Come Out of the Clouds” and she’s brilliant, as usual.
She’s also wearing one of my favorite costumes. Notice the diamond buttons at the placket and cuffs! You can watch the scene here.
Fun fact: Horne recorded two other songs for this film, but they were cut. They survive though, and were included in That’s Entertainment! Treasures From the Vault.
Another fun fact: Horne’s is one of three cameos in the film; MGM also brings out Eleanor Powell and Red Skelton for brief appearances. Films like this one were great opportunities for guest performances, and MGM had plenty of talent under contract to slot into nightclub scenes like that one.
Doug plies Ellen with champagne, so she’s very tipsy when she finally stumbles home to their tidy, pretty apartment with its octagonal mirror and prominently displayed portrait of Chris.
Chris is shocked to see her prim friend in such a state, and she’s furious with Doug for treating Ellen this way. She encourages Ellen to forget Doug and get a new job.
How stunning is Williams’ robe? It even appeared in some publicity stills!
MGM designer Helen Rose dreamed up the costumes for this film. I love her work for Esther Williams. She drapes the mermaid in gorgeous styles in the most beautiful colors and fabrics.
Chris’ pep talk evidently did the trick (though maybe it was just the force of that spotted robe) because the next day Ellen is determined to quit her job and get over Doug once and for all.
But Doug is a very overpowering (rude) man and he interrupts Ellen’s speech, assuming that she’s asking for a raise, which he okays at once.
Then he asks her if she’d like to come to Sun Valley with him, purely professionally, of course. He’s going on a working vacation and will need his secretary. She agrees, her heart bursting with hope that his invitation means he’s starting to see her romantically, not just as an employee!
Fun fact: Sun Valley became a hot spot for the rich and famous in the 1930s. The Sun Valley Lodge opened in 1936, and its owner shrewdly invited Hollywood celebrities and other notables to his resort to further publicize it as the country’s premier winter playground. Ernest Hemingway was a frequent visitor, as were Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, and some of the Kennedy family, among many others.
Another fun fact: a Sonja Henie film, Sun Valley Serenade (1941) was set there, and the Lodge still plays the movie in its guest rooms. They should add Duchess of Idaho to the rotation!
So it makes perfect sense that a wealthy playboy like Doug would choose that spot for his vacation.
Ellen calls Chris at once with the wonderful news, and Chris tells her to buy that evening dress with the “low, wicked neckline” that Ellen has been eyeing for a while.
What cute twin headboards and jammies! And notice the framed photograph of Ellen and Chris in Army uniforms on the bedside table. It will come up a little later.
But Chris is shocked at what Ellen called a “low, wicked neckline!” She goes evil stepsister/fairy godmother and rips out the modesty panel that Ellen asked the seamstress to add.
Once the solid panel is gone, it is a very low, wicked neckline, indeed!
Just then the phone rings. It’s Doug, apologetically canceling Ellen’s trip to Sun Valley because he’s afraid it won’t “look right” to take his secretary on vacation. My only issue with this plot (and it’s pretty thin, anyway) is that I don’t understand Doug’s appeal! Neither does Chris, who is hopping mad at him for dashing Ellen’s hopes, yet again.
But Chris is determined! She decides to go to Sun Valley and aggressively romance Doug until he is forced to call in Ellen. Hopefully, he’ll realize what a gem Ellen is in comparison to bold Chris, and he’ll finally fall for his pretty secretary.
And off we go to Idaho! The train carrying Chris and Doug also counts Dick Layn’s band among its passengers. They “rehearse” and get the train rocking with the highly specific tune “Let’s Choo Choo Choo to Idaho.”
That’s the band’s perky, highly watchable singer Peggy (Connie Haines) with Dick (Van Johnson), and the four African-American “porters” are The Jubilaires, a group popular in the 1940s-50s. Fun fact: they also made an uncredited appearance in the “Hallelujah” number in Hit the Deck.
Another fun fact: Connie Haines was a very successful big band singer who performed with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey. She was also the lead singer on the Abbott and Costello radio show in the 1940s.
Into this rollicking good time walks Chris in a stunning animal print coat. Dick notices her, and she notices him. But she has business to attend to! Namely, “accidentally” walking into Doug’s private train car.
Doug’s butler Matson (Clinton Sundberg) confronts the beautiful intruder, but he’s no match for her.
On the way back to her compartment, Chris gets a cinder in her eye. Dick notices her distress and follows her. As luck would have it, she wanders into his compartment by mistake (they’re neighbors!) So he just walks right in and helps her even though she resents his interference.
Now she’s got two guys interested! And she’s genuinely interested, despite herself, in the charming, brash bandleader. But she keeps her eye on the prize.
Fun fact: in Thrill of a Romance (1945), Williams wore a similar leopard print coat with pops of red as a traveling costume:
Despite Dick’s attempts to lure Chris away from her date, she stays true to the plan and to Doug. But she tells Dick to call her later, at 12:15 exactly.
Just as things are getting intensely romantic, the phone rings! It’s Dick, right on time. Chris pretends it is her father with some urgent news. That gets Doug out the door, phew. But Dick is confused, especially when Chris hangs up on him and goes to sleep.
Fun fact: before he started acting, Lund had a career in advertising. And doesn’t he look exactly like an advertising executive in the 1950s? Mad Men, anyone?
And of course they visit the resort swimming pool. Chris splashes about in her cherry red suit and matching hair wrap, but Doug doesn’t swim (a clear indication that he is not the right guy for Chris.) While they sit at the butter-yellow pool’s edge, Dick does a sneaky cannon ball with a comically large splash that drenches Doug.
Off goes pompous Doug to change clothes, leaving Dick and Chris together. There’s a funny moment when Doug turns around for a last word to Chris and she pushes Dick’s head underwater with her feet so that Doug won’t see him!
Once Doug is gone, Chris relaxes and engages in a nautical duet with Dick in the shockingly turquoise water.
It’s certainly reminiscent of the pair’s other resort-pool duets in Thrill of a Romance:
In fact, by the time Williams made Duchess of Idaho she was feeling a strong sense of déjà vu. This was her fourteenth film at MGM, and many of them, especially her most recent movies, followed the same basic formula: four people, two women and two men, form mismatched couples. Through hijinks and misunderstandings and comic situations, the love rectangle gets straightened out and the “right” couples end the movie in each others’ arms.
Williams writes in The Million Dollar Mermaid that when she read the script for Duchess she thought, “Wait a minute! Haven’t I already made this movie at least once?”
Change the locations, vary the actors slightly (some of the same cast appear multiple times, though), and give her a vaguely different reason to swim around, and you’ve got the “Esther Williams formula.” “It was enough to give one a case of cinematic déjà vu,” she wrote.
Williams enjoyed working with Johnson, but even so “the recycled plots were getting to me. At one point I turned to Van and said, ‘Didn’t we do this scene before in an elevator?’ He laughed. ‘Esther, this is our fourth picture together. We’ve done this scene in an elevator, at the side of the pool, and we’ve even done it swimming in the pool together, with you holding me up so I could say my lines and not go blub-blub underwater.'”
Fun fact: Johnson’s assessment of his swimming prowess wasn’t too far off. As Williams remembers, “He was not exaggerating. Van was getting better at swimming, but when we made Thrill of a Romance, while swimming the backstroke together I had to put my hand under his back to keep him afloat. He was properly grateful.”
But back to the formula: Williams writes that she and Johnson “could laugh about it, but the truth was that there was a definite predictability to the plots of my films. Audiences had come to expect a certain kind of film from me, and these movies were immensely popular.”
Film Bulletin seemed to agree with Williams’ assessment, noting in its review of Duchess that, “No one will object to the nonsensical story since it is merely a convenient framework to carry the film’s huge bounty of romance, fun, and beauty.” As I mentioned, this movie was a top grosser, and all of Williams’ films, with the exceptions of The Hoodlum Saint and Jupiter’s Darling, made a profit. The formula worked.
Anyway, back to the “nonsensical story.” Doug invites Chris to his bungalow for a home-cooked meal. Doug fancies himself a chef, though his butler constantly undermines Doug’s culinary talents with a stream of criticism sotto voce as he re-makes the dinner behind his boss’ back.
Then Doug gets a telegram and tells Chris that he has to return to Chicago for an important merger. She’s properly disappointed, but suggests that she’ll help him pack because soon she’ll need to do such little chores for him all the time…hint hint. Chris gets more and more obvious in her attempts to send Doug screaming back to Ellen’s arms. But so far he’s pretty into it.
He’s mad, though. She had dinner with his love rival! So he ignores her and instead persuades visiting legend Eleanor Powell to honor them with a dance. Cameo #2.
And then her trademark fast feet fly!
Fun fact: Powell had been a popular star in the 1930s and early 1940s in the Broadway Melody films and other musicals, but her heyday was over.
She’d retired from movies in 1944 after marrying Glenn Ford and having a child. This cameo was her last movie appearance.
In her autobiography, Williams relates a poignant story of Powell’s appearance in this film. They saw each other in wardrobe during production, and Williams noticed that Powell’s feet were bleeding because she had been rehearsing so much.
Powell was determined to make her brief cameo perfect, but to Williams it was a sobering reminder that movie stardom could vanish nearly overnight. “Seeing her made me more aware than ever that someday–maybe sooner than I’d know–there’d be no more ways to get me back in the water.”
But in 1950 there were still plenty of ways to get the mermaid in the water. So back to the film!
So he asks her to have dinner with him, and she offers to cook at her apartment. I guess she’s trying to wow him with her wifely skills. They have a lovely meal followed by roasted marshmallows and sealed with a kiss.
Fun fact: it must have been a common custom to roast marshmallows indoors. It happens all the time in movies from this era. Here’s Williams in Bathing Beauty, for instance.
Anyway, Ellen thinks that she’s finally got Doug’s attention, but as he leaves her apartment he mentions this very intriguing woman named Chris that he met in Sun Valley. He’s returning to Sun Valley immediately so he can see her. Again, why is this guy a catch? He just enjoyed an intimate meal and kiss with one woman, but now he’s telling her about the “intriguing” gal he can’t wait to see again?
It’s a cute moment because Skelton says, “You both look awfully familiar to me,” as he meets the pair. Skelton knew Johnson just from being at MGM, and he had starred opposite Williams in her first big film Bathing Beauty (1944). They’d also worked together in Neptune’s Daughter (1949). Skelton and Williams would make one more film together soon after Duchess, called Texas Carnival (1951). It’s a fun meta-moment.
Fun fact: Mel Torme, singer, actor, and teen idol, makes a brief appearance as a member of Dick’s band. He also recorded a song for the film, but it was cut from the final version.
I’m distracted by those rickety ski lifts. Terrifying.
Then Chris changes out of her very becoming ski suit and into a cranberry pantsuit with a sheer skirt. Perhaps it is her long distance call outfit, because she gets on the phone and tries to reach Ellen to give her the great news about Doug.
But Ellen isn’t answering…because she just arrived in Sun Valley! She’s come to drag Chris back to Chicago. But she forgets that when Chris tells her that Doug loves her! Their problems are solved! But it can’t be so simple, can it?
No. Doug saw Ellen in the lobby when she arrived. He finds out that she’s Chris’ roommate, and realizes that he’s been tricked! Rather than confront the devious duo, he strides into Chris’ room. Ellen hides in the bedroom while Doug begins to romance Chris and explain, very loudly, that he was mistaken about his feelings for “mousy” Ellen. Then Dick arrives just in time to see Doug plant one on Chris. It’s a disaster.
Everything is ruined. Chris and Dick are over, Ellen is fired/simultaneously quits, and Doug’s pride is wounded. Ellen and Chris head home and discuss the situation on the train:
Chris and Ellen are so discouraged that they decide to re-enlist in the Army as soon as Chris’ show ends. Told you that framed photograph of the pair in uniform would come back! Also, was “man trouble” a popular reason for women to enlist in the Armed Forces in the 1950s? Skirts Ahoy! (1952), another Esther Williams movie, sees three women enlist in the Navy. All three are trying to get away from some sort of man trouble.
Williams rises from beneath the surface and then swims around the pool as pink-caped women pose and black-toga’d women dance. Fountains break the tranquil surface, and the spotlight surrounds Chris in a circle of green in the dark water. In fact, the whole number is oddly dark. They were going for some strong light/shadow contrasts.
After this magnificent display, Ellen and Chris go gloomily home. When they step inside their apartment, an unusual scene awaits. It’s Doug and Dick in frilly aprons putting a candlelit dinner on the table!
But when Chris turns to Doug, Ellen steps in. She wants him to stay, she says! Chris can’t understand that, but when Ellen says forcefully, “You can ruin your own life, but leave mine alone!” Chris’ anger evaporates. She runs after Dick, who was waiting just outside the door. Kisses all around!
It’s another happy ending for our romantic rectangle, as we knew it would be!
Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin quotes from “Duchess of Idaho,” May 22, 1950. Volume 18, Number 11. Retrieved from the Lantern Media History Project at http://lantern.mediahist.org.
Screenland “Duchess of Idaho Ad,” August 1950, Volume 54, Number 1o. Retrieved from the Lantern Media History Project at http://lantern.mediahist.org.