I saw every Sonja Henie film so you don’t have to

April 24, 2020

With the biopic, Sonja: The White Swan on SBS on Demand, Stephen Vagg decided to watch every movie that featured the Norwegian ice skating champion turned Hollywood actress.

Sonja Henie is one of those novelty athletes-turned-stars who could have only thrived in the Golden Years of Hollywood. Like Johnny Weismuller and Esther Williams, she became internationally famous in the sporting arena, moved into live shows, then was plucked up by the movies. She was signed to a contract by 20th Century Fox who devoted a lot of time, effort and money into showcasing her in a series of vehicles that hid her limitations and promoted her attributes.

She made nine films at Fox, then two for International Pictures (the latter when it merged into Universal-International). All of them have high production values, excellent music and strong support casts. The quality of the scripts varies. Henie skates well but remained a limited actor throughout her career. Sometimes she was quite engaging; other times she seemed like a smug selfish Nazi.

According to the biography Queen of the Ice: Queen of Shadows, Henie wasn’t a terribly nice person in real life, avoiding tax, smuggling money, offering minimal help to the Norwegian resistance during the war, stealing towels and bath mats from hotels, lusting after diamonds, and descending into alcoholism. In the credit column, she worked hard, was ambitious, throve in adversity, had a lot of sex and was fantastic on the ice. Several skaters tried to copy her success – Belita, Vera Ralston – but none of them came near Henie.

If you’re interested in trying a bit of Henie, I’ve whipped up a table with the key information for all of her films.

The Films of Sonja Henie
Title Year Love interest Supports Concept Weird stuff Verdict
One in a Million 1936 Don Ameche as a reporter Adolphe Menjou (manager), Jean Hersholt (SH’s dad), Ned Sparks (comic relief), The Ritz Brothers, Borrah Minevitch and his Harmonica Rascals. Menjou discovers a Swiss girl and wants to turn her into a skating star but she wants to be in the Olympics. SH’s character competes at the 1936 Berlin Olympics where in real life Henie famously did the Nazi salute to Adolf Hitler. The plot concerns amateur status of Olympic athletes. A grab bag of a movie. Plays like a variety show with a whole collection of acts. Fascinating to see how they protect SH.
Thin Ice 1937 Tyrone Power as a prince Arthur Treacher, Joan Davis (comic relief), Sig Ruman. Ski instructor SH falls for Power, not realising that he’s a prince. SH and Power had an affair in real life and had nicknames for his penis and her vagina. Power has weird make up. Very light but fun.
Happy Landings 1938 Don Ameche as a manager Cesar Romero (band leader & fake love interest), Ethel Merman (singer), Jean Hersholt (SH’s dad), The Condos Brothers. Ameche and Romero crash land in Norway. SH falls for Romero and stalks him in New York, then falls for Ameche. The plane crashes in Norway flying New York to Paris. SH’s character falls in love because a psychic tells her. Great fun. Very strong cast.
My Lucky Star 1938 Richard Greene, as a college student. Cesar Romero (playboy & fake love interest), Buddy Ebsen (comic relief), Joan Davis (comic relief), Arthur Treacher, Gypsy Rose Lee (enemy). SH is hired by Romero to wear a lot of different clothes at a college. It’s set at a college, which seems to be mostly a winter resort. Silly story. Poor male lead – Greene acts  like an army officer doing amateur theatricals. Great skating.
Second Fiddle 1939 Tyrone Power as a Hollywood publicist. Rudy Vallee (movie star & fake love interest), Edna Mae Oliver, Mary Healy SH is a Minnesota school teacher plucked to play the lead in a film after a Scarlet O’Hara like search. The absurd idea SH would be cast in the lead of a non-skating film. SH falls in love with Rudy Vallee because she’s told to. Dumb central idea. Poor.
Everything Happens at Night 1939 Ray Milland and Bob Cummings, both playing rival journos. You’re never sure who she’s going to end up with. Maurice Moscovitch (her father). Milland and Cummings track down SH’s dad who is hiding from the Nazis in Switzerland. Feels like the one SH film not originally devised for SH. Gloomy, almost film noir treatment. Interesting. Different SH movie. Strong male leads.
Sun Valley Serenade 1941 John Payne as a band pianist. Lynn Bari (the bitch), Milton Berle (manager), Joan Davis (comic relief), The Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Nicholas Brothers, Dorothy Dandridge. Payne’s manager arranges for him to adopt a Norwegian war orphan and discovers that it’s SH. One of two film appearances by Glenn Miller. Also has Nicholas Brothers and Dandridge. Very pro-refugee. SH is particularly smug in this one but everything else is fantastic. Brilliant support cast. Glenn Miller novelty. Divine Bari and Nicholas brothers.
Iceland 1942 John Payne, as a US soldier. Jack Oakie (comic relief), Felix Bressart (father), Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra. US troops occupy Iceland and Payne accidentally romances SH. Iceland feels like it’s occupied by concert musicians. Confusing story. Iceland setting is novel.
Wintertime 1943 Cornel Wilde, as the co-owner of a winter resort. Cesar Romero (fake love interest), Carole Landis (friend), Jack Oakie (comic relief), Woody Herman and His Orchestra. SH and her Norwegian tycoon father come to Canada to buy a ski lodge. The film touches on the invasion of Norway and uses it as a plot point. Set in Canada. Good fun. Great work again from Romero. Landis good fun. SH skates on black ice.
It’s a Pleasure 1945 Michael O’Shea, an Irish American who had a brief vogue in the ‘40s as a leading man. He plays an alcoholic, possibly physically  abusive ice hockey player. Marie McDonald, Iris Adrian, someone called Bill Johnson. SH is a skater at Madison Square Garden who is in love with ice hockey player O’Shea and turns him into an ice skating revue star. SH tries melodrama. Does a dance number. SH and O’Shea make jokes about husbands hitting wives. The only SH movie in colour. Johnson keeps a secret from SH for two years for no good reason. SH given too much acting to do. Melodrama plots do not suit her.
The Countess of Monte Cristo 1948 Michael Kirby, a real life skater who was an okay actor, as an army lieutenant. Olga San Juan, Dorothy Hart, Arthur Treacher, Hugh French. SH is a Norwegian barmaid who pretends to be a countess to have a fun weekend. They hired a real skater to appear opposite SH and he hardly ever skates. This is one of her best movies and it flopped. A surprising delight. Olga San Juan is terrific. Breezy, fun, silly.

Check out Sonja: The White Swan on SBS on Demand

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Comments

  1. Anja

    Did you understand the plot of Second Fiddle? It s ironic. It s a satire. Even her love interst is a satire….. i think it s better than Thin Ice

  2. Rich

    If you watch Thin Ice, about 5 minutes in you will discover that SH’s character is the hotel “skating instructress” according to the hotel manager, not a ski instructor as reported at imbd.com.

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