Simply put, 1950’s Duchess of Idaho is fun.
Featuring ritzy nightclub swimming numbers, the charming chemistry between Esther Williams 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, Duchess of Idaho more than rises above its mundane title.
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 predictable formula of most Esther Williams films. There are no surprises in this frothy comedy. But with a talented cast, and a script surprisingly full of witty one-liners and flawlessly delivered exchanges, Duchess of Idaho is a pleasure to watch from start to finish.
Paula Raymond & Lena Horne: The Should-Be Stars
Behind the scenes of Duchess, Esther Williams was perfecting the balancing act between motherhood and stardom, while simultaneously coming to terms with the stark realities of her marriage to Ben Gage.
As for Esther’s co-stars, Lena Horne and Paula Raymond, Duchess of Idaho is a bittersweet reminder of how talented these two ladies were, and how circumstances out of their control kept either from achieving major film stardom.
You can rent or purchase Duchess of Idaho here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s get to the plot, then go behind the scenes of the film.
Duchess of Idaho: The Plot
Esther is Christine Duncan, a nightclub swimmer 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 their finest evening attire to enjoy food and drink around this gargantuan pool while Christine delights them with her swimming.
Talk about a specialized career.
Miss Lena Horne is the other dazzling act at the club. 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, or Chris, hangs out with her roommate and best friend, Ellen Hallet (Paula Raymond).
Chris 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 skills, Morrison has only one interest in the beautiful Ellen: to use her as a fake girlfriend to get out of committing to any of the women he dates.
If ever a girl starts expecting a commitment from Morrison, he need only call Ellen, who’ll drop everything to crash Morrison’s date, and convince whatever girl he’s with that she (Ellen) is his fiancée.
And the ploy works every time.
Chris' AMAZING Plan
Chris, good friend that she is, can’t stand seeing her buddy get used and hurt by Morrison time after time.
So Chris concocts a plan to get “charm boy,” as she calls Morrison—a line delivered with that characteristic Esther Williams sass—to pay attention to Ellen.
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, Chris will begin dropping hints in Sun Valley that she expects some sort of commitment. Morrison will then call Ellen, and have her rush over to Sun Valley to save him from any commitment to Chris, just like she’s done with all of Morrison’s other girlfriends.
If all goes according to plan, at this point, surrounded by the romance of Idaho, Morrison will finally realize that he’s been in love with Ellen all along, and propose to her on the spot.
In Chris’ mind, it’s a fool-proof plan. Ellen is a little more dubious, but goes with it.
Once Chris is on the train to Idaho, a complication arises almost immediately: she becomes smitten with bandleader Dick Layn (Van Johnson), who’s providing the musical entertainment on the train. Dick is crazy about Chris on sight. When Chris gets a cinder stuck in her eye while switching train cars, Dick takes advantage of the situation and makes his move.
The Duchess of Idaho
For the rest of the train ride, Chris must juggle the attentions of Dick, the guy she wants to spend time with, and those of Morrison, the guy she has to spend time with. The situation only gets more difficult once Chris arrives in Idaho, for Dick and his band are the entertainment in Sun Valley as well.
Things finally come to a head when Morrison spots Chris and Dick reveling in victory after successfully dancing with a potato balanced between their foreheads. The riveting and challenging dance garners Chris the coveted title, Duchess of Idaho.
(Now the film’s title makes perfect sense.)
After trying to explain herself to Morrison without actually telling him the truth, Chris concludes that he’s in love with Ellen. She rushes off to call her friend and share the good news.
But wouldn’t you know it, 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 got caught in the middle of it. Morrison angrily goes back to Chicago.
Dick meanwhile has decided that Chris was playing him for a fool, and that she really loves Morrison. So Dick leaves for Chicago, too.
As can be expected, there’s nothing left for Chris and Ellen to do but go home.
And re-enlist in the army…
Yes, that’s actually their plan.
A Surprise Meal
As Chris and Ellen enter the apartment, delicious smells and clattering pans greet them.
Why, it’s Dick and Morrison!
After talking through the situation, the two men 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 has to hear sassy Chris give him a talking to about breaking and entering first, but eventually she calms down enough to accept Dick’s proclamations of love.
The two couples will now, presumably, live happily ever after.
And that’s the end of the film.
Esther and Husband Number 2
In 1945, not long after Esther Williams’ success in the first aqua musical, Bathing Beauty (1944), she married Sergeant Ben Gage. Gage had been a marginally successful big band singer before serving in the air force during World War II. As Esther describes him in her autobiography, Ben was like “a big kid,” full of life and endless fun, just what she needed after the serious and frightening tone of her first marriage to Leonard Kovner.
Louis B. Mayer, notorious for getting involved in the lives of his stars, didn’t like Gage from the beginning. The feeling certainly wasn’t helped when Ben almost caused an international incident on his and Esther’s honeymoon in Mexico, during 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's Cruel Analysis
According to Esther, Mayer—in his own words—believed Ben Gage was the definition of a “moron.” Mayer went so far as to tell Esther that she wasn’t allowed to have children with Ben.
Apparently, L.B. hadn’t yet discovered that no one tells Esther Williams what to do.
Esther and Ben moved along with their plans to start a family. But sadly, Esther’s first pregnancy ended in a complicated miscarriage that required a full D&C to save her from decomposition bacteria and toxins.
Also tragic, while Esther was enduring the traumatic D&C on the operating table, Ben was off playing golf.
It seemed that Gage was 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 cut Ben slack for being a product of his times. But even by the standards of the era—when pregnancy and all its complications were largely considered to be the woman’s world—Ben’s lack of investment in Esther at her moment of need is startlingly insensitive.
Indeed, it was one of Esther’s first signs that perhaps her marriage to Ben Gage 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 to her than anything else, and didn’t seek a divorce from Gage. She was elated to discover that she was once again pregnant during the filming of Neptune’s Daughter (1949). Esther took every precaution during the pregnancy to ensure the baby would be born healthy. Other than teaching blind children how to swim, Esther spent the majority of her pregnancy out of the pool, trying to take it easy.
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. It wasn’t easy. Some of the things expected of her as a movie star mom during the heyday of the studio system are shocking. As Esther shared 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:
“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 that there was no logic—no human logic—to the way stars were treated.”
In addition to tolerating this invasion of privacy for the fan magazines, Esther was also expected to be camera ready ASAP.
For Esther, this meant looking good in a bathing suit.
It was a ridiculous expectation, but she did it. By the time Duchess of Idaho began filming at the start of 1950—just five months after Benji was born—Esther Williams was swimsuit ready.
Esther's Favorite Leading Man
When later asked who her favorite leading man was, Esther wryly answered:
It’s true that Esther was rarely teamed with a strong leading man. Usually, Esther’s name alone carried her films. Indeed, 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, and if audiences liked him:
“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, more than holds his own beside her in each of the films they made together. 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 prop him up while they swam.
After their second film pairing in 1945’s Thrill of a Romance, Time magazine described Esther and Van as:
“screwily wholesome as ice cream and toothpaste.”
Who knows what exactly that means.
But, there’s certainly a wholesome, yet electric chemistry between Van and Esther on screen. It’s no mystery why MGM decided to put them together time and again.
Friends Behind the Scenes of Duchess of Idaho
Great friends behind the scenes, Esther and Van joked 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.”
The easy friendship between Esther and Van off camera no doubt lends to their great chemistry in Duchess of Idaho. By the time of filming, Esther and Van were so comfortable with each other’s comedy style and humor, much of their characters’ banter in the film was ad-libbed.
Duchess of Idaho Supporting Cast: Paula Raymond & Lena Horne
Esther and Van were the stars of Duchess of Idaho. But the film also benefits from a strong supporting cast: Paula Raymond and Lena Horne are both standouts.
Here’a a little bit about each of these talented, and too often overlooked ladies.
Paula Raymond: A Should-Be Star
Paula Raymond is not a recognizable name. But her beautiful face—a unique crossing of Gene Tierney and Myrna Loy—may be familiar to the die-hard Classic Hollywood fan.
Paula Raymond should have been a star. A big star. In addition to her great beauty, Paula was as adept at comedy as she was at drama. There were several points throughout Paula’s career when she seemed to be on the brink of stardom.
But then tragedy, usually in the form of personal injury, would always strike.
A Promising Start
Paula pursued an acting career to support herself and her young daughter. She 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). These roles were created specifically for Paula, to show off her gorgeous face.
1950 was an even more promising year. Crisis (1950), with Cary Grant, underscored Paula’s dramatic abilities, while Duchess of Idaho (1950), Paula’s favorite film, highlighted her natural flare for comedy.
But after such a bright start at the studio, Paula suddenly found herself relegated to smaller roles. Even more worrisome, appearing in screen tests with potential contractees became Paula’s regular work day, a telltale sign that her acting career at MGM wasn’t going anywhere.
Paula decided to leave acting. Between 1955-1958, she worked a variety of office jobs, including receptionist, insurance clerk, and construction company bookkeeper.
A Tragic Turn for Paula Raymond
Then things turned from disappointing to tragic.
In 1958, Paula returned to acting. She soon found substantial success on television, appearing on such popular shows as Perry Mason and Maverick. But, once more, just as things were looking up for Paula Raymond in Hollywood, she experienced a major set back.
One night in 1962, Paula was on her way home from a party with friends. The driver of the car lost control, and crashed into a tree. The car rolled over several times in the process. The other three passengers exited the vehicle uninjured.
But 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 Jeanne Martin, (wife of Dino)—whose home the crash occurred not far from—insisted that a neurologist be called. The neurologist discovered that Paula, in fact, wasn’t dead.
Thank heaven for Jeanne Martin.
A skilled plastic surgeon worked all night to stitch up Paula’s face. His work included reattaching her nose, which had been severed off her face in the accident…
The Resilient Paula Raymond
The average person probably would have given up on acting at this point.
But not Paula Raymond.
Paula’s beauty was miraculously restored. Within a year of the accident, she was back on television. It wasn’t the fast track to stardom she’d experienced earlier, but Paula was a working actress.
In 1977, Paula had another chance at stardom when the producers of the popular soap opera, Days of Our Lives, decided to expand Paula’s small guest spot on the program into a permanent character.
But personal injury struck again when Paula tripped on a telephone cord on set, and broke her ankle.
The producers couldn’t wait for her to recover. Once more, Paula Raymond missed her chance at stardom.
Fulfillment Outside of Hollywood
Paula tried to re-start her acting career in 1984. But another personal injury, this time the fracture of both her hips, thwarted Paula’s comeback.
After this last mishap, Paula decided to focus the majority of her time and talents to other endeavors. She ultimately found career fulfillment as a lyricist and musician, even writing a musical.
Paula Raymond was a survivor. Somehow, she responded to each injury and career setback with determination and optimism. Though it’s hard not to imagine what she could have accomplished with a little more luck, Paula Raymond was completely at peace with the path her Hollywood career took. And ultimately, that’s what matters most.
Lena Horne: Ahead of the Times
Unlike Paula Raymond, Lena Horne is a quite universally recognized face and name. The gorgeous and talented Lena made a name for herself as one of the era’s most dazzling, sophisticated, and stylized singers.
But Lena should have achieved great movie stardom as well. Unfortunately, Lena’s potential was stifled by the racial prejudices of the time.
Slow Changes in Hollywood
Lena signed a contract with MGM at the beginning of 1942, as part of the studio’s efforts to work with NAACP executive secretary, Walter White, to do away with the inaccurate and limited portrayals of the black community on film. MGM and Walter White wished to show the black community, in White’s own words, as:
“normal human being[s] and an integral part of human life and activity.”
In the talented Lena Horne, White and MGM believed they’d found the black performer to accomplish this with.
Though the beautiful Lena was never relegated to playing maids or mammies on screen, MGM didn’t follow through with their stated intentions. During her time at the studio, Lena Horne was given only one leading role, in the 1943 musical, Cabin in the Sky.
More often than not, the only way MGM utilized Lena was as a specialty act in films 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 theses films for distribution in southern states, where a black woman mingling with a white audience 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” features candid footage of Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Katharine Hepburn, Betty Garrett, Errol Flynn, Esther Williams…the list goes on.
Just after Katharine Hepburn in the clip above, we see Lena Horne, representing an entire race as the only black star under contract at MGM.
Lena later shared of the luncheon that:
“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.”
In our first glimpse of her at 5:21, Lena looks frustrated at the situation. Her mood seems considerably improved later in the footage, while talking with Kate Hepburn at 7:18. Leave it to Kate to make sure everyone felt appreciated and included.
A Career Stifled
It’s tragic that Lena’s film opportunities were stifled on the basis of race. But Lena’s path in films was instrumental in tearing down barriers that limited all black actors and actresses. The fruits of Lena’s example and efforts are apparent just four years after the release of Duchess of Idaho, when Dorothy Dandridge became the first black leading lady and Best Actress nominee for Carmen Jones (1954).
A Reflective Moment on Duchess of Idaho
Eleanor Powell, arguably the greatest female tap dancer of Classic Hollywood, returned to the screen after a six year absence for a brief dance number in Duchess of Idaho. It 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 five more years as one of MGM’s most profitable and respected stars, things changed 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 found just about every aspect of her life turned upside down. But, champion she’d trained to be since learning the butterfly as a determined, eight-year-old swimmer, Esther would meet these challenges, and life post-superstardom, head on.