Monday, March 10, 2008

Ice Castles

Sonja Henie, seen here with Adolphe Menjou in her first feature film One in a Million, is the Norwegian figure skater who won gold medals at the Olympics in 1928, 1932, and 1936. At the time, the Olympics were strictly for amateurs, so she decided to make some money skating by coming over to Hollywood, where she was signed to a contract by Twentieth Century-Fox. She made a string of movies that were reasonable entertainment but nothing that would be considered truly great; if you wish to judge for yourself you can watch her in Sun Valley Serenade, March 14 at 6:00 AM ET on the Fox Movie Channel.

But this isn't really a thread about Henie; instead it's a look at Hollywood's derivative and copycat nature that existed even back in the 1930s. The executives at MGM saw what Fox was doing with Sonja Henie, and wanted to make money of their own by making skating movies. So what did they do? They put on the Ice Follies of 1939, which TCM is airing Tuesday, March 11, at 7:45 AM. MGM contract player Joan Crawford (stop laughing; if you think the idea of Crawford on ice skates is bad, wait until you see what's coming next!) is on skates in what must be the most original plot since 42nd Street: she's married to a fellow skater, played by James Stewart (See? -- I told you there was more!). Into their lives walks another skater (Lew Ayres), whose presence causes their marriage to become strained as Stewart and Ayres become romantic rivals. It's all ended with a Technicolor scene involving the three stars, and every ice follies player not under contract to another studio the MGM bosses could find.

You might remember Lew Ayres for his Oscar-nominated role in Johnny Belinda. And perhaps it would have been more interesting if TCM had put the cast of Johnny Belinda on ice instead. I can only imagine Jane Wyman gesticulating wildly out on the ice, and poor old Agnes Moorhead struggling to maintain her balance.

Ice Follies of 1939 is not available on DVD, and probably won't be until the owners of the MGM library decide to put out a completist retrospective of the MGM careers of either Crawford or Stewart.

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