Duchess of Idaho (1950)
August 21, 2020 | by Shannon
Duchess of Idaho is one of my favorite Esther Williams films. Ritzy nightclub swimming numbers, the charming chemistry between Esther and Van Johnson, men who cook for the special women in their lives, a musical number by the stunning Lena Horne, and a glimpse of the untapped potential of Paula Raymond.
What’s not to like??
The fourth of five films Esther made with Van Johnson over the course of her career, Duchess of Idaho no doubt follows what had become the same predictable formula of most Esther Williams films. And while it’s true that there are no surprises in this frothy comedy, the cast is so talented, and the script surprisingly full witty one-liners and flawlessly delivered exchanges, Duchess of Idaho is a pleasure to watch from start to finish, and more than rises above its rather mundane title.
Behind the scenes, Esther would adore working with Van Johnson, come to terms with the stark realities of her marriage to Ben Gage, and perfect the balancing act between motherhood and stardom.
Esther’s wasn’t the only fascinating story unfolding behind the scenes: her co-stars in the film, Lena Horne and Paula Raymond, remain two of the most underappreciated and under-written about stars of the era, and I’m excited to delve into fascinating and often tragic challenges these ladies met throughout their respective careers.
If you haven’t seen Duchess of Idaho, you can rent or purchase the film here on Amazon [aff. link].
To the plot!
Esther is Christine Duncan, a nightclub swimmer currently performing in a show, “Melody in Swimtime,” at a ritzy Chicago Club. Yes, this is literally a nightclub with a huge pool in it. Club patrons come dressed in the finest evening attire, and enjoy their drinks and meals around this gargantuan pool while Christine delights them with her swimming.
Talk about a specialized career! Who else could pull off this suspension of disbelief for us, her audience, than Esther Williams??
Miss Lena Horne is the other dazzling act at the club. And as always, the stunning Lena delivers a beautiful, sizzling, and stylized rendition of “Baby Come Out of the Clouds,” that makes even this tepid song interesting.
When not wowing club patrons with her aquatic skills, Christine hangs out with her roommate and best friend, Ellen Hallet (Paula Raymond). Christine is a take-charge-sort-of-girl, and she’s anxious to help the meek Ellen catch the attentions of her boss, wealthy businessman Douglas J. Morrison Jr. (John Lund, aka: the blond Clark Gable).
Ellen’s been in love with Morrison for years, but besides her secretarial duties, the only interest Morrison seems to have in the beautiful Ellen is using her as a fake girlfriend to get out of committing to any of the women he does date.
If ever a girl starts expecting a commitment from Morrison, he need only call Ellen, who will drop everything to crash Morrison’s date, and convince whatever girl he’s with that she’s his fiancée.
And it literally works every time.
Chris' AMAZING Plan
Well, Chris, good friend that she is, can’t stand seeing her buddy being used and hurt by Morrison time after time. So she concocts a plan to get “charm boy,” as she calls Morrison—and delivered with that characteristic Esther Williams sass—to pay attention to Ellen.
The plan? Morrison will soon travel to Sun Valley, Idaho, where he’ll stay while conducting some business. Chris will selflessly use her vacation time to also go to Sun Valley, and catch Morrison’s attention on the train ride there.
Once she’s hooked Morrison with her charm and beauty, Christine will begin dropping hints in Sun Valley that she expects some sort of commitment. Morrison will then call Ellen to rush over to Sun Valley, and save him from Chris, just like he’s asked her to do with all his other girlfriends.
But this time, surrounded by the romance of Idaho, Morrison will finally realize that he’s been in love with Ellen all along, and he’ll propose to her on the spot.
At least, that’s how the plan works out in Chris’ mind…Ellen is a little more dubious, but goes with it.
Of course complications arise, almost immediately, when Chris becomes smitten with bandleader Dick Layn (Van Johnson) on the train. Dick is crazy about her on sight, and takes advantage of Chris getting a cinder stuck in her eye to make his move.
The Duchess of Idaho
So Chris must juggle the affections and attentions of Dick, the guy she wants to spend time with, with those of Morrison, the guy she has to spend time with.
Things finally come to a head when Morrison spots Chris and Dick reveling in their victory after dancing with a potato balanced between their foreheads—the riveting and challenging dance garners Chris the coveted title, Duchess of Idaho, so now the film’s title makes perfect sense!
Chris realizes after talking with Morrison that he’s in love with Ellen, and rushes to call her friend.
But what do you know? Ellen unexpectedly appears in Sun Valley!
Morrison sees Ellen, and discovers that the girls were scheming—he doesn’t really understand what they were trying to accomplish, just that he was caught in the middle of it—and angrily goes back to Chicago. Dick meanwhile, has decided that Christine has been playing him for a fool, that she’s got feelings for Morrison, and he leaves for Chicago, too.
Well, there’s nothing left for our girls to do but go home and re-enlist in the army…
A Surprise Meal
But as they enter their apartment, delicious smells and clattering pans greet them.
Why, it’s Morrison and Dick!
The two men talked through the situation, and discovered the truth behind all the girls’ conniving. So the guys have come to make amends, and sweep the girls off their feet. With a home-cooked meal.
After pulling Ellen’s famous biscuits out of the oven, Morrison—who believes himself to be an excellent chef—gets his girl. Dick will have to wait for sassy Chris to give him a talking to about breaking and entering before she calms down enough to accept Dick’s proclamations of love, and then the two of them will also, presumably, live happily ever after.
And that’s the end of the film!
Esther and Husband Number 2
In 1945, not too long after the successful premiere of Esther’s first aqua musical, Bathing Beauty (1944), Esther married Sergeant Ben Gage, a marginally successful big band singer before serving in the air force during World War II. Ben, as Esther described him in her autobiography, was like “a big kid,” full of life and endless fun, just what she need after the serious and frightening tone her first marriage to Leonard Kovner ended on.
Louis B. Mayer, notorious for getting involved in the lives of his stars, didn’t like Gage from the beginning, a feeling that certainly wasn’t helped when Ben almost caused an international incident on his and Esther’s honeymoon in Mexico during the filming of 1946’s Fiesta: Ben asked the young man at the front desk of their hotel for his laundry a little too forcibly, and found himself doing jail time.
Mayer, who found Ben Gage to be the definition of a moron—his own words, according to Esther, would go so far as to tell Esther she wasn’t allowed to have children with him.
As if that would stop our girl from doing what she wanted.
Esther and Ben moved along with their plans to start a family, though sadly, her first pregnancy would end in a complicated miscarriage that required a full D&C to save Esther’s own life from decomposition bacteria and toxins.
And where was Ben during Esther’s traumatic time on the operating table?
Why, he was off playing golf, completely oblivious to his wife’s physical pain, need for emotional support, and the possibility that she would not be able to have children. Esther would cut Ben slack for being a product of his times, but even by the era’s standards, when pregnancy and all its complications were largely considered to be the woman’s world, Ben’s lack of investment in Esther at this time is startlingly insensitive.
This was one of Esther’s first signs that perhaps her marriage to Ben was in trouble:
“The question of whether I’d ever be able to have children still lingered; and I was grappling with the issue of whether I wanted to have children with Ben at all. I didn’t know how much energy I wanted to put forth to keep this marriage together, because I knew by then that I was going to be the only one who would make the effort.”
Esther ultimately decided that becoming a mother was more important than all else, and was elated to discover that she was once again pregnant during the filming of Neptune’s Daughter (1949). She’d take every precaution during the pregnancy to ensure this baby was born healthy. Other than teaching blind children how to swim, Esther spent the majority of this pregnancy out of the pool, trying to take it easy.
Can you think of a more worthy way to spend time before welcoming your own child into the world?
Motherhood and Stardom
Esther’s dreams of motherhood came true on August 6, 1949 when her son Benji was born. Suddenly, Esther found herself juggling the demands of both motherhood and stardom. And some of the things expected of her as a movie star mom during the heyday of the studio system are shocking. As Esther would say in her autobiography [aff. link],
“In my era of Hollywood, the studio owned everything, including the baby.”
Just three months after giving birth, Esther was expected to open her home to the MGM publicity department so the studio could capitalize on the new baby. It was just part of the job for Esther and every other MGM star who started a family. As Esther would put it,
“Basically, your child was a prop. Despite all the promises that the photographers would be very tasteful and respectful of your privacy, you knew you had to have the prettiest nursery in the world or it would look bad. You knew you’d better have an adorable child ready for the camera, and that baby better not be having a bad day,..If the baby was crying or tired when the press arrived, that was your fault…
Looking back, I realize how unnatural it was, but at the time I didn’t find it hard to accept. By then I had been in the movies long enough to know what there was no logic—no human logic—to the way stars were treated.”
In addition to happily tolerating this invasion of privacy for the fan magazines, Esther was also expected to be camera-ready ASAP. And for Esther, this meant looking good not just on camera, but looking good on camera in a bathing suit. Duchess of Idaho would begin filming at the start of 1950, just five months after Benji was born.
Esther's Favorite Leading Man
When later asked who her favorite leading man was, Esther would wryly say “the water,” as more often than not, Esther’s name alone carried her films. An Esther Williams movie often served as a vehicle to test out a potential new leading man, to see how well he came off on screen:
“If the water was my true costar, then the actors who played my ‘love interest,’ were often little more than interchangeable parts…I would have preferred stronger leading men, but it’s quite possible that a more prominent actor wouldn’t want to hold my towel; and sometimes that was literally what happened in the plot.”
One leading man who broke this mold was the lovable Van Johnson. Van, Esther’s five-time costar, would more than hold his own beside her in each of the films they made together. And by the time of Duchess of Idaho, their fourth film pairing, Van could also hold his own in the pool, no longer requiring Esther to discreetly hold him up while they swam.
Time magazine would describe Esther and Van after their second film pairing in 1945’s Thill of a Romance as
“screwily wholesome as ice cream and toothpaste.”
While I’m not exactly sure what that means, there is definitely a wholesome, yet electric chemistry between Van and Esther on screen. It’s no mystery why MGM decided to put these two together time and again.
An Easy Friendship
Great friends behind the scenes, Esther would joke with Van about Duchess of Idaho’s predictable script:
“Wait a minute! Hadn’t I already made this movie at least once? As soon as they gave me the script, I realized it was yet another re-hash of what was now the Esther Williams formula: the mismatched lovers plot. It was enough to give one a case of cinematic déjà vu…at one point I turned to Van and said, ‘Didn’t we do this scene before in an elevator?’”
To which Van replied:
“Esther, this is our fourth picture together, We’ve done this scene in an elevator, at 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…underwater.”
This easy friendship Esther and Van enjoyed off camera no doubt lends to their great chemistry in Duchess of Idaho. In fact, by the time of filming, Esther and Van were so comfortable with each other’s comedy style and humor that much of their characters’ banter in the film was ad-libbed. There’s such a naturalness to their exchanges in Duchess of Idaho, and it’s a huge reason why the film feels so effortlessly charming.
The Supporting Cast: Paula Raymond and Lena Horne
Though Esther and Van were the two biggest MGM stars in the cast, Duchess of Idaho certainly wouldn’t be the adorable 1950s musical it is without its talented supporting cast, namely Paula Raymond and John Lund, and the specialty numbers performed by Lena Horne and Eleanor Powell. These often underappreciated and underutilized stars enhanced countless films during Hollywood’s Golden Age, and today, I’m taking the opportunity to share a bit about the fascinating, and unfortunately stilted, film careers of Paula Raymond and Lena Horne.
Paula Raymond: A Should-Be-Star
Have you ever heard of Paula Raymond?
Probably not, but her face may be familiar to the die-hard classic film fan.
By any definition, Paula Raymond should have been a star. A big star. Absolutely gorgeous—with a Gene Tierney meets Myrna Loy quality to her look, in my opinion—and just as adept at comedy as she was at drama, there were several times throughout Paula’s career where she seemed to be on the brink of superstardom. But then tragedy, usually in the form of personal injury, would strike. And boy, you’re going to have to read it to believe that so much could happen to one woman, and she’d still look back at her misfortunes with great wit and humor, and her career with gratitude.
A Promising Start
Paula began her acting career as way to support herself and her young daughter, and signed a coveted contract with MGM in 1949. Paula seemed to be on the fast-track to stardom, with bit roles and walk-ons in such prestigious films as Adam’s Rib (1949) invented specifically to show off her gorgeous face. Crisis (1950) paired her with Cary Grant, and showcased Paula’s great dramatic abilities, while Duchess of Idaho (1950), Paula’s favorite film she made at MGM, highlighted her natural flare for comedy.
But after such a promising start at the studio, Paula sudden found herself being blackballed, relegated to smaller roles and making screen tests with potential contractees, a telltale sign that her career was on the decline.
So Paula left acting behind, and worked a variety of office jobs between 1955-1958, adding such positions as receptionist, insurance clerk, and construction company bookkeeper to her Hollywood resume.
A Tragic Turn
Here’s where things get tragically interesting.
In 1958, Paula decided to go back to acting. She soon found substantial success on television, appearing on such popular shows as Perry Mason and Maverick.
But once again, as things were looking up for Paula in Hollywood, she experienced a major set back: in 1962, on her way home from a party with a few friends, the driver of the car lost control, and crashed into a tree. The car rolled over several times in the process, and while the other three passengers were able to exit the car uninjured, Paula found herself trapped under the car.
And the car was on fire.
Paula was removed from beneath the car just seconds before it completely blew up. She was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital, but, thanks to Jeanne Martin, wife of Dino (I’ve always liked this woman!)—whose home the crash occurred not far from—a neurologist was called, and it was discovered Paula in fact wasn’t dead.
Thank heavens for Jeanne Martin!
A skilled plastic surgeon worked all night to stitch up Paula’s face.
And reattach her nose, which had been severed off her face in the accident…
(Sorry to get gruesome, but this detail just underscores how resilient Paula was.)
Can't Keep Her Down
Now, you’d think that Paula Raymond would have just called it quits on the film career after this, wouldn’t you?
But NO, she didn’t! Paula’s beauty was miraculously restored, and within a year, she was back on television. Not on the track to stardom she had been before the accident, but certainly a working actress.
Paula had another big chance at stardom in 1977, when her small guest spot on the soap opera Days of Our Lives so impressed the show’s producers, her part was all set to be expanded into a permanent character.
But then tragedy struck again when Paula tripped on a telephone cord on set, and broke her ankle.
The producers couldn’t wait for her to recover, and once more, Paula Raymond missed her chance at stardom.
Fulfilment Outside of Hollywood
Paula would try to re-start her acting career yet again in 1984, but another personal injury, this time the fracture of both her hips, thwarted Paula’s comeback.
How could all this happen to one person???
After this last mishap, Paula would focus the majority of her time and talents to other more behind-the-scenes activities, and found her ultimate career fulfillment as a lyricist and musician, even writing a musical.
I so admire Paula’s determination, optimism, and ability to be completely at peace with the path her Hollywood career took. Still, every time I watch Duchess of Idaho, I can’t help but marvel at the tragic events that kept Paula Raymond from becoming a superstar, and feel wistful at what she could have accomplished if luck had been on her side.
Lena Horne: Ahead of the Times
Now Lena Horne, unlike Paula Raymond, is a quite universally recognized face and name today because of her impressive singing career. The gorgeous and talented Lena would make a name for herself as one of the eras most dazzling, sophisticated, and stylized singers.
But Lena should have achieved great stardom in films as well. Though she was instrumental in tearing down barriers that limited African American performers on film, Lena was decades ahead of her time, and would find her own potential stifled by the racial prejudices of the era.
Slow Changes in Hollywood
Lena would sign a contract with MGM at the beginning of 1942, as part of the studio’s effort to work with NAACP executive secretary Walter White to do away with the inaccurate and limited portrayals of African Americans on film, to instead show African Americans, in White’s own words, as “normal human being[s] and an integral part of human life and activity.” In the beautiful Lena Horne, White and MGM believed they’d found the talented performer who could accomplish this: Lena would most certainly not be playing maids or mammies on screen.
Despite these stated intentions of MGM to give Lena a chance at starring roles in films that showed African Americans as integrated members of society, the studio never followed through. Lena was given one leading role during her time at MGM, in the 1943 musical Cabin in the Sky.
More often than not, the only way MGM would utilize Lena was as a specialty act in a film, like Duchess of Idaho, with an otherwise completely white cast. Lena’s numbers were never integrated into the plot lines of these movies for a tragically practical reason: the studio needed the freedom to simply cut Lena’s beautiful numbers out of the film for distribution in southern states, where an African American woman mingling with whites in a nightclub, for instance, was illegal or considered socially unacceptable.
Candid Classic Hollywood Caught on Film!
A fascinating piece of Hollywood history! The 25th Anniversary MGM Luncheon with “More Stars Than There are in the Heavens.” Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Betty Garrett, Errol Flynn…the list goes on!
Just after Katharine Hepburn in the clip above, we see Lena Horne, representing an entire race as the only African American star under contract at MGM. Lena would later say,
“I was the only one of us there! After a while, I would read in the paper that I should’ve been more grateful because they did permit me to sit in the commissary. Every time I think of it I get mad.”
Although she does look mad in our first glimpse of her at 5:21, Lena’s mood seems considerably improved while talking with Kate Hepburn at 7:18. How I’d love to know what the conversation was about!
A Career Stifled
As the only African American star under contract at MGM, Lena Horne would watch role after role over the years be denied her, simply on the basis of race. She’d even have to hide her 1947 marriage to the white, Jewish musician Lennie Hayton, from all but her closest friends, as interracial marriage was still illegal in 30 states. And though her singing career would offer Lena a less restricted venue for her great musical talents, Lena would often find herself barred from staying in the very hotels she was being paid to perform at.
Though Lena Horne’s beauty and talent are forever immortalized through her MGM musical numbers in films such as Duchess of Idaho, it’s impossible not to imagine, as you listen to Lena’s unique voice and find yourself captivated by those gorgeous flashing eyes, just what she would have accomplished had she been allowed the opportunities her unique talent deserved.
A Reflective Moment for Esther
One of my favorite dancers, and arguably the greatest female tap dancer of Classic Hollywood, the amazing Eleanor Powell, returned to the screen after a six year absence for a brief dance number in Duchess of Idaho. It would prove to be Ellie’s last film appearance.
Though the tap dance was just a few minutes long, Esther Williams noticed that Eleanor practiced until her feet bled. When Esther asked if the pain was worth it for merely a few minutes on film, Ellie, anxious to look and dance her best for her potential movie comeback, replied that
“If they’re filming it, it has to be better than good. It must be perfect. My feet will be all right.”
Eleanor’s words had a profound effect on Esther, who, six years after the premiere of her first aqua musical, was still the one and only, beloved “mermaid” on the MGM lot. But Esther realized that it wasn’t so long ago that Eleanor Powell was a top MGM star. Now, Ellie was dancing until her feet bled for the brief film appearance allotted her. It was enough to make Esther seriously consider her the future:
“I pondered what she said. I was still at the top, but I could see how quickly the bottom could drop out, even when you are still giving your all. There had to be a better way to go than this. 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.”
Though she’d enjoy just about five more years as one of MGM’s most profitable and respected stars, things would change rapidly for Esther with the end of the studio system and the move away from lush, technicolor musicals.
As the 1950s drew to a close, Esther Williams would find just about every aspect of her life turned upside down. But champion she’d trained to be since learning the butterfly as a brave eight-year-old swimmer, Esther would meet these challenges, and life post-superstardom, head on.
Our Last Week with Esther!
And that’s it for Duchess of Idaho! Be sure to join me next time for our last week with Esther, as I review one of the few “dry” films that kept her out of the water, and the dangerous side to the aquatic feats Esther always made look so effortless.