Sun Valley Serenade (1941) Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone. Sonja Henie, John Payne, Glenn Miller, Milton Berle, Lynn Bari, Joan Davis, The Nicholas Brothers, Dorothy Dandridge (86 min.)
This extremely strange movie uncovered from the depths of the movie vaults and discovered by me, is very weird and yet charming.
It's about a band that's stone broke and their publicity manager thinks that for the good of the press they should adopt a little refugee from another country and have pictures taken of them to show how kind the band is. Well, when the time comes for them to meet the refugee, it turns out to be Sonja Henie! They finally get a job in Sun Valley which at this time is covered by snow and ice. They plan to leave Sonja at the publicity manager's aunt's house, but she wants to tag along. By the way, she was a refugee from Norway, and she knows all about skiing and ice skating and everyone has a great time. Surprising to me was that it is more a skiing movie than an ice skating movie, since Sonja was an ice skater.
The way this movie landed in my lap was that I love Tom Tierney paper dolls and have memorized every costume in all 39 I have. One of them is Great Black Entertainers and one of the people in there is Dorothy Dandridge, who gets the best song and scene in the movie. She sings "Chattanooga Choo Choo" with the Nicholas Brothers. I saw a picture of her in the dress from the paper doll book in the AMC movie guide, and I asked moviediva to tape it for me and lo and behold another movie was discovered by me!
Most of the movie is taken up by a huge chase on skis. My dad, who loves skiing, insisted on me showing him this ski chase and pointed out several mistakes the skiiers were making. I don't know if they got the actual actors to do the skiing or got stunt men, although they probably did get stunt men.
This movie seems to have no purpose whatsoever. It is one of those movies where it is so odd it can't be put into words. And what is even odder is I like it, for no reason I can put my finger on.
Berle, Miller, Henie, Payne, Bari and the band
"I'm sorry I made Ted late," said Karen in a small voice, trying in vain to break the rapidly forming ice of the rehearsal room as Vivian continued to stare glacially at her.
(Moviediva adds: Sun Valley Serenade is one of those films made to showcase current hot performers with a bare wisp of a plot. The Glenn Miller Orchestra performs several musical numbers so their legions of fans could see the band and assign faces to the sound they loved on records. The band becomes a major plot point when a petulant girl singer throws a fit at being drowned out by an audition band...fortunately the creamy smoothness of that Miller tone will land them the job, instead. John Payne is supposedly the piano player, swaying his big shouldered suit unconvincingly at the keyboard. And, he should have taken the hint early on about Vivian Dawn's irritable behavior.
Sonja Henie is cute as a button, and who wouldn't love that Norwegian accent, taunting John Payne about being a "svekling" (softie)? She gets to wear one ravishing Travis Banton folkloric evening gown, although most of the rest of the film is spent in sports togs. She was a three time Olympic gold medalist, and virtually invented modern figuring skating. Although current Olympians have mastered more difficult jumps, her skating remains both a skillful and graceful athletic display.
John Payne has not yet been rediscovered, but he was immensely popular at the time. How do I know? Those young ladies assembling movie star scrapbooks in the early 1940s adored him. For every clipping of those stars now idolized, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper or Errol Flynn...there are 10 photos of John Payne, sometimes surrounded by little handwritten exclamations of love.
Ted had thought that taking a refugee baby would be a swell publicity stunt, but--
Young Milton Berle's shtick is complete; he is just as he is remembered on television in this film. The same mugging, cigar chewing and quips for nearly 100 years; that's staying power.
There is lots of breathtaking Ketchum and Sun Valley, Idaho scenery, but only the second unit and stand-ins made the trip. For all the lovingly photographed, gratuitous skiing scenes, and for all the plot machinations of little refugee Karen skiing her way into the hero's heart, it appears no star went on location. Sun Valley did, however have a long-standing reputation as a playground for the movie colony. And if you visit today, one of my correspondents informs me, the Sun Valley Lodge tv station plays Sun Valley Serenade around the clock.
Another correspondent wrote this charming memory of Sun Valley:
"Sun Valley Serenade was actually paid for by the Union Pacific Railroad Company and was made to promote the newly developed ski area. Union Pacific created several resorts around the west as a way to promote more tourism and use of their trains.
"It was originally a magical place and felt a million miles from civilization at the time. There was a small re - creation of a European town with shops, restaurants and a large ski dorm surrounding the skating rink featured in the film. Some distance away was Sun Valley Lodge set at the base of Mt Baldy, where the skiing was filmed for the movie. For a while Sun Valley Lodge was a world class restaurant and hotel.
"It was a tradition in Sun Valley to show the film in the small town every Friday afternoon in a small movie theatre next to the skating rink. I saw it twice, once in 1956 when the town was exactly the same as the day it was completed in the mid 1930's, and then again in 1978. My last visit to Sun Valley was 1982.
"Sadly the combination of time and global warming has taken its toll. The skiing is not so good there any more as the conditions are somewhat to dry and warm and the development throughout that area has reduced the place to mediocrity, and no longer worth a visit. One has to go to Russia or Alaska now to find anything comparable."
The musical highlight of the film is, as MD jr. says, "Chattanooga Choo-Choo." The chorus sung by saucy Miss Dandridge and the astonishing Nicholas Brothers is filmed so it could be cut out by those Southern movie houses choosing not to highlight African-American performers. It would be a few years still until Gene Kelly danced with the Nicholas Brothers in The Pirate, so the routine could not be cut without removing the film's star.)
(Photos from anonymous movie star scrapbook)