Two more Esther Williams vehicles. Though she sure wasn’t kidding when she says her films were written to a formula, it’s interesting to see the attempts made to stretch that template.
DUCHESS OF IDAHO takes place largely in the potato-growing state, where Van Johnson can blend in. But it is bookended by New York sequences exploiting the somewhat irrelevant fact that Esther’s character works in some kind of aquatic revue, so the film can have a big water ballet shoehorned in at the start and finish. Water Ballet #1 is gaudy, with unattractive green water — liquid chlorophyll. Water Ballet #2 has really nice colours, but is a little unimaginative in terms of staging. Choreographer Jack Donohue has dancers cavorting around the pool, distracting us from the aquatic action. You really need to get the camera below the surface to let Esther cut loose. And you really need Busby Berkeley.
Most striking element is the opening titles, which are sung — or at least the whole cast list is. And “John Lund” isn’t easy to sing in an attractive way. I was hoping they’d keep it up right through “Special Effects by A. Arnold Gillespie & Warren Newcombe” and “Montage Sequences by Peter Ballbusch” but the chorus crapped out.
There are cameos from Lena Horne and Eleanor Powell, but the most impressive moment is really a dialogue one. As Van Johnson pleads “I’m lonely!” outside Es’s hotel room door, a passing bellhop takes pity: “Hello.” It’s not even disguised, really: read it as an attempted pick-up, or dismiss it as a total non-sequitur.
Robert Z. Leonard directs with slightly more panache than he brought to HORSE FEATHERS (See comments). We get a juvenile Mel Tormé in a bit part and an uncredited Mae Clarke — was anyone else ever a lead in such iconic films as FRANKENSTEIN and PUBLIC ENEMY, and an extra in later life?
TEXAS CARNIVAL is better — we’re getting used to Red Skelton so we could enjoy his mugging, which was a little more restrained anyhow. And there’s Howard Keel, and Ann Miller, and a farce plot with slightly more sense of consequence, but how is Esther going to get wet out in Texas. The novel solution is a dream sequence, where Howard sees her wafting around his bedroom like a wraith. He’s in air, she’s in water, but they’re both inhabiting the same screen space.
The diaphanous drift of Esther’s costume may make modern cinephiles suspect she’s about to turn into a skeleton and make Howard’s face melt.
In fact, Esther nearly drowned. The filming required her to perform in a blacked-out underwater set so her footage could be superimposed over Howard’s. The rooms and the camera set-up matched exactly, so she could pole-dance subaqueously around the bedposts. The set even had a ceiling. To allow the star to surface, a little trapdoor was built into it.
Of course, a black trapdoor in a black set, underwater, is essentially invisible, and Esther nearly drowned trying to find it. Having got the take, director Charles Walters had stopped watching, as had his camera crew. A props man happened to think it was odd that Esther wasn’t coming up for air, and opened the hatch, thus saving her life.