The Sonja Henie marathon continues.... 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released One in a Million, the 1937 comedy musical from 20th that introduced the movie-going world to Norwegian Olympian Sonja Henie and her flashing ice skates. With the likes of Adolphe Menjou, Jean Hersholt, Don Ameche, The Ritz Brothers, Arline Judge, Ned Sparks, and Borrah Minevitch and His Harmonica Rascals offering comedic and romantic distraction from novice Henie's tentative thesping scenes, viewers can concentrate instead on her big skating production numbers...which are tops. No extras for this okay black and white fullscreen transfer.
All-girl band leader Tad Spencer (Adolphe Menjou) has a big problem: the location of the band's next gig, the Grand Palace Hotel in Ardetz, Switzerland, has burned to the ground, the arson the work of suspected anarchists. With his smart-assed wife, Billie (Arline Judge) in tow, along with comedy trio The Ritz Brothers (themselves), and newly-hired harmonica player, Adolphe (Borrah Minevitch), Tad makes his way down the lane to innkeeper Heinrich Muller's (Jean Hersholt) place, where the kindly Muller puts up the unruly--and penniless--group. When always-promoting Tad spies Muller's daughter, Greta (Sonja Henie), skating on a nearby pond, he has a brainstorm: dancing on ice, with Greta the centerpiece of a new variety act. Meanwhile, ace Paris Herald reporter Bob Harris (Don Ameche), with his photographer sidekick, Danny Simpson (Ned Sparks), arrives to cover the Grand Palace Hotel fire, speculating that Muller's mysterious guest, Ratoffsky (Montagu Love), may be the arsonist. What Harris discovers--which Tad does not--is that Greta has been training for the upcoming Olympics for 12 years; her coach, her father, was a former skating Olympian who had his medals unfairly stripped after allegations of professionalism. Harris smells a socko human interest story here, while Tad inadvertently jeopardizes Greta's amateur standing when he has her perform at a paid exhibition in St. Moritz.
Last week I reviewed (with decidedly mixed results) skater/movie star Sonja Henie's fourth outing for 20th Century-Fox, My Lucky Star, so I'm happy to report--just from a "movie lover OCD" standpoint alone--that we're back to square one with Sonja's first starring role here in One in a Million. And thankfully, this initial public offering of the Norwegian nutcracker is quite a bit better than that less-than-impressive fourth opus. Now, just to be clear...by that statement I'm not suggesting I found Miss Henie the actress "quite a bit better" (for that to happen, I'd have to take a header on the ice first). However, Miss Henie the skater is shown to much better advantage here, while her supporting players, for the most part, do a fair-to-good job of shoring up One in a Million's non-skating moments.
Reading up on Henie for these reviews (that bio by her brother is a hoot), I quickly discovered that I found Henie the millionaire businesswoman/skating taskmaster/violent, raging alcoholic/man-eater far more interesting than the skate-less alpine waif she was repeatedly forced to project on the screen. Skating on-screen, she can do no wrong, even allowing for modern advancements in the sport (who cares if she bends her leg oddly during spins or luxes or whatever the hell it is she's actually doing out there--she's still charismatic on the ice). The on-screen off-the-ice Henie, however, is not much more than a stiff-as-a-board non-entity of hesitant, flat vocalizations and deer-in-the-headlights emoting (her broad, plain features would't have been a problem if she at least had had some intriguing personality or sex appeal...). The off-the-ice off-screen Henie--my favorite Henie--was a pisser, though, according to reports, with a voracious sexual appetite (ask an exhausted Ty Power) and the balls to routinely take on (and win against) her pugnacious boss Darryl Zanuck, with, just for good measure, a sewer mouth at the ready for any incompetents who fouled-up her exacting skating routines. That Sonja Henie, alas, is lost forever to time, sticking subsequent moviegoers instead with this cliched, dreary, asexual representation of well-scrubbed, grimly-determined Scandinavian cheerfulness that galumphs into view whenever the Fox techs are still busy readying the ice rink. Wisely, producer Zanuck keeps that heinous Henie to an absolute minimum, pushing the former Olympian Henie whenever possible out to where she truly belongs: on the ice. In contrast to My Lucky Star's more cramped skating skits, the ice skating sequences in One in a Million have some genuine scale and scope (there has to be sixty skaters behind her in that first dream sequence, while the Madison Square Garden rumba finale is impressively mounted--the interruption of the Ritz Brothers in a pantomime horse-on-skates indicates Zanuck still wasn't sure about the appeal of this new-fangled ice skating star).
The non-frozen rest of One in a Million is routinely hit-and-miss. Scripted by Leonard Praskins (everything from The Champ to Gorilla at Large) and Mark Kelly (Pigskin Parade), and directed by Sidney Lanfield (The Hound of the Baskervilles, You'll Never Get Rich, My Favorite Blonde, The Lemon Drop Kid), One in a Million's romantic comedy complications are thin but workable, particularly when smoothie Don Ameche, on the cusp of his greatest triumphs at Fox, sings Who's Afraid of Love? and wrestles a smile or two from frozen-solid Henie (apparently, Henie hated the good-natured Ameche...maybe he didn't want to play the games Ty Power did?...). Adolphe Menjou, just a mite too loud as the besieged bandleader (a slower burn would have been funnier), is still quite good, particularly when he's paired up with One in a Million's real sex symbol: the delightfully deadpan, hot-as-hell Arline Judge, who can get a big laugh merely by standing still and intoning, "How ya doing?" to an infuriated, exasperated Menjou (Judge, always amusing, should have been a much bigger star). Where One in a Million really drops the ball, ironically, are in the sequences that Zanuck no doubt thought would save the picture: the outright comedy inserts. I can deal with Ned Sparks' grating, grumbling, persistent whine here, because I've seen him do it better in other movies, but there's no way in hell I could take the wretchedly unfunny, interminable Borrah Minevitch and His Harmonica Rascals for more than 30 seconds (self-described "comedic" harmonica skits rank right up there on the humor scale with kicking out a sick kid's crutches). As for the Ritz Brothers, they're an acquired taste (there's a reason all the comedians who stole from them are more well-known...), but they fail to make much of a dent here, only really scoring at the Olympic scene where they start mouthing off to the Teutonic spectators seated behind them (their "Horror Boys of Hollywood" bit doesn't even make sense, when Harry's "Charles Laughton" is dressed as the decidedly un-horror movie-like Captain Bligh). Still, I doubt most ticket buyers came to One in a Million specifically to see these assorted clowns in action...nor did they come to see unknown actress Sonja Henie emote. They plunked down their nickels and dimes (to the tune of well-over 2 million Depression-era dollars) to see skating superstar Sonja Henie skate. And when she does skate--powerfully and beautifully and delightfully--all the missteps in One in a Million, including her very own, are forgotten.
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.