Thursday, June 06, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Duchess of Idaho (1950)

DUCHESS OF IDAHO is one of my very favorite Esther Williams movies. I wrote about it briefly way back in January 2006, when I'd only been blogging for a few months.

I picked DUCHESS OF IDAHO up from the Warner Archive a while ago but hadn't gotten around to watching it yet. With the sad news today of Esther Williams' passing, watching this film was the perfect way to celebrate her life.

DUCHESS OF IDAHO is 98 minutes of MGM Technicolor bliss, with pretty much everything one could want from an Esther Williams movie: Water ballets, romance, comedy, fantastic sets and costumes, an appealing location, and some terrific musical numbers. As the saying goes, "That's Entertainment!"

Esther plays Christine, the star of a water show called MELODY IN SWIMTIME. (She's seen at the right in a set photo taken for LIFE magazine.) Meanwhile Christine's quiet roommate Ellen (Paula Raymond) is madly in love with her boss, Douglas (John Lund), a playboy who doesn't seem to notice her, at least as more than an efficient secretary.

When Douglas sets off for vacation in Sun Valley, Christine comes up with a crazy plot to pursue him there, hoping to drive him right back into the waiting arms of Ellen. (It's a long story...) Meanwhile Dick (Van Johnson), a band leader Christine meets on the train to Sun Valley, is head over heels for Christine but is frustrated by her seeming interest in Douglas.

There are so many things I love about this movie, starting with the fact that I'm a big fan of John Lund, and he's really almost more of the leading man than Van Johnson. (Williams, Johnson and Lund are all billed above the title.) I love his character's fascination with cooking, and his love story with Paula Raymond is delightful, especially the way the two characters bond over a biscuit recipe.

Of course, it's an Esther Williams movie so she has plenty of screen time! There are big water ballets to open and close the film, plus she does a little swimming with Van Johnson in the Sun Valley pool. Williams and Johnson were regular costars, and it's always good to see them together on screen.

Esther in this film makes me think a bit of Deanna Durbin's frequent screen persona, insofar as with all her scheming, her character really can be a bit of a pill, but she has so much audience goodwill that we go right along with it. And we can't help being charmed in the process.

Van Johnson performs band numbers with Connie Haines and the "Jubilaires," who include Bobby Troup. There are also specialty numbers by Lena Horne and Eleanor Powell which are smoothly worked into the film without interrupting the flow of the story, or maybe it's more accurate to say the numbers are so enjoyable the viewer doesn't mind taking time out for a couple minutes! This was Eleanor's last movie performance, and her tap number is sensational, as always.

Later in the film Red Skelton even pops in for a few seconds! It's that kind of a movie.

Mel Torme is also in the film, as a bellhop; his number was cut out but happily survives as an extra on the Warner Archive DVD. As I noted in my 2006 review, it's kind of neat that Troup and Torme are both in the film; they may have small roles here, but they composed two of the great American songs, Troup's "Route 66" and Torme's "The Christmas Song."

The Sun Valley location footage is gorgeous; it's rather as though scenes from one of MGM's Traveltalk shorts are periodically dropped into the movie. The lead actors never leave the studio, but the back projections are better than average quality, and the film conveys a great Sun Valley atmosphere.

In addition to the Sun Valley scenes, the movie has fantastic set design and decoration; the eye candy includes the kitchen in Lund's Sun Valley lodge -- complete with roasting spit! -- and the mint green walls of Esther's hotel room. Visually DUCHESS OF IDAHO had quite a bit in common with a later film Lund appeared in at MGM, LATIN LOVERS (1953); both films are so colorful and attractive, I think they could each be enjoyed with the sound off! Both movies feature costumes by the great Helen Rose.

Clinton Sundberg has a nice role as Lund's butler. That's Amanda Blake, "Miss Kitty" herself, as the redhead Lund wants to dump. Watch for Mae Clarke (THE PUBLIC ENEMY) as the resort florist. Bess Flowers, the extra who seemingly never missed a party, turns up in the dance contest scene.

DUCHESS OF IDAHO was directed by Robert Z. Leonard. The Technicolor cinematography was by Charles Schoenbaum.

The Warner Archive print is excellent, other than a few strange splotches early in the movie, and more-prominent-than-usual reel change cues showing up periodically in the upper right corner of the frame.

DUCHESS OF IDAHO can also be seen on periodically on Turner Classic Movies, although unfortunately it won't be part of their 24-hour Esther Williams marathon next week.

TCM has the trailer available online.

This film was also released on VHS.

DUCHESS OF IDAHO is a movie which never fails to make me happy. Recommended for those who love Esther Williams, as well as those who'd like to get to know her work.


Blogger Vienna said...

A fellow John Lund fan! There probably aren't too many of us! John just didnt get the breaks. When you see him in A Foreign Affair with Dietrich and Jean Arthur, you know how good he is when given a good role.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I've become such a fan! Especially loved him in NO MAN OF HER OWN, but he's so good in everything, and he was saddled too often with "other man" roles (i.e., HIGH SOCIETY). He's a wonderful leading man and adorable in DUCHESS OF IDAHO. Glad to know there's at least a couple of us out there!

Best wishes,

10:28 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Re John Lund -- In the first part of his film career beginning with To Each His Own he was always the leading man. Fun, romantic and attractive. Beginning I believe with Bride of Vengeance his status declined. His subsequent paramount films were, despite a few being valued today, unsuccessful -- meaning, no one went. His Universal films were just product. Not bad but from a career oint of view, treading water. Frank Sinatra is the other man in High Society. Lund has a tertiary part and it was a step up from Roger Corman --- Five Guns West. He seems to have been an ineplicabel victim of bad luck and changing taste.

11:21 AM  

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