Welcome to the Sonja Henie Fan Club newsletter.... 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Thin Ice, the 1937 ice skating comedy from Fox starring the one and only Sonja Henie, with most welcome
The Alps' Grand Hotel Imperial in St. Christophe has a big problem: "the season" is already three weeks old, and the temperature is 82 degrees out...and no amount of phony Al Gore "carbon credits" is going to make it snow. In desperation, the harried hotel manager, Krantz (Melville Cooper), agrees to book 81 rooms and three suites when Nottingham (Arthur Treacher), the personal valet of Prince Rudolph (Tyrone Power), calls to book an international conference for the impending "Three Power" pact signing, lying to Nottingham that they do indeed have snow. Nottingham asks this because young, dashing Rudolph would rather ski than do anything...that is, until he gets an eyeful of pint-sized skating instructor, Lili Heiser (Sonja Henie), who takes an instant liking to the handsome Rudolph (Rudolph has been sent to the conference instead of the Prime Minister, played by Sig Ruman, to stall and halt negotiations between the other two Powers). Meeting Lili by accident on the slopes, the Prince passes himself off as "Rudy Miller," a reporter there for the conference. Complications ensue when Lili is dropped off one night by her nominal boyfriend, Alex (George Givot), in the Prince's car...which is chauffeured by Alex's cousin. Noisy neighbors who see Lili blow a kiss to the unseen "Prince" immediately start whispering about a romance, and an international scandal breaks out, with only Lili unaware of it. Soon, she's the toast of the hotel, with the formerly cranky-now-groveling Krantz giving her her own skating exhibition for the guests, while the Baron and Count (Alan Hale, Maurice Cass) from the other two Powers try and wheedle information out of her as to why the Prince is stalling the negotiations. Will Lili and the Prince marry, before the two rival Powers unite against the Prince's country?
As I wrote in my previous Sonja Henie reviews, Henie, a three-time Olympic champion and ten-time World Champion skater, has often been credited with single-handedly popularizing ice skating as a mainstream sport in America. Turning professional in 1936, and coming to America to stage her ice extravaganzas across the country, Henie made it clear to 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 positive publicity that spawned a bidding war for her services between the major studios, eventually garnering 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 on screen (apparently, hard-nosed Henie at this point in her life craved money and sex above all else). 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, 1936's One in a Million, scored big at theaters. But when Thin Ice made even more money, shooting Henie up from 8th to 3rd most popular movie star in 1938, according to the yearly exhibitor's poll, it was clear the novelty of watching someone ice skate on the screen had staying power.
An innocuous, paper-thin frozen frippery, Thin Ice's production problems sound far more interesting than what finally appeared on screen. Originally entitled Lovely to Look At, Henie's sophomore effort found the Norwegian star feeling the full weight of her celebrity when she insisted to Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck that her current lover Tyrone Power be her next co-star (Henie's national ice shows, following One in a Million's release, were pulling in vast crowds...and putting even more coin into the already-wealthy Henie's pockets). Zanuck, not exactly known for being bullied by the "help," had wanted Michael Whelan or Don Ameche to co-star (no-nonsense Henie dismissively stated, "Ameche is colder than a sardine in the wintertime!" to the dumbstruck mogul). Power had just finished his star-making Lloyds of London, and Zanuck was loath to let Power waste his follow-up vehicle on some nothing role in a crappy Sonja Henie skating movie. The resulting showdown, with a bejeweled, fur-draped Henie walking out on an intractable Zanuck ("Teach Shirley Temple how to skate!" was her final rejoinder), was a confrontation already won by Henie, since the only leverage Zanuck had with his usually rags-to-riches stars--his threat to deny them money and fame--was an empty one to the world famous, independently wealthy Henie. So Power was eventually announced as her co-star (which is exactly what the charming, calculating Power wanted, by the way...), putting the already curious press into a feeding frenzy over the lovers' now-intersecting professional lives. Once production started, Henie was no less demanding, keeping Power in her dressing room, according toThin Ice's screenwriter, Milton Sperling, for extended sex sessions (that's the Sonja Henie I like...), and continuing her battle with Zanuck, even to the point of extorting first $25,000 from Zanuck when he called for an additional skating sequence after the movie wrapped...followed by another $5,000 when the shooting for that sequence went a day over--a situation almost unheard of with tiny terror Zanuck.
Alas...nothing on-screen in Thin Ice is nearly as interesting as all that sturm und drang. Screenwriters Sperling (Henie's Happy Landing, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, Merrill's Marauders, Battle of the Bulge) and Boris Ingster (Happy Landing, the pinko Song of Russia, TV's The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) concoct a scattershot, featherweight Ruritanian romantic farce of mistaken identities amid non-descript political intrigue...none of which matters a whit since the viewer is focusing on the inserted songs, comedy bits, and of course, Henie's skating. Comic reliefs Arthur Treacher and Joan Davis do what they can (she has a couple of showy numbers, including a funny slip-sliding dance, My Swiss Hilly Billy), while the marvelous Raymond Walburn (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Hail the Conquering Hero, State of the Union) gets a laugh every time he delivers a line--amusingly written or not-with that wonderfully cartoony rasp of a voice he has here. As for Henie's insistence on having Ty Power co-star, I see no indication of a particularly "special" on-screen chemistry between the two (maybe the kids should have saved it for the cameras...). Power, light and amusing and agile with comedy as he always was, is distractingly better-looking than the stolid Henie--an imbalance I'm not sure is ideal for screwball romantic comedy. Still...as always with these Henie extravaganzas, the skating's the thing, anyway, and in Thin Ice, it mostly delivers--if a tad too infrequently (this Henie outing definitely needed more ice time). According to what I've read, Zanuck specifically instructed the director, Sidney Lanfield (The Hound of the Baskervilles, My Favorite Blonde, The Lemon Drop Kid), who helmed Henie's first movie, to cut back as much dialogue written for Henie as possible while shooting. It's easy to see why, considering her way around a line; the Scandinavian Irene Dunne or Jean Arthur she ain't. However...I never saw those two icons skate in a movie, either, so, as long as Henie stays frosty, she's dynamite. A movie star doesn't have to do anything more or less than what his or her fans require, and in Thin Ice, despite all the superfluous filigree, Henie delivered on those fans' expectations.
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.