Tuesday, December 20, 2011

DUCHESS OF IDAHO (MGM 1950) Warner Archive Collection

Everything seems to be coming to close in Robert Z. Leonard's Duchess of Idaho (1950) a middling Esther Williams musical mélange that has the mermaid take to the pool twice in two utterly gaudy - rather than glistening - aqua ballets. The film marks the final screen appearance of Eleanor Powell, the 'tops in taps' dancer extraordinaire who once dominated MGM's musical landscape. Hardly as light on her feet as she had once been, Powell is nevertheless fantastic, her electricity generating what little spark the film has during the latter half of this hapless boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy sings song and gets girl rehash.
Duchess of Idaho also rounds out Lena Horne's MGM contract as the 'walk on' chanteuse of color whose numbers could easily be excised from film prints in the south. She sings 'Baby Come Out of the Clouds' as a nightclub entertainer. It's only a so-so song and staged with about as much aplomb, employing a funky slime green curtain that envelopes the orchestra directly behind her. The last 'surprise' cameo in the film is Red Skelton, who literally comes in to make a snide comment and do a pratfall before departing. None of these alumni is particularly well served by their all too brief appearances in this film, but they give it their all anyway.
The claptrap of a plot patched together by Dorothy Cooper, Jerry Davis and Sid Fields has Esther Williams cast as aquacade beauty Christine Riverton Duncan. Chris rooms in a ritzy apartment with Ellen Hallitt (Paula Raymond): secretary to wealthy industrialist, Douglas Morrison (John Lund). Ellen is forlorn. For although she proves herself an admirable 'his girl Friday' capable of plucking her randy boss out of any romantic entanglement he steps into, he doesn't even know she is alive, much less in love with him. After Morrison cancels a romantic rendezvous with Ellen at Sun Valley Chris decides to take matters into her own hands. She takes the first train to Sun Valley in hot pursuit of Morrison. The idea is to lure him into a romance, then break his heart, convincing him that Ellen is the right girl for him. Ludicrous, indeed!
The narrative slightly derails when Chris meets band leader Dick Layne (Van Johnson) who utterly refuses to give up on his infatuation with her. At first Chris finds Layne a bore. Gradually, she warms up to his somewhat abrasive charm, but cannot publicly acknowledge her change of heart or risk ruining her deception towards Morrison. Eventually, the whole mess unravels with Ellen making a B-line for Sun Valley to take Morrison in hand, exposing Chris to ridicule from Dick. Wounded feelings all around are eventually quelled when Morrison professes his love and proposes marriage to Ellen. Chris apologizes to Dick and the two are reunited in their romance.
Duchess of Idaho's plot is lousy. The film is rescued from being terrible by its many musical offerings - an abundance of riches belted out in rapid succession and inserted whenever the dullness of the romance threatens to topple the whole excursion into oblivion. Mel Torme is wasted in the walk on part of Cyril the bellhop. His one number 'Warm Hands, Cold Heart' was left on the cutting room floor. But newcomer Connie Haines (as Peggy Elliott) gets two plum songs (Choo Choo Choo to Idaho, and, Of All Things) delivered with spritely exuberance.
The film's most memorable song is probably 'You Can't Do Wrong Doing Right' - a sort of jazzy spiritual sung by Van Johnson, Haines and other members of the Dick Layne orchestra (actually, The Jubalaires). None of these songs have anything to do with the plot. In fact, there isn't even a romantic ballad to underscore the burgeoning romances in the film. The fact that Esther Williams and John Lund remain mute for the musical program also creates a curious vacuum in the entertainment.
Esther's two water logged aquacade numbers are really second rate, using the same pool set from This Time For Keeps (1947), only slightly redressed and with a bunch of muscle men in Grecian attire who spend most of their time tossing Ms. Williams amongst them. Bottom line: with all the talent on tap for this outing so much more ought to have come of it than ultimately did. This isn't a great or even good Esther Williams musical. It's just present and accounted for.
The same can justly be said of Warner Home Video's flat MOD DVD offering. The image sports fairly accurate colors. But frequently there are Technicolor misregistration problems that create halos in the image. Occasionally the image sharpens up so that we can see some fine detail. But mostly the visuals are softly focused and somewhat blurry. Edge enhancement is also present. Colors are obviously faded during rear projection shots. Not what I expected and arguably, not what the film deserves. Age related artifacts are present but do not distract - much. The audio is satisfactory, though hardly stellar. Extras include two excised musical numbers - one from Lena Horne, the other from Mel Torme, and the film's theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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