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Ellen Hallet is in love with her playboy boss, Douglas Morrison, but is too timid to do anything about it. To help her, her roommate Chris decides to step in and devises a plan. Chris follows Morrison on his trip to Sun Valley, Idaho and plays the over-attentive female in hopes that he will send for Ellen who often plays his "fiancée" when he has a female he can't discourage otherwise. Complications arise when Chris catches the eye of band leader Dick Layn and finds herself caught in a triangle between the two men.
DUCHESS OF IDAHO (1950) is one of those lesser-known MGM/Joe Pasternak musicals that bridge the marathon musical spectaculars of the 1940s (BATHING BEAUTY, TWO GIRLS AND A SAILOR) and the more streamlined editions of the 1950s (EASY TO LOVE, Texas CARNIVAL, etc). But as with many of the '40s films DUCHESS is still more concerned with wit, music, and pure style than any kind of cohesive plot line. Musically we're still in the '40s big band mode here, and the songs, by some of MGM's lesser-hyped tunesmiths, are catchy, serviceable, and very 40-ish. (JAILHOUSE ROCK and Presley were still seven years in the future). A highlight is "Let's Choo Choo Choo to Idaho," arranged by Skip Martin, and performed on a train on route to Sun Valley by vivacious band singer Connie Haines, Van Johnson, and an African American quartet called the Jubalaires.
Lena Horne is also on hand with a few numbers, as is Eleanor Powell for one of her last big solo dances on film, and comedian Red Skelton also puts in a guest appearance. A none-singing Mel Torme briefly appears (as a bellhop), and ditto "Gunsmoke's" titian-haired Amanda Blake as one of Lund's rejected girlfriends). In the second female lead Paula Raymond is one of those obscure but promising MGM personalities who, however, never quite made a break through. In DUCHESS she shows glimmers of charm but is seriously handicapped by some of the clunkiest outfits in the usually impeccable MGM wardrobe.
The look of DUCHESS anticipates the peak Technicolor styling of such early 50s MGMs as LOVELY TO LOOK AT, YOUNG BESS, and SCARAMOUCHE. Many of the interiors are keyed to soft beiges and earth tones against which Esther's always-modish outfits (one of which includes slipper socks!) stand out in jolts of brilliance. And of course it wouldn't be an Esther Williams picture without a few aqua numbers though those featured here are some of her most restrained. (A nocturnal ski run with multi-colored torches also provides a trippy visual/musical interlude mid-film).
Someone once said about Esther that "Wet she's a star, but dry she ain't," but on the whole DUCHESS showcases the star's under-rated acting skills and her often-ironic sense of humor. ("You'll see Esther Williams swim and ski and skate and do a dozen thrilling things!" the movie book ads proclaimed). While as noted the plot is not the strongest, the dialogue (by three credited screenwriters) is witty, often sophisticated, and well-delivered by all involved, including deadpan MGM character staple, Clinton Sundberg, who mutters an on-going chorus of grumbling asides as Lund's much put-upon man Friday. DUCHESS OF IDAHO is the cover story for the August, 1950 issue of "Screen Stories" which also includes a full-page ad for the film in the prime MGM spot right next to the contents, indicating that the studio considered this one of their key box-office attractions for the summer.
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