Forget Tonya Harding and her reputed ice-rink capers, at least for an evening. The Sonja Henie Collection is a much less disturbing kind of fun. In an attempt to coattail the upcoming Lillehammer Winter Olympic Games, Fox is releasing on video for the first time seven rarely seen musicals made by Hollywood’s one and only ice-skating movie star, former Olympic medalist Sonja Henie. The best of them hold up as unmatched combinations of romantic comedy, catchy songs, and dazzling skating routines.
The pert, blond, dimpled Norwegian Snow Queen won the first of her Olympic gold medals in 1928 at age 15, and later went on to capture two more, in 1932 and 1936. Darryl Zanuck signed her to a movie contract, and by 1938 she was a box office smash. In fact, the tough-minded business acumen behind her sweet demeanor helped make Henie one of the highest-paid entertainers in America for several years.
In her delightful debut, 1937’s One in a Million, Henie skates with speed, grace, and eye-boggling abandon through four big numbers. In between are some typically silly comedy routines by the Ritz Brothers (the poor person’s Marxes) and a not-so-silly plot about a European Olympic hopeful (Henie) who is almost sabotaged by an American showbiz impresario more interested in money than medals. (Kerrigan beware!)
Thin Ice (1937) offers more lavish ice sequences built around an old-fashioned plot about an Alpine skating instructress who falls in love with a visiting prince-in-disguise (Tyrone Power at his most handsome). In the end, Henie is even happier than Princess Di, both on and off the ice.
Happy Landing (1938) features Don Ameche and Cesar Romero as American pilots who crash-land in Norway right near Guess Who’s skating pond. By this time Henie’s acting style had settled into a neat formula: smiling a lot and frowning now and then. But she skates up a storm in two spectacular ice ballets, and Broadway’s great Ethel Merman is serendipitously on hand to belt out the zippy ”Hot and Happy,” among other tunes.
In My Lucky Star (1938), Henie continues to surpass the limits of what you’d suppose could be done on skates, in spite of a loopy Sonja Goes to College plot. Trivia alert: A wisecracking (and fully clothed) Gypsy Rose Lee has a supporting role, acting under her real name, Louise Hovick.
The misleadingly titled Everything Happens at Night (1939) has the liveliest plot of all: Two rival newspapermen (Ray Milland and Robert Cummings) try to woo Henie while gamely outwitting the Gestapo in an Alpine village. Henie’s exuberant solo here — to Strauss’ ”Blue Danube” — explodes in alternating waltz, rhumba, conga, and swing tempos.
For 1942’s Iceland, with John Payne, and 1943’s Wintertime, with Cornel Wilde, Henie’s bladework is still awesome. But Fox’s wartime budget restrictions are all too apparent: The staging of her routines is weak, and the so-so scripts are more cliche-ridden than their predecessors. Even so, they restore some of the warm glow of ice skating (as both sport and entertainment) that’s gotten sidetracked on the road to this year’s Olympics.
Here are the judge’s rulings on the Sonja Henie films — naturally, ranked on the Olympic scale (0-6.0). One in a Million: 5.6 Thin Ice: 5.7 Happy Landing: 5.5 My Lucky Star: 4.9 Everything Happens at Night: 5.6 Iceland, Wintertime: 4.0