' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Sun Valley Serenade (1941)

Friday, February 07, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Sun Valley Serenade (1941)

"Stall for time." This is what Nifty Allen (Milton Berle), publicist of The Dartmouth Troubadors, tells the band leader, Phil Corey (Glenn Miller), upon realization their pianist, Ted Scott (John Payne), is still schussing all over a Sun Valley mountain in advance of a performance. So, Phil calls for "The Chattanooga Choo Choo" and they proceed to play it. All of it. The whole damn thing, complete with a mid-song choreographed dance. This is to say, the film actively shows the stall for time. Which is to also say, "Sun Valley Serenade" comes across wholly as a stall for time, a means to delay for upwards of eighty minutes until it can finally finagle a way to get its star - Sonja Henie - into a skating extravaganza finale.


On the strength of the Union Pacific Railroad, Sun Valley became the first destination ski resort in the United States in 1936. As such, “Sun Valley Serenade” evokes a distinct “Blue Hawaii” vibe in the way that the latter Elvis film allowed for Hawaii to be shown off only a couple years after its entry to the union to the rest of America cinematically. Significant action in “Sun Valley Serenade” takes place on its slopes, switching back and forth from stunt doubles on real powder to our stars on skis in front of rear projectors. There is also all manner of delightful second unit photography, showcasing the white-capped peaks and countryside, highlighted by a sleigh ride with an obligatory sing-along. No doubt to a 1941 audience this was a real thrill, an opportunity to see with your own eyes a place of which you had only read.

Of course, they were likely trekking to the theater to see Sonja as much as snow. Henie was an immaculate Norwegian figure skating star of the 20's and 30's. She scored three consecutive gold medals, at St. Moritz in 1928, Lake Placid in 1932 and Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936. Ultimately, however, she yearned to be a star in Hollywood and because she had taken the Olympic Oath which stipulates participating in "the true spirit sportsmanship" which in Olympic-ese essentially translates to "not getting paid", she eventually reneged her amateur status and struck out for stardom.

"Sun Valley Serenade" was not her first film but it is the first Henie film I have seen, and I venture a guess that the formula for H. Bruce Humberstone’s film hews quite closely to other Henie productions. Gather a group of recognizable names, center the film around their requisite talents and fill in the blanks with “story”. For instance, if Glenn Miller is in your film, and it’s his first film in a main role, you don’t necessarily want him delivering pithy monologues. No, you want him doing what he does, leading his band, and so the first ten minutes, more or less, is Miller’s band playing with a voluptuous singer, Vivian Dawn (Lynn Bari). In other words, “Sun Valley Serenade” sets aside the plot before the plot has even started.


This, however, is employed as a bridge to the plot, wherein Miller and his band are hired to accompany Vivian Dawn to the Sun Valley Ski Resort in Idaho for a gig. Then the film remembers its star is actually Sonja Henie, not Glenn Miller or Lynn Bari, and so, suddenly, Ted Scott, pianist extraordinaire, recalls to his slight chagrin that he has agreed to sponsor a war refugee. The refugee is a Norwegian woman in the form of Henie – Karen Benson – who was forced to flee Oslo when her father was killed. In spite of such tragedy, she is almost insistently wonder-eyed, but also sort of frighteningly insistent on walking down the aisle. Because when Ted asks what her “plan” is, she replies to find a man and get married. That’s it. That’s her whole life plan. Sonja Henie, athletic innovator and self-made millionaire, is reduced to her marital status. Sigh.

And for reasons that mystify me, she immediately decides Ted is the man she wants to marry. I mean, I get it. She wants to marry Ted because he’s played by John Payne and John Payne is billed at the top of the poster along with Sonja Henie. But the dude seems a little un-pizzazy for her. Maybe she coulda looked around a little more? And besides, he’s seeing Vivian Dawn, and they plan to get married even though he only just met in the movie’s first scene. So when Karen tags along with The Dartmouth Troubadors to Sun Valley and actively pursues Ted anyway, she’s kind of being portrayed as a pre-home homewrecker. Right?

Nevertheless…..Karen and Ted MUST unite, and so they will as she impresses him with her skills on the slopes and craftily rigs it so that she and Ted will have to spend a night alone in a mountainside cabin where a pillow fight becomes perhaps the fluffiest deus ex machina in movie history. Ted breaks up with Vivian and Ted decides to marry Karen, and Vivian gets mad and abandons the show and Karen saves the show with a few ice skating tricks. This might make it sound as if things turned out a bit unfair for poor Vivian, but ultimately she turns out to be nothing more than another Sonja Henie rival lined up and ready to be vanquished.

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