Ice-thin frozen trifle. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives' collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released My Lucky Star, the 1938 romantic comedy from 20th starring Norwegian ice skating superstar Sonja Henie, along with Richard Greene, Joan Davis, Cesar Romero, Buddy Ebsen, Arthur Treacher, George Barbier, Louise Hovick (better known to the gents as Gypsy Rose Lee), Billy Gilbert, Patricia "Honeychile" Wilder, and Elisha Cook, Jr.. Part romcom, part college picture, and part musical, My Lucky Star is inconsequential nonsense elevated (only slightly) by Nazi favorite Henie's few skating numbers. Other than that (and admittedly that's enough)...it's a bit of a slog through the drifts. No extras for this okay black and white fullscreen transfer.
Dashing, irresponsible playboy George Cabot, Jr. (Cesar Romero), the heir to the Cabots Fifth Avenue department store in New York City, has married four-time divorcee Marcelle La Verne (Gypsy Rose Lee as "Louise Hovick"), a chorus girl whom the um...satisfied Cabot, Jr. now wants to ditch the very next morning. For his long-suffering father, George Cabot, Sr. (George Barbier), this is the last straw--particularly when Marcelle immediately sicks the lawyers on Cabot, seeking 100,000 clams to keep quiet about the whole matrimonial mess. When his father cuts off his dough and threatens to banish George, Jr. to the wilds of Oklahoma, George, Jr. escapes down the store's fire escape and spies Cabot package wrapper Kristina Nielsen (Sonja Henie) skating on the department store's sporting goods' ice rink. Smacking his head on the ice, George gets sweet, kindly Kristina to help him back to his apartment (you know why...), but before he can put the moves on her, his new wife and her official legal witness, Louie (Paul Hurst), spot Kristina, giving Marcelle the goods she needs for her legal fleecing. Taking the advice of a fortune teller to spirit Kristina out of the city before his wife and lawyers find her, George, Jr. cooks up a plot to not only quash Marcelle's divorce action, but also to get him back in good graces with his father. George wants to send Kristina free-of-charge to upstate New York's Plymouth University ("Good 'ol P.U.!"), where she can finish her degree--all she has to do is wear as many Cabot sporting outfits as she can to promote Cabot's flagging line of women's outerwear. Kristina may find allies at P.U. in the form of horsey roommate, Mary Dwight (Joan Davis), Mary's boyfriend, Buddy (Buddy Ebsen), and potential love interest, Larry Taylor (Richard Greene), but she can't escape the envious plottings of little Southern fried minx, Dorothy (Patricia Wilder), who resents "rich" Kristina's clothes...and her chumminess with Dorothy's beau, Larry. Good thing the Mid-Winter Ice Carnival is coming up, so Kristina can put Dorothy in her place.
Now, look...you know me: I actively seek out and look forward to catching vintage escapist studio piffles I haven't seen before...or that I can't quite remember. I respect movies like My Lucky Star for what they are, within and outside of their original context. Unlike a lot of newer critics, I don't see old-fashioned black and white twaddle as inherently suspect--I grew up on this stuff, and loved these kinds of studio filler without reservations. And considering the viewing conditions in which I caught My Lucky Star this week--Christmas tree lights softly glowing, snow silently falling outside, a nice fire going in the den--Henie's skating opus should have easily garnered "10s" across the board from me. However...My Lucky Star is slushy going. I don't want to be too mean about this trivial skating musical, though; it means well enough, and it's relatively inoffensive and innocuous...but it's awfully leaden and mechanical when it should have been a frothy slalom down the slopes. If you're not already a fan of these types of romantic screwball farces, you might be tempted to find My Lucky Star's biggest fault in its convoluted, wholly unbelievable plotting--an acceptable, even desirable convention for this particular comedic genre. Of course, the messy, coincidental screenplay from Harry Tugend (Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Public Pigeon No. One, Who's Minding the Store?) and Jack Yellen (George White's Scandals, Pigskin Parade, Hold That Co-Ed), from a story by Karl Tunberg and Don Ettlinger, could have been excused for lacking genuine wit, had the director injected some zip into the proceedings, and had the performers put over the resulting spotty, busy silliness with some confident expertise.
However, top studio helmer Roy Del Ruth (1931's The Maltese Falcon, Topper Returns, The Ziegfeld Follies) can't seem to convincingly marry the two screwball romantic subplots together--Romero disappears for long stretches until he's all but forgotten--while Del Ruth's take on the college musical element is equally flat (if you groan at the idealized artificiality of college life as it's presented here, don't feel all that superior to studio efforts from way back then...check out the ridiculous, laughable picture of the 1970s and the "Abscam" scandal found in this year's somehow-lauded American Hustle). The editing also looks suspicious--Gypsy Rose Lee's part has obviously been pared back, while Ebsen's and Davis' final number looks drastically reduced--as if sizeable chunks of My Lucky Stars may have been chopped out prior to its general release back in '38 (reportedly, the movie originally previewed a full 11 minutes longer than this 79 minute version). That may account for some of My Lucky Stars's herky-jerky feel...but somehow I doubt it, considering the arbitrary patchwork feel of the screen story (shouldn't Romero have figured in somehow as a romantic third wheel between Henie and Greene?).
As for the performers, no matter how hard pros like Cesar Romero and Joan Davis frantically scramble to provide cover, there's no getting around the fact that they don't have much to work with here...while getting less-than-stellar back-up from the crashingly dull romantic leads here, who put the ice-brakes on every time they skid into view. Romero, by this point a valued supporting player in Zanuck's stock company, does what he can with the silly role he's given (a sexless playboy with no real stake in the story), while Joan Davis struggles mightily to not only give her largely witless lines and gags some oomph, but also to rouse sleepy, disinterested Buddy Ebsen into some kind of engaged musical comedy partner (Ebsen looks like he knows exactly what kind of move he's in). Newcomer Richard Greene, an English actor at this time promoted by Zanuck as a potential new Ty Power, provides My Lucky Star's biggest (unintentional) laughs with his hilariously over-earnest performance (he's fine when low-key romancing Henie, but when he's bucking her up--or tearing her down, in the classically perverse, "It's your fault, Sonja, that the cruel kids are mercilessly picking on you!" scene--his self-seriousness is ridiculously overwrought).
And that leaves us with our star, Sonja Henie. A three-time Olympic champion and ten-time World Champion skater, Henie is often credited with single-handedly popularizing ice skating as a mainstream American sport. Turning professional in 1936, and coming to America to stage her ice extravaganzas across the country, Henie made no bones to her family and friends about wanting her next career milestone to be the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy: becoming a Hollywood movie star. Remarkably, she was able to do just that almost overnight, when she staged a wildly popular ice show in Hollywood in May, 1936, creating a firestorm of publicity that eventually garnered her a lucrative five-year contract with Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century-Fox. According to multiple sources--including an unflattering biography co-written by her own brother--ball-breaker Henie was nothing like the sweet, innocent little alpine flower she played in My Lucky Star (apparently, hard-nosed Henie at this point in her life craved money and sex above all else...too bad I couldn't see that Henie on the screen...). Professional athletes of world-class caliber are monsters of determination and drive, and Henie was no different, frequently clashing with her employer, Zanuck, over his charted course of her screen career. Certainly the novelty of the screen's first ice skating star--catnip to escapist-starved Depression-era ticket buyers--helped quickly place Henie in the top ten box office draws after her first movie, One in a Million, scored big at theaters.
Watching her today, though...it's tougher to see what the attraction was back then for audiences, outside of her skating, of course. At the very best (on a really good day with expert lighting and makeup...) "cute" rather than "beautiful" or even "interesting looking," Henie's stolid Scandinavian bearing, oddly unattractive accent (it's her flat voice, I think), and her limited facial reactions (she shyly smiles a lot, and then stares dumbly at her costars...), all combine to put the viewer off whenever she's off the ice--which is far too often in My Luck Star. Henie would go on to star in seven more ice skating movies in Hollywood, all of them making money for her studios (1941's Sun Valley Serenade, a superior Fox musical with Glenn Miller's big band music front and center, is her best-remembered outing), before the tired formula of songs and romance and skating finally petered out. However, an 11-year run as a top Hollywood movie star is nothing to sneeze at, particularly for a professional athlete with no acting experience whom Hollywood utilized as essentially nothing more than a "novelty" act. Watching Sonja Henie skate in My Lucky Star--just watching her skate, not trying to act--with her fascinating mix of powerful athleticism and innate showmanship (I love that impossible-looking little tippy-toe running she does throughout her routines), you have to give her her due. Just as athlete-turned-movie star Esther Williams forever owned the short-lived subgenre of "swimming pictures" (unlike Henie, Williams was a p.o.a. who could actually act when given the rare chance), Henie did with on-screen skating what no one else was able to do, before or since (just ask Vera Hruba Ralston). And for that chance alone--to see Henie in action on the ice--the frequently puerile, trivial My Lucky Star is recommended.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.