Three-time Olympic Champion Sonja Henie's penultimate starring role, It's a Pleasure! (1945) is a better-than-you'd-expect musical melodrama featuring some fine three-strip Technicolor photography nicely transferred for this DVD release. It's basically "A Star Is Born - On Ice!" with Sonja as an on-her-way-up figure skater who latches onto an alcoholic, on-his-way-down hockey bum (Michael O'Shea), but instead of the second-rate rip-off/genre hybrid you might have anticipated, the sincere dramatic aims of the picture actually work in its favor. After all, it's a Sonja Henie ice skating movie; anything to distinguish it from other entries in this peculiar sub-sub genre of the Hollywood musical is welcome.
There aren't many three-strip Technicolor movies that open with an extended hockey game, but this one does. Star player Don Martin (O'Shea) - not to be confused with Mad's Maddest Artist - is banned for life after beating up his third referee, but he quickly bounces back as an acrobatic skater in Buzz Fletcher's (Bill Johnson) Band Box Ice Revue, a big show featuring Chris Linden (Henie). She's nuts about him and pretty soon they're married, but trouble brews almost at once.
Don's drinking is out of control, resulting in sloppy performances, despite his obvious talent in the new job. Worse, Buzz's beautiful but no-good wife, Gale (Marie McDonald), brazenly makes advances on the married boozer, manipulating him even further off the wagon as a means of controlling him and keeping him near her side while destroying his relationship with Chris. Breezy Buzz meanwhile, is simply naïve - he's unaware of his wife's perfidiousness intentions.
Norwegian-born Henie (1921-69) won Olympic gold at the 1928, 1932, and 1936 Winter Olympics, and numerous other top prizes between 1923 and '36. The ambitious performer retired from competition to pursue a Hollywood career, shrewdly staging a big ice show with her father in Los Angeles. This resulted in a highly lucrative film career at 20th Century-Fox concurrent with touring live performances that helped establish ice shows in the United States. She did nine films in seven years at Fox, but by the mid-1940s the industry was changing, while Henie's pro-Nazi occupation of Norway leanings* - and reported friendship with Hitler himself - damaged her reputation.
It's a Pleasure! was produced by International Pictures, the company soon to merge with and become Universal-International, though this film was originally released by RKO. As RKO's library now resides with Warner Bros., you'd think the picture would either be part of Universal's classic library or Warner Bros., but now it's in MGM's hands as part of their United Artists library, in this DVD released by Fox. Got that? (The International Pictures company logo, incidentally, is quite attractive.)
The picture's main assets are its surprisingly authentic - at least by '40s musical standards - depiction of a self-destructive alcoholic and his enabler wife and would-be mistress; and its pleasant Technicolor lensing.
O'Shea is surprisingly good, though Henie is icy and generally inexpressive; for most of the picture she has a frozen smile plastered across her alabaster face. Undoubtedly Henie was monumentally influential; she's still probably the best- and most internationally-known ice skater. But I wonder what skaters today think of her performances in films like It's a Pleasure!, which to my unprofessional eyes seem less graceful and less acrobatic than today's athletes. Mostly she does a lot of spinning like a top. In one amusing scene Henie dances in a cramped nightclub (yes, with an ice rink for a stage) but everything is so close together that it looks like one wrong move and high-kicking Sonja is going to decapitate front-row nightclubbers.
Marie McDonald, who looks like she's got about 20 pounds of auburn hair resting atop her head, is a Bitch of the First Order. Highly effective, her character is so nasty and conniving you'll want to reach across the room and into your TV to strangle her. (Coincidentally, the stars of the picture all met untimely, unusual ends. Henie died in mid-air, on a flight from Paris to Oslo. O'Shea officially died of a heart attack in 1973, but the retired actor had late in life become a plainclothes CIA operative and supposedly died of gunshot wounds. McDonald committed suicide at 42. Johnson died of a heart attack at 41.)
From its opening shot of Henie - yep, spinning like a top again - against a bright red backdrop, to the colorful hockey scenes, to a hotel lobby with pea-soup green marble with pink and white striped highlights, It's a Pleasure! is an eyeful in Technicolor. Sometimes the color is more interesting here than the movie: a close-up of a barbecued hotdog, a beautiful matte painting of a frozen-over pond used as a picnic area, a hotel hallway with a well-lit ceiling (ceilings being rare for '40s Technicolor movies; they were too hard to light). Even tough-talking character actress Iris Adrian is glamorous in this.
Video & Audio
Like the concurrently-released three-strip Technicolor The Goldwyn Follies, It's a Pleasure! has been transferred wonderfully, despite the cost-saving use of single-layered discs. Except for one dissolve I didn't notice any misaligned shots, and the whole show is bright, gaudy, and colorful. The Dolby Digital English mono audio is fine. The disc is closed-captioned but has no Extra Features.
In some ways superior and in some ways worse than Henie's early Fox films, It's a Pleasure! is worthwhile entertainment, especially for skating fans. Recommended.
* She prominently kept an autographed photo of der Führer - with whom she had met several times, including a visit to Berchtesgaden - at her home in Norway and thus avoided having her property occupied or confiscated. Many there still regard her as a Quisling.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is due in stores this June, and on sale now.