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William A. Seiter
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ONE IN A MILLION (20th Century-Fox, 1936), directed by Sidney Lanfield, started a new dimension to the movie musical, dancing on ice. It's been said that if Fred Astaire can use dancing shoes, why not one doing the same on ice skates? So marked the motion picture debut of three time Olympic figure skating champion, Sonja Henie (1913-1969) in her adult Shirley Temple, dimple-smiling, curly blonde hair likeness. Though she's the main attraction, acquiring plenty of camera range close-ups, Henie has stiff competition contending with specialty acts incorporated into the plot as the wacky antics of Harry, Jimmy and Al, better known as The Ritz Brothers; Borrah Minevitch ("Javoh") and his harmonica playing rascals; the vocalizing of Leah Ray, and the amiable presence of the up-and-coming Don Ameche, sans mustache, shortly before achieving top leading man status for the studio.
Rather than presenting a biographical story of the Norweigian born Henie playing herself, followed by struggles and accomplishments leading to her Olympic skating success, the Leonare Praskins and Mark Kelly screenplay uses a thin ice story centering upon a struggling all girl orchestra troupe traveling through Europe by train lead by quick thinking Thadius "Tad" Spencer (Adolphe Menjou) and his sassy younger wife, Billie (Arline Judge). Arriving in Switzerland for their upcoming engagement, the troupe encounters some bad luck when the Grand Palace Hotel, where they're supposed to be staying and performing, has burned down. With no upcoming jobs in the horizon, they venture over towards a nearby inn run by Heinrich Muller (Jean Hersholt) and his young attractive daughter, Greta (Sonja Henie). Though initially having only one guest, Ratoffsky (Montagu Love), a mysterious man keeping only to himself, the inn is soon filled with forthcoming guests as Bob Harris (Don Ameche), an American reporter from the Paris Herald, and his ace photographer, Daniel Simpson (Ned Sparks), on an assignment. Learning that Muller, a former ice skating champion in the 1908 Olympics with controversy linked to his name, has been training Greta since childhood for the upcoming 1936 Olympics, Spencer schemes his way for some easy money to help pay the bill by promoting Greta's name while Bob comes upon some disturbing news that might disqualify the young ice skater from fulfilling her father's dream in competing.
Capitalizing on both the Henie name and the 1936 Olympics, the simple story contains a handful of agreeable new tunes that extend a 60 minute screenplay into a 94 minute production. With music and lyrics by Sidney D. Mitchell and Lew Pollack, the musical interludes consist of: "One in a Million" (sung by Leah Ray); Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home" (sung by The Ritz Brothers); "The Moonlight Waltz" (instrumental, skated by Sonja Henie and ensemble); "We're Back in Circulation Again" (sung by Dixie Dunbar, Adolphe Menjou, Sonja Henie, cast); "Lovely Lady in White" (instrumental/skating by Henie); "The Horror Boys from Hollywood: Karloff, Laughton and Lorre" (The Ritz Brothers); "Who's Afraid of Love?" (sung by Leah Ray and Don Ameche); "One in a Million" (six minute harmonica specialty by Borrah Minevitch and his Rascals); "Lovely Lady in White" (instrumental number skated by Henie); "The Skating Waltz," and Georges Bizet's "The Toreador Song" (both with the Ritz Brothers); and "One in a Million" (sung by chorus, skated by Henie).
With the title tune getting enough reprises to score a hit, it's interesting to note there was different song titled "One in a Million" by Jack Scholl introduced to the screen by Ross Alexander in a minor Warner Brothers comedy, GOING HIGHBROW (1935). In fact, there was even a very recent programmer titled ONE IN A MILLION (Chesterfield, 1935) starring Dorothy Wilson, but it's this edition of ONE IN A MILLION that became the big event of the season. The ice skating ensembles choreographed by Jack Haskell is quite eye-filling, with the introductory number somewhat influenced by the imaginative Busby Berkeley.
Almost forgotten today as the Sonie Henie name herself, ONE IN A MILLION became a handful of Henie musicals (1936-1943) distributed by 20th Century-Fox Home Video during the 1990s. Cable television presentations to ONE IN A MILLION have consisted of the USA Channel (late 1980s); American Movie Classics (1993-94); and eventually the Fox Movie Channel. For being the first ice skating musical, it still gets by for Henie enthusiasts as one in a million. (***1/2 Olympic trophies)
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