Van and Esther shine in... Duchess of Idaho (1950)

Since the late 1930s, Sun Valley, Idaho has been a playground for the rich and famous. Ernest Hemingway completed For Whom the Bell Tolls there. People like Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, and Errol Flynn frequently vacationed there. Ann Sothern became a longtime resident. Because of its glamorous reputation and gorgeous scenery, Hollywood took notice. 1941's Sun Valley Serenade, starring Sonja Henie, John Payne, and Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, was set and shot in the Idaho haven. (Fun fact: this film is still played in rooms at Sun Valley Lodge! There are also suites dedicated to Henie, Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe, and Clint Eastwood.) I Love Lucy's gang went to the location for an episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, which sported a hilarious guest spot from Fernando Lamas.

MGM didn't pass up the opportunity, either. In 1950, they sent their mermaid Esther Williams and their boy-next-door Van Johnson to Sun Valley for the romantic comedy Duchess of Idaho. This film went through quite a few casting changes after it was first announced in 1947.
Before Van came along, Robert Cummings was slated for his role with Ricardo Montalban as the third lead. When filming was postponed because Esther was having a baby, Cummings and Janet Leigh were set to support Esther and Van. Once production started up, though, John Lund and Paula Raymond had the roles. I can't lie -- I wish we had gotten Montalban, Cummings, and/or Leigh instead. They would have made these parts more fun to watch. Lund and Raymond are fine, but without that extra something that the other actors had, their characters' fallacies become less easy to ignore. Let's begin and you'll see what I mean.

Duchess of Idaho starts with one of the reasons why I love old movies: a chorus singing over the credits. This chorus in particular is fun because they sing the title and the names of the cast. (Can we bring this back?) Once the credits are over, we're immediately taken to the reason why we picked this film -- Esther swimming! As Chris Duncan, Esther is the star attraction of a show called "Melody in Swimtime" (love it). Her first routine includes hanging vines, a spotlight shaped like a sun, and surprisingly cloudy water when she goes below the surface. There are also burly half-naked men who twirl Esther around as she goes up some stairs only to slide back into the water. You can
watch the number here. During all this, Chris catches sight of her friend and roommate Ellen (Raymond). Ellen isn't able to stick around, though, when she notices what time it is and runs off.

She heads to a swanky nightclub where she sees Douglas Morrissen (Lund) sitting with a redhead (Amanda Blake). Ellen warmly says hello to Doug, calling him "darling" as they embrace. When he introduces Ellen as his fiancée, the redhead, Linda, furiously leaves. Now alone, Doug and Ellen's demeanors change and we realize that she is actually his secretary. Whenever it looks like Doug's
romances are becoming too serious, he has Ellen pretend to be his fiancée to scare them off. To add insult to injury, Ellen is in love with her clueless dope of a boss. The two are sharing a champagne toast when we get our first of three (ridiculously shoehorned) cameos in this film as Lena Horne appears on the stage to sing "Baby, Come Out of the Clouds." Horne actually filmed three songs, but her renditions of "You Do Something to Me" and "You Won't Forget Me" were cut from the final product. This is a bit of a shame since Horne was one of the greatest singers to come from the 20th century, but you can see "You Won't Forget Me" as a feature on the DVD from Warner Archive.

Later that evening, a drunk Ellen comes home to her and Chris's apartment. Chris quickly figures out where her friend has been and she has no problem telling her how ridiculous the situation is. She encourages Ellen to stick up for herself, so at the office the next morning, Ellen tries to do just that. Doug keeps interrupting, however, thinking that she wants a raise or a vacation. Mentioning that he wants to get some work done during his upcoming trip to Sun Valley, Doug invites Ellen to come with him. Ecstatic, she phones Chris who advises her to go buy that dress Ellen told her about with the "low, wicked neckline."

That evening, Chris arrives at home to find Ellen dreamily dancing with a bathrobe that's supposed to be Doug. It's a sweet moment, even if Doug doesn't seem to be worth it. Chris admires Ellen's new dress until she notices the extra fabric Ellen put on the neckline to make it more modest. Ripping it out, Chris comments that "Mother always said if you're going to catch a man, you may have to catch cold, too." "My mother should have spent more time with your mother," Ellen replies. Just then, Doug calls; he's decided to rescind his Sun Valley invitation. After all, it just wouldn't be ethical and there might be talk. Chris points out the hypocrisy of Doug's actions, proving to be the best character in
this whole film. While complaining that Doug only needs Ellen when he is backed into a corner by a woman, Chris gets an idea. She has a vacation coming up anyway... why doesn't she go to Sun Valley and seduce Doug so he'll be forced to send for Ellen?

We cut to a speeding train, where bandleader Dick Layn (Johnson) rehearses with his group and their featured singer Peggy (real-life band singer Connie Haines). "Let's Choo Choo Choo to Idaho" is a great, energetic number. Everyone looks like they're having a blast, including the four African-American porters, who were actually the popular 1940s-1950s group The
Jubilaires. You can check out the performance here. After the song finishes, Chris walks through their car. She and Dick make eye contact and clearly like what they see, but Chris is on a mission. She barges into Doug's private car and pretends that she thought it was public, thus picking a fight with Doug's butler Matson (Clinton Sundberg) and gaining Doug's attention from the kitchen. Like Dick, Doug is instantly charmed by Chris. In less than two minutes, he asks her to dinner and she accepts. Either Doug is an easy target or Chris is an excellent schemer...

On her way back to her room, Chris winds up with a cinder in her eye. Seeing her walk by again, Dick follows her and spies her accidentally going into his room. He lets himself in, which doesn't thrill Chris, but she lets him help her with the cinder -- and then kicks him out. Now that she can see clearly, though, she realizes that she is in the wrong room and finds Dick waiting in hers. He flirts, but she tries not to respond favorably since she is supposed to be helping Ellen. Obviously, Chris has better willpower than most of us.

In Sun Valley, Chris arrives at her hotel room to find two rose bouquets from her two admirers. Both men call her too, but while Chris is curt and cold with Dick, she is friendly and warm with Doug. That night, Doug and Chris head into the hotel's dining room for dinner and dancing. Luckily for us, Dick's band has a gig at the same hotel. He spots the couple while Peggy croons the romantic "Of All Things." Once she is done, he sits at their table and then steals a dance with Chris. When he asks her why she doesn't get rid of Doug, Chris plays along and tells him to call her at 12:15 sharp.

At the end of their date, Chris invites Doug into her room. Not only does she have chilled champagne, she lowers the lights, puts on some mood music, and cozies up to Doug on the couch. However, when he goes in for a kiss, Dick interrupts with his promised phone call. Chris doesn't want to make a date with him, though. Instead, she pretends he is her father who has news of family trouble. She says goodnight to Doug and then tells a confused Dick goodbye.

The next day, we get a montage of the various activities Doug and Chris do, such as tennis and horseback riding. Of course, it all culminates in swimming --
at least for Chris it does. Doug would rather sit by the pool and watch, which confirms that he isn't right for our mermaid. Acting as a surrogate for the audience, Dick spots the couple and cannonballs into the pool, drenching Doug so he has to go change clothes. I love it when Doug turns back around to ask Chris about their dinner plans and she pushes Dick underwater with her feet to conceal him from Doug. Dick gets her back by pulling her in once Doug is gone. The duo swim together as Dick asks about Chris's relationship with Doug. Let's be real -- we all know who Chris will end up with, but it's still fun to get there.

That evening, Doug is preparing dinner with an annoyed Matson watching him. It's a running gag throughout the film that Doug is a terrible cook, forcing Matson to always remind him of ingredients and fix his mistakes. After Doug and Chris eat, he receives a call from Ellen that he needs to return to Chicago for a few days for business. Hearing Ellen's name, Chris pretends to be envious and asks him a dozen questions about his secretary. She even suggests that Doug is in love with Ellen without knowing it, but instead of giving him a light bulb moment, he finds Chris's jealousy endearing. She tries a different tactic by helping Doug pack his suitcase and remarking that she needs to get used to
doing such things for him. Chris is doing her damnedest to freak Doug out, but it's obvious that she has underestimated her charms.

Duchess of Idaho never lets the audience think that Chris is falling for Doug, which I'm grateful for. I already have a hard time buying Ellen's love for the guy; it would be too much if Chris wanted him, too. Instead, the film comically shows Chris heading straight to Dick once Doug leaves. She enters the dining room to see Dick performing "You Can't Do Wrong Doin' Right." It's one of my favorite moments from Van Johnson. He was such a good song-and-dance
man, and it's odd that MGM didn't take advantage of it more often. Van got his start doing Broadway musicals like Pal Joey and Too Many Girls, but he only sang and danced in a handful of movies.

Anyway... With his routine over, Dick, frustrated by Chris's mind games, ignores her in favor of dancing with the woman who provides us with our second random cameo: Eleanor Powell! Apparently Dick and Eleanor are pals and she reluctantly gives in when he asks her to perform. After marrying Glenn Ford and having their son Peter (pictured on set), Powell had been away from the movies since 1944. Duchess of
Idaho acknowledges this when Powell begins her routine slowly with none of her well-known fast taps. "What's the matter? You tired?" Dick teases, causing Powell to pull off her skirt and reveal a bedazzled leotard. Once she starts, it's almost like she never left the screen. You can watch the number here.

In Esther's autobiography, she recalls an encounter with Powell that reminded her just how fleeting stardom could be. She noticed that the dancer had been practicing so much for this one scene that her feet were bleeding. "I was still at the top," Esther wrote, "but I could see how quickly the bottom could drop out, even when you are still giving your all. ... 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." Duchess of Idaho would become Powell's last film.

Back to the plot! Chris tries to explain to Dick what she is doing with Doug, but he continually interrupts her with snide comments so she storms off. He chases after her and apologizes, but she slams her door in his face. Dick's solution? Loudly beg to be let in for the sake of their children, causing an embarrassed Chris to pull him in. Finally, as snow begins to fall outside, they come to an agreement: no explanations and no questions, just a few days of fun in the snow while Doug is gone. Cue our second montage!

Meanwhile, in Chicago, Ellen calls Chris to tell her that she isn't sure the plan is working since Doug seems
anxious to get back to Sun Valley. The call is cut short when Ellen sees Linda, the raging redhead from the beginning of the film, enter the office. Ellen hides under her desk so as not to betray Doug's lie, but all Linda came for was to inform her former beau that she is engaged. As soon as she leaves, Ellen comes out from beneath her desk only to hit her head and pass out. Doug finds her and carries her to the couch. While tending to her, it starts to dawn on Doug what a catch his secretary is. He asks her to dinner and tells her to pick wherever she wants.

Naturally, to demonstrate her perfect domestic skills, Ellen has Doug come to her apartment and cooks for him. He loves the meal and the whole evening goes marvelously -- until Doug suddenly mentions Chris. It's definitely a jerk move. He repeatedly calls Chris "intriguing" and admits he almost had Ellen come save him, but then he decided that Chris is just a honest gal and he admires that. As Doug is leaving, he winds up kissing Ellen goodnight, the effects of which appear to daze both of them. Mixed signals much? I like John Lund (he's wonderful in A Foreign Affair), but this character is kind of irritating. I don't entirely get his appeal.

Back in Idaho, Dick and Chris are spending every day together, capping off one evening by entering a contest at the Sun Valley Potato Festival. It's pretty silly, but quite delightful to watch, as the contestants have to dance various styles while keeping a potato between their foreheads. Chris and Dick win, naturally, and Chris is dubbed the Duchess of Idaho. Giving her her crown is none other than comedian Red Skelton, our final cameo. Eyeing Chris and Dick, Skelton remarks "You both look awfully familiar to me," a meta-reference to the fact that he knew Van from their home studio of MGM and he co-starred with Esther in two films. (Next year's Texas Carnival would bring the
grand total to three.)

While sitting down to dinner, Chris and Dick are interrupted by bellboy Cyril, played by a young Mel Tormé. I'm a huge Tormé fan, so it's disappointing that his part is so small. He had recorded a song for the movie, "Warm Hands, Cold Heart," yet like Lena Horne's extra tunes, it was cut but can be found on the DVD. Anyway, Cyril has come to tell Dick that the hotel manager isn't pleased that he has been ditching his bandleader duties to be with Chris. Dick brushes it off and tries to go back to enjoying his date when Doug walks in. Chris puts their conversation on hold and
immediately turns her attentions to Doug, driving Dick to take a powder. Doug doesn't seem too happy with Chris, either. He claims to be tired and goes to his bungalow, where his spirits are suddenly lifted by a simple telegram from Ellen.

At the ski lift in the morning, Chris thinks she must explain what she was doing with Dick, but Doug calmly says that he knows she was just lonely and they go up on the rickety lift. (If this were a film noir, it's at this point that we'd be expecting Doug to murder Chris.) After their skiing, Doug admits that he is in love... with Ellen. Chris has to work mighty hard to conceal her
glee. Doug goes on and on about how lovely Ellen is, only to look over and see that Chris isn't even there -- she's too busy running to Dick as fast as she can! He isn't pleased to see her, despite her telling him that she loves him and that she'll explain everything at dinner. "Is that all?" he asks. Irritated, Chris responds with "No, that's not all!" and startles him with a passionate kiss.

In the lobby, Ellen pops up, much to Doug's surprise. He discovers from the desk clerk that she is headed to Chris's room. There, Ellen tells her friend that she has had enough of her plan and starts packing Chris's
things. When Chris drops the bomb that Doug is in love with her, Ellen stops dead in her tracks. She doesn't have much time to enjoy this revelation, though -- Doug shows up and Chris hides her in the bedroom. Aware that Ellen is there, Doug enacts his revenge by coming on strongly to Chris and putting her in a tight embrace while deriding Ellen. What's really cruel is when Dick calls through the door and Doug tells him to come in so Dick can see him plant a kiss on Chris. Dick angrily leaves and Doug tells Ellen she is fired.

Ellen finds Doug in the bar and finally gives him a piece of her mind, but it's not very satisfying. Doug oddly doesn't react and you feel like there is so much more Ellen should have said. Dejected, the women take the train back home while Doug and Dick commiserate together. Dick even wonders why Chris didn't try to him the truth when she did! Although they don't like what Chris and Ellen did, the men start to wonder if maybe they'd be better off forgiving the girls.

In the meantime, it's back to "Melody in Swimtime" for Chris. The routine isn't one of Esther's most spectacular, but it is still interesting. It's also one of her darkest -- literally. For the majority of the scene, the only light comes from a spotlight and some colored lights in the background. There are fountains, big lily pads, and a random Grecian theme.

After the show, Chris and Ellen return to their apartment and are shocked to find Dick and Doug in frilly aprons, running from kitchen to dining table as they set up for dinner. Chris is amused, until she remembers how mad she is. She kicks Dick out and starts to do the same to Doug, but Ellen stands up to her friend and embraces Doug. Realizing she would rather have her man too, Chris goes running after Dick only to open the door and see him waiting with open arms.

When Esther received the script for Duchess of Idaho, she recognized it as "yet another rehash of what was now the Esther Williams formula: the mismatched lovers plot. ... Delete Mackinac Island; insert Sun Valley. Delete Peter Lawford; insert Van Johnson -- again." The familiarity of the plots was starting to frustrate Esther. It's true that the main structure of many of her films stays the same, but I've always felt that the creativity of the crew and the filmmakers, plus Esther's unwavering charisma and talent, make each of her films unique. I've never had a problem distinguishing one from the other, unlike, say, the Road to... pictures or some of the Marx Brothers' movies. (No offense intended. They're great entertainment.)

Audience expectations kept Esther in a steady cycle of aqua musicals. During production of Duchess of Idaho, she noted in her autobiography that "[a]s happy as I was to be working once
more with Van, 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.'"

MGM envisioned Esther and Van as America's sweethearts, ultimately placing them in five films together: A Guy Named Joe (1943) with Esther in a small role, Thrill of a Romance (1945),
Easy to Wed (1946), Duchess of Idaho, and Easy to Love (1953). While filming their final collaboration, Esther wrote that "[b]y this time Van and I were as synchronized as any two swimmers in the pool. The last time we worked together had been Duchess of Idaho, and even there we had been comfortable enough with each other to improvise most of the script. We were family. Through the years, I swam with Van, married him, fought with him, and made love to him -- all on camera. We knew our lives, our secrets, and our public and private personas, even though off camera we had little or no contact. ... We were a sweetheart couple who had that MGM look that was so 'American,'
with no ethnic traces whatsoever."

At 98 minutes, Duchess of Idaho is the best kind of fluff. I'm not exaggerating when I say they don't make 'em like this anymore. The sets and the costumes are in perfect sync (by the way, Helen Rose's wardrobe for Esther is breathtaking!), the songs are pleasant, and the footage of Sun Valley is stunning. Van and Esther complemented each other beautifully and every film of theirs illustrates just how much better American cinema was made by their presences.


This post is part of my Van Johnson Blogathon. Be sure to check out the lovely roster of other tributes to Van here!


  1. Such fun! I'm referring to the movie, which could have been even more fun, and your article which couldn't be better. Love your take on the cast and the plot, and the screen caps. I loved reading about the closeness between Van and Esther.

    For the life of me, I don't know why Amanda Blake wasn't better served by MGM and became a bigger name in films. Although, as a huge Gunsmoke fan, I'm glad her career took the TV turn.

    1. Thanks so much! Van and Esther are one of my favorite screen teams, so I feel all warm and fuzzy knowing they loved working together.

      Isn't it funny how the studios were great at promoting some actors but absolutely awful at helping others? It's interesting to see who was able to persevere, like Blake.

  2. I watched this for Lena Horne's cameo (I hadn't fallen for Van yet), but I thought Doug was so unappealing. I'm not the biggest fan of John Lund, but Van and Esther really were a terrific team. I'm glad I've seen their magic in all their films together.

    1. I hate to say it, but I feel like Lund brings the film down a bit. If Ricardo Montalban had played Doug, I think I could have understood the character's hold on Ellen a little more. At least we have Esther and Van to keep things fun! They can make me forgive almost anything in their movies.

  3. I have never watched an Esther Williams movie. I rarely watch musicals, anyway, for that matter. I have expressed my reasons elsewhere for that slight, but suffice to say I like some of the songs that are part of a musical, but I just can't sit still long enough to last through the whole movie. (Cabaret being one of the exceptions to that.) Still it was interesting to read this review.

    1. Musicals won't be everyone's cup of tea, I'm sure. Thanks for reading about one anyway!

  4. This film sounds like such a fun one. I have never seen it, but I sure am eager to do so now. Brilliant article, I really enjoyed reading this and checking out the screenshots. Maddy

    1. Thanks, Maddy! Glad to know I've inspired you to check it out! I'm sure you'll have fun.

  5. I'm glad to hear Van J. and Esther W. loved working with each other. They seem to work well together on screen, but it's always nice to hear there was genuine camaraderie.

    Thanks to this blogathon, I'm discovering quite a few Van Johnson films I haven't seen, and this is another one. I know it'll become a fave – the wardrobe, the fun premise and Van Johnson, too. Doesn't get much better than that! ;)

    1. Indeed it doesn't! If you ask me, Esther's films are the ultimate feel-good flicks. Adding Van just makes it ten times better.

      I'm learning about some great films, too. I foresee a Van Johnson marathon in my near future...

  6. This movie has way too much rather silly plot, but Van's musical numbers are terrific, and the scene where the guys cook dinner is absolutely priceless.

    1. Yes, the plot is rather thin, and there are many ways that things could have been solved a lot quicker. But I'm willing to join whatever fun Esther and Van are offering. Thanks for reading!


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