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Except for two aquatic numbers, swimming star Esther Williams is largely out of the water in the romantic drama Duchess of Idaho (1950). She plays Christine Duncan, a nightclub water performer who goes undercover as a seductress to help out her roommate. Christine's shy, lovesick roommate Ellen Hallet (Paula Raymond) has been unable to get her playboy boss Douglas J. Morrison (John Lund) to pay her any attention, though she continually helps him out of sticky situations with fortune-hunting vixens.
In an attempt to create one such opportunity for Ellen to rescue Douglas, Christine masquerades as a marriage-hungry vamp traveling to Sun Valley, Idaho bent on seducing the vacationing Douglas. Things become complicated in the vacation paradise of endless skiing and swimming when Christine finds herself easily romancing Douglas, even as she begins to fall in love with bandleader Dick Layn (Van Johnson) whose group performs every evening in the resort's nightclub. Much romantic tension ensues when Dick and Ellen both become jealous over Christine's continuing flirtation with Douglas.
Esther Williams was a consistent box office draw in the Hollywood of the Forties, ranked as one of the top ten stars in 1949. And the spectacular Technicolor and beautiful Sun Valley locales, along with Williams's crowd-drawing power made Duchess one of the top moneymaking films of 1950 alongside On the Town and Annie Get Your Gun.
The Duchess of Idaho was also Williams's return to the screen after the birth one year previously of her first child, Benjamin Stanton Gage. In her autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams described the enormous professional demands then placed on movie stars, whose newborns were often enlisted into the publicity effort.
"Everyone wanted pictures of a sweet baby and a pretty mother, preferably one who's got her figure back already." Williams complained that, "after an all-too-brief maternity leave, you were expected back on the lot, 'camera ready,' which in my case meant looking good in a swimsuit, so I got in the pool right after Benjie was born." Williams quickly lost the 25 pounds gained during pregnancy, with the MGM publicity department claiming she had even lost an inch off her hips. That same year Williams signed a new contract with MGM guaranteeing her $1,300,000 and $2,500 a week.
It was Williams's fourth pairing with Van Johnson (her last would be 1953's Easy to Love), and much to the actress's chagrin, a return to the formula of the mismatched lovers plot. "As happy as I was to be working once more with Van," she recalled, "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." He was not exaggerating...We 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."
The New York Times seemed to agree, its critic quipping, "the principals, as well as their surroundings, never looked lovelier than they do in the panchromatic hues of Technicolor and the story is routine and often painfully obvious."
Though some of the thwarted lovers story might have been a return to familiar territory, there was some novelty to distinguish Duchess from the pack, including numerous star cameos. The nightclub scenes in Duchess feature Lena Horne singing "Baby Come Out of the Clouds", an unbilled guest appearance by Red Skelton and a peppy Eleanor Powell boogie-woogie dance number for which Mrs. Glenn Ford came out of retirement.
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Producer: Joe Pasternak
Screenplay: Dorothy Cooper, Jerry Davis, Sid Fields
Cinematography: Charles Schoenbaum (Technicolor)
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons, Malcolm Brown
Music: Al Rinker, Floyd Huddleston, Henry Nemo, Lee Pearl, M. Beeby, G.M. Beilenson, Kermit Goell, Fred Spielman
Cast: Esther Williams (Christine Riverton Duncan), Van Johnson (Dick Layn), John Lund (Douglas J. Morrison, Jr.), Paula Raymond (Ellen Hallet), Clinton Sundberg (Matson), Connie Haines (Peggy Elliott), Mel Torme (Cyril).
C-99m. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster