' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Wintertime (1943)

Friday, February 21, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Wintertime (1943)

As a self-professed (problematic) Olympics junkie, figure skating is a sport that in many ways encompasses this particular Olympics junkie’s obsession. It’s a sport to which I admittedly pay no attention for four years. Then suddenly, in an Olympic year, I become a proponent of the Triple Lutz (confession: I still have no idea what a Lutz is, and I kind of never want to know) and become wholly invested in the plight of men and women wearing sequins and wearing fake smiles the size of a Buick. Of course, eventually the competition ends, and when it does the skaters all return to the ice for a non-competitive exhibition, sort of an Ice Capades Sponsored By The IOC (International Olympic Committee). I, however, never watch the non-competitive exhibition, and I never watch it because nothing is at stake. (Figure Skating purists now have permission to pelt me with rotten fruit.)

Stakes is one of film criticism’s buzzwords. The higher the stakes, the more urgent the narrative, the more involved the viewer, or some such. But stakes, I would submit, are relative. For instance, a movie can about be about a plot to take the Vice President hostage at the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals and, yet, if the filmmaking is inadequate and the casting doesn't hit it may feel as if nothing more than the outcome of a 4th of July hotdog eating contest is at stake (see: “Sudden Death”). On the other hand, if the filmmaking is up to snuff and you cast the right actors, then simply moving a bottle of liquor between rooms can come to matter as much as life itself (see: "To Have and Have Not").

There is a curious moment in “Wintertime” when a Norwegian millionaire named Ostgaard (S.Z. Sakall) learns his vast sums of money cannot be wired to him in Canada because his homeland has just been invaded by the Nazis. Well, then. It’s not simply a smack-in-the-face reminder of the world in which “Wintertime” was set, but an unfortunate indicator of just how much the drama lags.

Actually, drama might not be the right word. Rather than act as “drama”, “Wintertime” is more like wannabe French Canadian Bedroom Farce. In doors, out of doors, up the stairs, down the stairs, and  because the setting is almost exclusively a resort, this even allows for mischief wherein one character on a balcony is looking for or hollering at another character that is just below the balcony. There are so many misunderstandings and bamboozlements and ruses and so many romantic pairing-offs (whether legitimate or for personal gain) it is nearly impossible to track who is with who when unless you’re taking notes (which I wasn’t). This is one of those films in which plot is everything and nothing at once – as in, describing the plot, the comings and goings, the doings and dealings, could take upwards of ten to twelve paragraphs, but none of it has to do with anything. This is, of course, a Sonja Henie film, and a ice-skating she must (and will) go.

TCM offers a ten-sentence breakdown of “Wintertime’s” production and, frankly, it sounds as dizzying as the film’s Tilt-A-Whirl of love affairs. The film had five writers and two directors, Brahm giving way to Archie Mayo specifically for the ice skating sequences (shades of Irwin Allen only handling action sequences). The cinematographers are credited as Joe MacDonald and Glen MacWilliams, except production charts, it seems, also grant cinematography credit to Charles Clarke and to James Van Trees who filled in when Joe MacDonald fell ill. A Johnny Johnson assisted second unit director Otto Brower, though Johnson’s exact contributions are unknown. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s five writers, two directors, two second unit directors, and four cinematographers. Oh, and Sonja Henie needed a new screen skating partner when her initial screen skating partner was drafted mid-production.

Thus, it only seems an inevitable that “Wintertime” would feel so herky-jerky and unfinished, establishing the primary plot point as Quebec’s Chateau Promenade being faced with foreclosure until figure skating champion Nora (Henie) and her uncle, the aforementioned Norwegian millionaire Ostgaard turn up as guests. Sensing that Ostgaard’s millions could be the resort’s savior, schemes emerge to enlist the aid of Ostgaard and Nora.

It’s all a bit like watching that old SNL sketch where Nancy Kerrigan is made to ice skate with Chris Farley. The production itself and the scattershot story lumber and stumble like Farley while Henie comports herself with as much grace as the situation allows, likely wondering what she’s gotten herself into. She would only make two more films after “Wintertime.” Perhaps this spurred her toward deciding she’d had enough.

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