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Sonja Henie who was the Olympic figure skating champion for three
straight Olympics turned professional in 1936 and got thousands of
offers. In addition to her own ice shows, movie offers came her way,
all the studios wanted her. She signed with Darryl F. Zanuck.
Beneath her sparkling personality was a shrewd businesswoman who knew her value. Because she was a star and had other venues she negotiated with Mr. Zanuck as an equal and 20th Century Fox paid dearly for her services. I saw an interview with co-star Cesar Romero who marveled at the way dealt with Zanuck as so few other players had the wherewithal to do the same.
What also has to be remembered is that Ms. Henie was more than a star athlete. Norway had only been independent after several hundred years since 1905. Her exploits on the ice probably made her the most known Norwegian in the world. She was a national treasure.
It got harder and harder to work her ice routines into film as the years went on. But Sonja herself knew when to quit.
It was still fresh when Happy Landing was made. Egomaniacal band-leader Cesar Romero decided to fly a plane to Paris with his manager Don Ameche. Ameche's job in addition to managing Romero's business affairs is to keep bailing him out of trouble. During a storm they make a wrong turn and land in Norway. Guess who they find there?
Romero handles it in his usual love 'em and leave 'em style, but Sonja follows him to America. Ameche has to fend her off for Romero and nature takes it's course.
Sonja's skating routines are nicely handled, they would have been since she supervised her own choreography. Laughs are provided by three experienced scene stealing comics at various points of the film, Wally Vernon, El Brendel, and Billy Gilbert.
Ethel Merman is on hand to sing a few forgettable tunes. By this time Merman was a major star on Broadway, but Hollywood never really knew what to do with her. She'd leave Hollywood shortly and wouldn't be back until the Fifties when she reprised her Call Me Madam triumph.
Admittedly Ms. Henie was know actress, but she projected her personality well on the screen. And she sure puts to shame some of today's figure skaters.
HAPPY LANDING (20th Century-Fox, 1938), directed by Roy Del Ruth, is an
agreeable musical with an impressive cast headed by Olympic ice skating
champion, Sonja Henie, in her third and longest (103 minutes) film in
her career. It reunites her with ONE IN A MILLION (1936) co-stars, Don
Ameche and Jean Hersholt, as well as pairing her for the first time
opposite Cesar Romero. Romero, an icon of 20th-Fox, appears more on the
level as Henie's co-star than Ameche, at least until later on where the
actors team up equally as rivals of her affection.
Plot summary: Benjamin Sargent (Cesar Romero), better known as "Duke," is scheduled to pilot his plane from New York to Paris, accompanied by Jimmy Hall (Don Ameche), his manager and best friend. A band-leader and songwriter by profession, Duke carries on a romance with Flo Kelly (Ethel Merman), a gold digging vocalist whose suspicious nature has her capturing his every word on a phonograph record for blackmail purposes. After Duke and Jimmy fly over the Atlantic, their plane makes a forced landing in Nordenscnolde, a Norwegian village where they meet up with an ice skater named Trudy Erickson (Sonja Henie). Being the only one of four daughters to not be married, Herr Erickson (Jean Hersholt) expects Trudy to marry Olaf (Louis Aldon, Jr.), a man she doesn't love. Trudy becomes immediately charmed with the arrival of a tall, dark handsome stranger in the manner of Duke, as told to her by a gypsy fortune teller (Marcelle Corday). When Jimmy learns of Trudy's interested in Duke as her future husband, especially after dancing with her twice, he takes Duke back to his airplane where they fly out to their destination in Paris. Trudy, on the other hand, comes to New York after Duke's return, only to learn through Jimmy that he's nothing but a cad. With no other place to go, Trudy, with Jimmy's help, turns her into an ice skating attraction at Madison Square Garden. By the time she's beginning to show interest in Jimmy, Duke comes back into her life only to complicate matters.
HAPPY LANDING plays like a travelogue with surroundings from New York to Norway to Paris to Florida (Miami) and finally New York again. During this venture, the bright but forgettable score by Jack Yellen and Samuel Pokrass consist of: "You Are the Words to the Music in My Heart" (a slow song cut from final print, existing only with Ethel Merman's rendition through its brief conclusion); "Skating Number" (performed by Sonja Henie); "A Gypsy Told Me" (sung by Leah Ray); "Hot and Happy" (sung by Ethel Merman); "The War Dance of the Wooden Indian" (by Raymond Scott, tap dance performance by The Condos Brothers); "Yonny and the Oompah" (by Walter Bullock and Harold Spina/sung by El Brendel/skated by Henie); Skating Montage: "One in a Million," "We're Back in Circulation Again," "My Secret Love Affair" and Johann Strauss's "Tales of the Vienna Woods"; "A Gypsy Told Me" (sung by Don Ameche); "You Appeal to Me" (sung by Ethel Merman); Skating sequence: "You Appeal to Me," "A Gypsy Told Me" and "Hot and Happy" (all performed by Henie); and "Hot and Happy" (finale). Having two female vocalists in the cast, Leah Ray, who gives "A Gypsy Told Me" a nice rendition, Merman, best suited for belting out great Irving Berlin tunes, fails to make these new songs live up to such hits as "Blue Skies" or "Heat Wave." "You Appeal to Me" does have clever lyrics with dated references to Al Jolson, Greta Garbo, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Edgar Bergen, but in spite of her delivery, song overall works out better as an instrumental ice skating number than a Merman solo.
Tunes aside, plot makes way for comedy bits by character types as Wally Vernon (who can easily be confused with Sid Silvers) as Al Mahoney, the third member of Duke's troupe who at one point performs a striptease to entertain reporters (one of them being Lon Chaney Jr.) while awaiting for an interview at the airport; Billy Gilbert playing the counterman in his amusing bit of confusion with "Pot roast vs. hamburger supreme" routine with Ameche; and finally El Brendel appearing briefly as a Central Park music conductor.
There's no question of HAPPY LANDING's overall success, through today seen as hampered by slow pacing in spots and overlong specialty acts. Highlights rank those being the well staged ice skating numbers along with Heinie's personality more than her acting ability. Technicolor would have been a big asset for this production. Distributed on home video in the 1990s about the same time American Movie Classics used to show it, HAPPY LANDING (not to be confused with the Don Ameche 1943 drama, HAPPY LAND), turns up occasionally on the "hot and happy" Fox Movie Channel. (*** cheap skates)
After making a HAPPY LANDING in Norway, a flying bandleader
and his manager both find themselves fascinated by a lovely
young figure skater.
Sonja Henie was Norway's ice queen when she won Olympic gold medals in 1928, 1932 & 1936. Quickly going professional, she began a celebrated movie career at 20th Century Fox in 1936 with ONE IN A MILLION, which was her American film debut. Beautiful & talented, as well as being a natural in front of the cameras, she carved out her niche during Hollywood's Golden Age. Although Henie's ice routines may look antiquated by comparison to modern champions, there was nothing antique about her dazzling smile or sparkling personality. In this regard, some of today's snowflake princesses could still learn a great deal from her.
As her career progressed, it became increasingly difficult for Fox to find decent stories for Henie and the excuses for the lavish ice dancing numbers were often implausible. No matter. Audiences did not flock to her films to watch Sonja recite Shakespeare. The movies were meant to be pure escapist fantasy, plain & simple.
HAPPY LANDING is no exception and its story is often quite silly - any film which relies on a striptease by comic Wally Vernon to supply a few chuckles seems a bit too eager to plunge into burlesque. However, the moments on the ice never bore and the co-stars are rather interesting.
As the manager, Don Ameche is stolid & faintly dour throughout, as though he rather disapproved of the entire proceedings. More fun is raffish Cesar Romero as the zany bandleader, who gives his natural proclivity for frivolity full rein - especially when teamed with brassy singer Ethel Merman. And although her songs are rather lackluster, there is nothing shy or demure about the way Merman steamrollers her way through her scenes.
Gentle Jean Hersholt usually provided an aura of quiet dignity to his films, but here, as Sonja's rather foolish papa, he does himself no favors. He must have been grateful to have been allowed to disappear from the film early on. Much funnier are Billy Gilbert as a diner owner desperate to serve pot roast, and dialect comedian El Brendel as an ice rink band conductor. In their single scenes each shows how to effortlessly steal the attention of the audience for a few moments.
Movie mavens will recognize an uncredited Lon Chaney Jr. as a reporter near the end of the film.
Ultimately, though, this is Sonja's show. She glides effortlessly into the viewer's heart, while balancing on a thin edge of silver suspended over frozen water.
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