Welcome to Sonja Henie's official website.... 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Wintertime, the 1937 romantic comedy from Fox starring ice skating superstar Sonja Henie, with talented cast Jack Oakie, Cesar Romero (always welcome), Carole Landis, S.Z. Sakall, Cornel Wilde, and Woody Herman and His Orchestra lending support. Henie's penultimate movie with Fox, Wintertime continues to beat the "Sonja Henie" formula into the ground, with the exact same results: excellent skating, some good isolated musical and comedy bits...wrapped up in a tired, overly familiar package. No extras for this only-okay black and white transfer.
Operations at the declasse Chateau Promenade in the Canadian wilderness are about to be shut down for good, until co-owner Skip Hutton (Jack Oakie) staves off his creditors with a desperate plan: he's somehow managed to way-lay visiting Norwegian entrepreneur Hjalmar Ostgaard (S.Z. Sakall) and his amateur-class skating niece, Nora (Sonja Henie) from their intended destination--the swank Chateau Frontenac. Charming co-owner Freddy Austin (Cornel Wilde) hits it off with Nora, who agrees to Skip's plan of having Ostgaard buy 50% of the hotel, with the intent to spruce it up. That's good news for Woody Herman and His Orchestra, and singer Flossie Fouchere (Carole Landis), both of whom are owed back salaries. Ostgaard coming on board is bad news for the hotel's male vocalist, Brad Barton (Cesar Romero), who's instrumental in the deal going through: he had to be "fired" in order to rile up Ostgaard enough to buy the hotel. Now Brad skulks around the hotel, in disguise, while trying to woo heiress Nora...who's really in love with Freddy...who has to spend time with pretty, blonde journalist Marion Daley (Helene Reynolds) for the publicity...who has to...oh who cares. There's skating inbetween all of this.
I've written so much about Sonja Henie I feel like I'm part of the family (this is my fifth title and counting...). And as with those previous outings, Wintertime's behind-the-scenes stories seem far more intriguing than the safe, tired antics that wind up on the screen. As I wrote before, dealings between Henie and her employer, Darryl Zanuck, were always contentious at the very best of times. Henie, a worldwide celebrity and a millionaire before she ever stepped foot in front of Fox's movie cameras, simply didn't give a sh*t what Darryl Zanuck had to say when push came to shove over her career at the studio. By all accounts a shrewd, ballsy businesswoman (she even received gross profits from her movies--unheard of back then), Henie wasn't stupid; she knew her Fox movies were bringing in even more crowds to her successful ice shows, while helping to promote her numerous merchandizing tie-ins (where she really cleaned up). So she didn't walk out on her contract every single time she didn't get her own way; more often than not, though, she did win on points with her equally stubborn boss--a situation that the proud, controlling Zanuck absolutely hated. So much was Zanuck's enmity for Henie that when she was shooting 1941's Sun Valley Serenade (her best movie), with Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, Zanuck was convinced this was Henie's last movie for the studio (no doubt due to gradually decreasing audiences for her still-profitable outings). However, when Zanuck began to see the rushes from Serenade's location shoot, and once he started previewing a rough cut, he knew he had a huge hit on his hands. Suddenly it became imperative he sign Henie to a new contract, before another studio reaped the benefits of his hit.
Of course Henie knew this, too, and only the interception of Fox's respected (and feared) president, Joe Schenck, convinced her to sign on with Fox again for three more pictures. As expected, under the careful eye of director H. Bruce Humberstone, Sun Valley Serenade proved to be a smash with audiences (Glenn Miller's music certainly had more than a little to do with this), while the quick follow-up, Iceland, again directed by Humberstone, pulled in even more shekels. Wintertime, however, the second movie of her new contract, was in trouble from the start: Humberstone, who importantly respected Henie as a hard-working artist (the feeling, supposedly, was mutual with Henie), refused to direct Wintertime, stating the "terrible" script wasn't worthy of Henie's talents. Helmer John Brahm (Broken Blossoms, Penitentiary, Let Us Live, The Undying Monster), admittedly an odd choice for such light fare, was assigned the project (another bad sign: Archie Mayo stepped in for the final month's shooting), directing E. Edwin Moran's (Topper, The Kid From Brooklyn), Jack Jevne's (Topper Takes a Trip, Air Raid Wardens), and Lynn Starling's (The Cat and the Canary, Footlight Serenade) script. According to several sources, production problems arose immediately, with Henie unhappy about her wardrobe, her tightly-budgeted rehearsal time, and the limited number of skating sequences (and always with Zanuck, she battled--and lost--over getting Technicolor for Wintertime, while contemporaries Alice Faye and Betty Grable were soaked in it). Zanuck, apparently, wasn't happy with Wintertime's rushes, either, and in an effort to save more money--and maybe push hated Henie out for good--shut the picture down prematurely, axing several skating sequences.
Wintertime, like every single one of Henie's Fox outings, made money for the studio when it was released in early September of 1943, but it's clear by this second to last outing for Fox that the "Sonja Henie" formula, such as it is, has worn out its welcome. Henie may have indeed bested Zanuck in most of their small battles, but clearly, he won the war if by this point in her career she was still appearing in minor, repetitive work like Wintertime, designed only to wring every last cent from "novelty act" Henie. The silly plot elements of romantic misunderstandings and frantic financial double-dealings uncomfortably rubbing shoulders with talk of Norway's invasion (nobody says "Germans" or "Nazis," though...) and quota numbers for immigration to America, just don't mesh, leaving the Sonja Henie viewer yet again choosing his or her moments of entertainment out of the messy affair like a buffet diner trying to make sense out of a thoroughly picked-over salad bar. Individual scenes work, but the total is somehow off-putting because it's simultaneously calculating and so desultorily constructed. "Logic" or "character development" or just plain "context" are about the last things required of a screwball musical romantic farce, but Wintertime really pushes it past our tolerance for such perfidities of the genre (why are Oakie and Wilde partners? How did they become partners? Why does Woody Herman and Landis and Romero stay with them? Why would people flock to a Canadian hotel in the middle of nowhere...to see a Norwegian financier? Or his amateur-class ice skating niece? Where does Romero stay after he's been fired, hanging around the hotel? Who's paying him? And how is going to continue to perform there, with "Cuddles" hanging around? That's just a start to the inanities in Wintertime...).
The cast has its moments in Wintertime. It takes a few minutes to get used to Oakie's dated hard sell, until you warm up to him out of sheer respect for his not giving into this thankless role (he's going to muscle right through it like a pro). S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall isn't asked to do anything here he hadn't already done in a dozen other movies (with many more to come), but he's still great doing it (his whining "I want my cup of coffee!" bit is very funny). Cornel Wilde, a few years off from stardom in A Song to Remember, has nothing to do here (he disappears for big parts of the movie), while Woody Herman and His Orchestra probably make the biggest impact (again, another bad sign for Sonja) with some truly outstanding set pieces, including the lovely, lyrical Wintertime, filmed in sleighs (and process shots) at day-for-night Sun Valley, Idaho, and a rather remarkable Dancing in the Dawn, where director Brahm shows off his noir tendencies by silhouetting the performers in alternating spotlights, to electrifying effect (definitely the highlight of Wintertime). As a kid I only knew Cesar Romero from Batman and the Disney Dexter Riley movies, but he continues to charm me the more I see him in these regrettably disposable supporting roles. Whether singing with the gorgeous, funny Carole Landis (what a waste of talent...), or running around in his long johns (admittedly a funny climax to Wintertime...but also indicative of how desperate it all is), Romero steals every scene he's in (when Romero offers up his perfect profile for romantic inspection for Henie, I hit the floor...until Henie ruined the gag with her elephantine, "Vat's vrong vid heem?"). Whether it was the character requirements, or Henie's general demeanor by this point, her Nora comes off as snotty and charmless at first, and doesn't improve much with loving Wilde. She looks great in her furs and slinky dresses and her short shorts as she sashays around the ice (that black ice finale is a doozy, while the earlier Mountie-themed number is quite fun), but it's clear she's unhappy making Wintertime (that ever-present Henie smile is mostly A.W.O.L. here), and that can't help but translate to the audience. Only two more movies remained of her big screen career, before Sonja Henie abandoned Hollywood for good, neither one of them even as good as the middling Wintertime--a regrettable situation the smart, savvy...and maybe a tad too ballsy Henie, was unable to remedy.
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.