Welcome to the Sonja Henie blog. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Happy Landing, the 1938 comedy musical from 20th starring skating Scandinavian sexpot (hee hee) Sonja Henie in her third Hollywood feature. Co-starring Don Ameche, Cesar Romero, Jean Hersholt, Ethel Merman, Billy Gilbert (uh oh...), Wally Vernon, Leah Ray, and El Brendel (jesus christ...), Happy Landing is the third Sonja Henie movie I've reviewed in as many weeks, and so far, I'd say it's the best of the three (Sun Valley Serenade is still far and away the best of all her movies, but is that one sent to me to review? Noooooooooo...). Some truly impressive skating sequences here are combined with generally amusing romantic comedy bits--courtesy of that most-welcome trio of pros Romero, Ameche, and Merman--for a snappy, amusing trifle. No extras for this okay-looking black and white fullscreen transfer.
Big Apple bandleader, composer...and notorious womanizer, "Duke" Sargent (Cesar Romero), has big trouble on his hands. On the eve of his transatlantic flight to Paris, he's a no-show at the airport, where news reporters are impatiently waiting for an explanation from Duke's long-suffering manager, Jimmy Hall (Don Ameche). Jimmy suspects a dame's involvement, and sure enough, he tracks down Duke and finds him cozied up with shrill gold-digger, Flo Kelly (Ethel Merman), who's ready to spill the goods on Duke's affairs via a secretly-recorded record. Jimmy smashes the disc and spirits Duke off to the airport, where both fly off for Europe. However, weather conditions force the duo to overshoot the French capitol and crash-land in the small Norwegian town of Nordenscnolde, where an oblivious Duke immediately buffalos love-struck Trudy Ericksen (Sonja Henie), a hopeless romantic who has no idea Duke is just snowing her. Trudy's father, Lars (Jean Hersholt), doesn't know Duke's a cad, either; he mistakenly believes Duke intends to marry her--a dashed hope when Jimmy wises-up Duke and they both split for Paris. There, Duke reunites with Flo and they return to NYC, where love-sick Trudy finds them. Jimmy tries to convince Trudy that Duke's a heel, but when publicity hound Duke smells a story in Trudy's transatlantic love quest, he plays up to her again, creating even more confusion. Eventually, both Trudy and Jimmy split from Duke, with Jimmy promoting Trudy into a national skating sensation. Off the ice, though, Trudy can't decide between Jimmy or Duke.
According to my reference books, including Henie's biography, Happy Landing was a pivotal production in her Hollywood movie career. Her sophomore effort, 1937's Thin Ice, with real-life lover, Tyrone Power, was an even bigger hit than her debut, One in a Million, giving the headstrong, back-talking Henie more leverage in her personal war against her employer, Darryl F. Zanuck (she was ranked the 8th most-popular star with exhibitors that year; in 1938, she would place a remarkable 3rd). Such instant, overwhelming popularity gave Henie delusions of becoming a serious dramatic actress (she even laughably invoked Garbo's name as a bench mark for her acting ambitions). Consequently, she wanted her follow-up to Thin Ice to be a "serious" dramatic movie, with just one skating sequence as a concession to her fans--a crazy idea that Zanuck quite rightly immediately shot down. He wanted to keep the "Henie formula" exactly the same: lots of skating, songs, comedy bits and romance, with none of it taken seriously at all. Henie, a shark when it came to money matters, successfully squeezed Zanuck--something not many actors could claim--for more dough per picture; some reports put her fee at over $300,000 per picture at this point, with sizeable additional funds allocated for her choreography fee. However, in paying more, Zanuck, who simultaneously respected and despised Henie's financial acumen and independence--she was rich long before she signed up with Fox--solidified his own position in negotiations with the temperamental star, as well. Ignored were Henie's persistent pleas for expensive color photography (cheaper black and white only increased 20th's profits on her pictures), as well as her demands for more dramatic material, and her insistence on picking her own leading man--in Happy Landing's case, Ty Power, over studio-assigned (and cheaper) Don Ameche, whom she disliked intensely from their first feature, One in a Million (read Henie's bio to see why "Betsy" wanted "Jimmy" on the set...). Apparently, Zanuck enjoyed sticking it to Henie (maybe even that, too, some have suggested...), so keeping his top new male star, Ty Power, away from second-rate material, and refusing Henie his Technicolor budget used for Alice Faye's outings, as well as refusing to "upgrade" her vehicles to "serious" pictures, was not only smart business--"The public loves ice skating, thanks to Sonja Henie. They are interested in what she does with her feet, not her mouth,"--it also satisfied Zanuck's compulsive need to feel he was running her, and not the other way around.
Had Henie not had that common (and completely false) belief among so many stars (and unfortunately critics) that light romantic/comedic material was somehow inherently "inferior" to weightier drama, she would have welcomed more vehicles like Happy Landing. Scripted by Boris Ingster (Lang's Cloak and Dagger, TV's The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and Milton Sperling (Sun Valley Serenade, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, Merrill's Marauders, Battle of the Bulge), Happy Landing is agreeably full of funny one-liners, put over with real verve by Ameche (super-smooth, but visibly, and understandably, annoyed with Henie), Merman (impossibly young and slim...and still funny as hell), and particularly Romero, whom the more I see, the more I believe was one of the best light comedians around at that time (too bad he wasn't given better, more high-profile vehicles). Thankfully, Happy Landing's two potential problem spots--Billy Gilbert and El Brendel--are kept to the barest minimum (Gilbert's bit at the diner--re-purposed later in Henie's My Luck Star--is okay, but every time I see that grotesquely-grinning El Brendel with his "By Yumpin Yiminey!" crap, I look for the escape hatch). Happy Landing's storyline isn't believable for a moment--which is just fine for the genre--but critically, it's pushed through at a snappy pace by no-nonsense pro director, Roy Del Ruth (Kid Millions, Broadway Melody of 1938, On Moonlight Bay). For the first time in a Sonja Henie picture, the off-the ice material is pretty closely equal to the on-ice bits (the remarkable War Dance of the Wooden Indians jazz number by composer Raymond Scott, shot with snazzy pre-Fantasia expressionism by Del Ruth, could alone be worth the admission price here).
As for those skating sequences, they're terrific. By this point, Henie was working closely with choreographer Harry Lossee to push past the boundaries of what the studio thought was possible to do on the ice, and in Happy Landing, Henie and Lossee reach a new artistic peak--particularly during the first full-scale "Winter Carnival" skating sequence. Shot on an absolutely huge indoor set (the cameras seem to be set back a mile to encompass the full scale of the set), dominated by two massive-sized snowmen, Henie skates around the ice while over 80 skaters fill in the background, some descending onto the ice from an enormous ramp, armed with torches. As the barbaric music crescendos, the speed of her skating intensifies, as the shots become more and more frenetic, until the two snowmen are wheeled into a hand-clasping embrace. It's a visually stunning set piece, with a delightfully weird, oversized, even overbearing insistence to it that's fascinating (no wonder Hitler and the Nazis loved Henie's movies; slap swastikas on those gigantic fascist snowmen and you've got Nuremberg on Ice! here). The remaining skating sequences can't compete with that opener's epic feel; the later montage sequence showing Henie becoming a skating star is a bit sloppy, incoherently utilizing stock footage from the previous Henie opus, One in a Million...including that Henie character's performance at the Olympics (when did Happy Landing's little Trudy compete in the Olympics???). However, there's a fun wrap-up at the end, including a too-brief scene showing the four principles powering around the rink at high speed, the three amateurs gamely trying to keep up with Henie (Ameche alternately looks quite pleased with himself...and absolutely terrified). Equal parts amiable romantic musical comedy and skating extravaganza, Happy Landing scores on all counts.
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.