I could not be happier to keep the blogathon ball rolling by “Choo-Choo-Choo”ing to Idaho and reviewing Duchess of Idaho (1950) for The MGM Musical Magic Blogathon, hosted by one of my absolute favorite blogs and a true inspiration to me, Annette of Hometowns to Hollywood! This blogathon comes at the perfect time because I, as well as many of you fellow classic movie fans out there I’m sure, have signed up for TCM Presents: Mad About Musicals!, a free online course dedicated to teaching the history of the Hollywood musical. I’m particularly excited about this course topic and about this blogathon because the musical is one of my absolute favorite genres, and hardly any studio could make a better musical than MGM.
When I first encountered this blogathon topic, I knew that I had to sign up out of my love for musicals and MGM of course, but I have to admit that this was probably the toughest time I’ve ever had choosing a film to discuss for a blogathon. Many of my favorites were taken, like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Wizard of Oz (1939), and I felt like I’d seen so many of MGM’s musicals that it would be difficult to find something new to review. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon this fantastic list of the studio’s musicals that I finally decided on the perfect topic for my entry: Duchess of Idaho (1950), one of the films that paired one of my most beloved onscreen couples, Esther Williams and Van Johnson. I’m an absolute fanatic about Esther in particular, and strangely enough the very first time I saw the title of this film was when I was looking through her paper doll book (which you can find here on her website if you’re interested)! The book showcased some of Esther’s most stunning gowns from the film, and I was delighted to learn more about the picture and actually get the chance to watch it and write about it!
The story revolves around Christine Duncan (Esther Williams), the star of a swimming nightclub show, and her roommate Ellen Hallit (Paula Raymond), a secretary who’s in love with her boss Doug Morrison (John Lund, who often plays cads from what I’ve seen). Doug, however, doesn’t care about Ellen at all, and uses her as his faux fiancée on a regular basis whenever he starts getting in too deep with a woman that he’s seeing. Ellen herself is too meek to do anything about the way that he treats her or tell him about her feelings, so Christine decides to step in on her behalf by following him up to the beautiful wintry vacation spot of Sun Valley, Idaho, and attempting to win his affections in hopes that he’ll call for Ellen to join him and the two can fall in love there instead. At first her plan goes swimmingly and he takes Christine’s bait hook, line, and sinker, but things get complicated when bandleader Dick Layn (Van Johnson) becomes interested in her too. She reciprocates Dick’s affections, but ends up confusing and eventually alienating Dick by continuing to see Doug according to her plan. Will everything work out in the end? Will Doug finally see Ellen for what she’s really worth?
As many other critics have mentioned, this is a picture that isn’t unlike the other five pictures that paired Williams with Johnson. I can’t say that the “swimmer meets outgoing man but their relationship gets complicated due to unforeseen factors” plot is anything new, but I still absolutely adored this film. The Sun Valley location really added to its charm, and seeing Van and Esther ski instead of swim together was nothing short of adorable. I also really loved the music in Duchess of Idaho (1950), just as I have with their other pictures. Lena Horne was incredible as always singing “Baby Come Out of the Clouds”. I’ve always admired her as a person, but this was the first time in recent memory that I’ve had the chance to watch her sing in a film, and it was nothing short of magical. Another first for me was seeing Eleanor Powell onscreen doing an impressive tap dance in the most gorgeous costume! Ironically, this was her first film since Sensations of 1945 (1944) six years earlier, and it would also be her final film before retiring. All in all, I think that Duchess of Idaho (1950) may be flimsy in plot and a bit unoriginal, but it delivers loads of entertainment within its hour-and-a-half timespan, and I think it easily earns a spot among the better half of Esther and Van’s pairings. If you want to check out a delightful musical that’s a little outside of the box before you begin TCM’s musicals course, this is definitely the one to see.