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Everyone always complains about Hollywood circa 20?? as representing the lowest level of motion picture pandering ever attempted by the industry. They point to niche filmmaking, selective superstardom, the endless desire to repeat successful film formulas, and remake everything in sight, claiming that, "in the good old days," stuff like this was wholly unacceptable. Apparently, someone needs a refresher course in the ways of the Town of Tinsel way back when. Decades ago, long before there were umpteen sequels, franchises milking all the money it can out of an eager and gullible public, the movie biz still understood what side of its bread the butter was banking on. How else can you explain the 30 plus movies made with swimmer turned star Esther Williams, or the 15 films made with Norwegian figure skater (and World Champion) Sonja Heine? With TV still a populist pipe dream, the studios knew what the public wanted and it was more and more of these fetching female athletes. Of course, that doesn't excuse the routine ridiculousness of something like Iceland. For her part, Ms. Williams had a wonderful onscreen presence. Ms. Heine, on the other hand, should have stayed on the ice.
Our story centers around America's occupation of the title country during World War II. Stationed there is a bachelor Marine named James Murfin (John Payne) and soon he is making eyes at a local girl named Katina (Heine). What our hero doesn't know is that her family is hurting for money and there is a man who will provide a handsome dowry for her younger sister. Sadly, custom dictates that Katina marry first, and she cannot stand the man (Sterling Holloway) who is always asking for her hand. Hoping to fool her parents, she makes them believe that Capt. Murfin has made the necessary advances to indicate an impending marriage. Naturally, our lead wants nothing to do with this pseudo-shotgun arrangement, and with the help of his boisterous best buddy Slip Riggs (Jack Oakie), he plots to get out of his premarital predicament once and for all. Of course, love soon enters the picture.
This is gonna sound a bit strange, and follow me here for a moment, but the movie that Iceland most reminds one of is... Rock 'N' Roll High School. No, The Ramones don't show up to save the day and there's no Arctic equivalent of Miss Evelyn Togar to contend with. But that famous 1979 punk rock musical provided the perfect big screen scenario for the "bruddas from Queens" to function in - 'us vs. them' plot, burgeoning romance subplot, and lots of opportunities for the celluloid gimmick - the band - to shine. In this case, Ms. Heine is a '40s equivalent of Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Marky, her purpose to look pretty, recite her lines, and then skate the skit out of each one of her musical numbers. Just like Ms. Williams and her aquacade shenanigans, Ms. Heine is all about the frozen properties of water and when she's streaking along (usually to the sounds of bandleader Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra) the movie makes its point crystal clear. Forget the plot. Forget the superficial characters. Ignore the oddball antics and uneven performances. We going to give you a 10 time World Champion, three time Olympic Champ and you're going to like it.
Pretty ingenious when you think about it. Ms. Heine is a nice enough presence away from the rink, but just like how Allan Arkush knew not to feature the Ramones reading Shakespeare, 20th Century Fox knew to keep her in her element and everything should be okay. If there are problems here, it's in the era of the skating stars career. In 1942, Henie was 30, and she already had 10 film appearances under her belt. The previous entry, Sun Valley Serenade had been a monster hit, and so we get the same male costar (John Payne) and the inclusion of another famous dance band (it was Glenn Miller before). Serenade had a very young Milton Bearle and Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers singing and tap dancing their asses off to "Chattanooga Choo-Choo." Yes, there's lots of music here to (Ms. Heine has to have something to skate to) but it's never quite as memorable (when was the last time you heard someone singing "You Can't Say No to a Soldier" or "Let's Bring New Glory to Old Glory"). Iceland can't live up to previous entries in the star's canon. Add in the stale story and situations and you've got a recipe for one thing and one thing only - MORE ICE SKATING!!!
For a film that's over 70 years old, Iceland doesn't look half bad. The 1.33:1 full screen image has a nice balance between the blacks and the whites, though there is a bit too much grey in the mix. Also, the transfer is not as sharp as some would like. The Dolby Digital Mono delivers the dialogue well while the sound is a tad compressed, considering the recording limitations of the time. As with most On Demand discs from the 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives collection, there are no bonus features to speak of. Just the movie.
Sonja Heine was already guaranteed a place in history before Hollywood came calling. You can't do what she did on the field of competition - even if it is figure skating - and not be remembered for your efforts. With her filmography considered as well, we wind up with an athlete who tried her hand at acting, and for the most part, made everyone involved - audiences, investors, studio suits - happy. Iceland won't be for everyone, that's why a Rent It is the final assessment. This way, you can decide if you love such defiantly niche hijinx or would rather watch Shaq emote in Kazaam or Steel again. Let's face it - Hollywood has always hoped on whatever bandwagon would make it money. With her ice gliding gimmickry, Sonja Heine is one of the most amazing examples of this concept ever.
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