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Experts tell us that MGM had high hopes for this strange movie
pastiche, but it's hard to believe that from the tired on-screen
shenanigans. With Sonia Henie making millions for 20th Century Fox in
her kitschy skating musicals, Metro imported (at no small cost) the
famed International Ice Follies and paired them with Crawford, one of
their top-ranked, but skidding, stars.
I still find it hard to fathom WHY Metro executives could ever have thought that this lumbering, tired film could serve any use in reversing Crawford's diminishing box-office drawing power. She, James Stewart, and Lew Ayres, seem to be walking through their roles in a most obvious case of movie-making by the numbers, with a plot that is nothing but insulting to its audience.
This is not to say that certain pleasures can't be found in the film, if you want to take the time to look. Joan is as beautiful as ever and the Ice Follies finale (in which Joan does NOT skate) looks great in Technicolor. Happily and ironically, it was this film's total failure that brought Crawford one of her best screen roles, that of Crystal Allen in George Cukor's THE WOMEN. Reckless and with a feeling of nothing to lose, Crawford went after that unsympathetic part with a vengeance, AGAINST the advice of LB Mayer, who said it would finish her (but then again, what did HE know.....he LIKED the idea of this one!!)Not nearly as interesting as either THE BRIDE WORE RED (1937) or THE SHINING HOUR (1938), Crawford's other box-office flops of the period, this one is strictly for Crawford or Stewart completists.
This is one of those horrible films that sounds so bizarre it holds the promise of actually being good in a bad way when one finally finds it on television. It doesn't deliver on any level, though. The whole notion of Stewart and Crawford as ice skating stars is hilarious. But they are never really shown skating at any point in the film. What's left is a hackneyed, contrived plot about them falling in love and then separating to follow their careers. He tries to create the first Ice Follies and she (quite easily!) becomes a major film star. The actual Ice Follies troupe shows up in the middle of the film to do a few twirls and spins. The whole thing is capped by a 3-strip Technicolor finale featuring massive quantities of skaters and Joan in a humongous ball gown singing a forgettable song. It's so rare to see early Joan in color, yet she is given no close-ups. Joan was supposed to sing three songs in the film, but two of them were cut. She dons a black Hedy Lamarr-style wig for a lot of the film which gives her a distinctive, if not natural for her, look. Even though the film is ludicrous and trite, money WAS spent on it. The banquet scene in which Crawford gives a speech is lavish in it's decor and her clothes, though often bizarre, are also expensive. (One scene has her in a kooky art deco headdress which makes her look like a parking meter come to life.) This film is of note these days primarily because it's the film "Joan" is being made up for at the beginning of "Mommie Dearest". If not for that plug, it may have fallen into even greater obscurity than it already was. One of her hilarious recollections from the book Conversations with Joan Crawford was, "Christ! We all must have been out of our collective minds!" She describes how she and Stewart "skated around on our ankles". She tried to inject some flair and life into the film, but it was doomed on the page. Fortunately, "The Women" was on the horizon to keep her in good stead.
Widely considered the worst film Joan Crawford made at MGM (it must
have been a low point for James Stewart too, yet it forms no part of
the lore about his long career) this is a real curiosity. It has the
sort of B-movie plot Sonja Henie was getting in her hugely successful
skating pictures at Fox, but this one is done with an A-budget. And
because the stars can't skate, it is essentially two pictures in one --
a skating 'spectacular' featuring anonymous athletes which prefigures
the ice-skating arena shows we know so well, and a soap opera about a
two career couple who can't make their marriage work.
Forget trying to figure out how a major film from the most meticulous of studios could be such a hodgepodge. Simply go with it and happily register its many lapses in taste and logic. In the early scenes Crawford is actually more relaxed and likable than in other pictures from this period, though this changes once her character signs a movie contract. The idea of Crawford playing a star makes perfect sense and one wonders why no one thought of it before. At last her artificiality and posturing has a logical explanation. (But can someone explain why some of Max Steiner's score from GONE WITH THE WIND is played during Joan's drunk scene?) And in gorgeous three-strip Technicolor she looks at once terrifically glamorous and hard as nails. This hardness and the fact that it exposed her age is surely the reason she never gets a color closeup. And though she is a small part of the color portion of the film, she manages to wear no less than three Adrian outfits, the most striking being a brilliant green ensemble with gold and silver embroidery (the 18th Century court outfits the extras wear must have been recycled from MARIE ANTOINETTE).
Assuming Crawford had a choice, why did she do this film? To branch out to a broader family audience than she had before? To cash in on a popular box office fad? Or, at a time when Jeanette Macdonald was still considered Louis B. Mayer's favorite, did Crawford relish getting the Technicolor operetta treatment? Joan took singing lessons for years (her thin, unpleasant voice is briefly heard) and Macdonald had already been in one color film and was about to do another at a time when Technicolor carried the prestige of novelty and expense. Whatever the reason, it must have caused general hilarity in Hollywood -- one can imagine Billy Haines calling up George Cukor to chuckle over the latest bomb Joan had been saddled with. Only Sonja Henie can have been jealous over this turkey.
This patched-together pseudo-musical-on-ice isn't even fun as camp; it's just a deadly dull example of MGM assembly-line junk. As always, the production values are excellent: this film is just as well-mounted as any Metro "A" product, with the added bonuses of a lavish Technicolor sequence and pleasing ice performances by the Shipstad-Johnson Ice Follies. But, it's heavy going as the miscast stars are shoved about in a silly plot in an underwritten script, and no amount of MGM gloss can compensate for the audacity of casting three non-skating actors as skating stars! Especially jarring is the sight of Joan Crawford in a jet-black Hedy Lamarr "do"; this is one instance where Joan's Madonna-like talent for following trends misfired.(She very nearly achieves a Carolyn Jones-as-Morticia look!) JC fans do get a consolation prize in the color sequence, in which Joan's natural coloring is seen to lovely advantage. Viewer Alert: watch Sonja Henie on Fox instead!!
After some exciting ice-skating scenes, the best part of this movie is the charming interplay between and among the characters. Lew Ayres has what seems to be for him a very different type of role, and his and Jimmy Stewart's characters have some dialogue that is often funny. Even Lionel Stander gets to play, for a change, a nice character also with some good lines. Joan Crawford, of the gorgeous legs, was a noted dancer, and it's surprising, at least to me, that she didn't skate -- and, with her legs, it's disappointing, too. I mean, what a wonderful excuse to showcase her in a short costume. Oh well, she got a chance to play a much softer character, and that was refreshing to watch. The story, such as it was, was fairly wimpy, and really just an excuse to present the skating scenes. Good enough. The only real complaint I have is that the color scenes didn't start earlier. The arena skating was actually more exciting than the filmed skating, but the cinema scenes were beautiful. I'd recommend this as a thoroughly enjoyable light entertainment -- heck, almost any movie with Jimmy Stewart is worth watching.
Ice Follies of 1939 involves a trio of professional skaters, Joan
Crawford, James Stewart, and Lew Ayres who have some creative
differences and the act breaks up temporarily. So do Crawford and
Stewart who are a romantic item.
This was Stewart and Crawford's second film together, the first was The Gorgeous Hussy in which Stewart was only a supporting player. It's too bad that neither of them got anything better.
I also can't put this any better, the three of them look plain ridiculous on skates and they probably felt just as ridiculous.
This film was the brainchild of Louis B. Mayer who looked green with envy over at 20th Century Fox and the money that Darryl F. Zanuck was making with Sonja Henie. I say 'with' and not 'off of' Sonja Henie because Ms. Henie was a star before she signed a contract with Zanuck and Zanuck paid her dearly for her services. Something I'm not sure Mayer was prepared to do.
To gloss over the trite backstage story, MGM did import a whole load of the top ice acts circa 1939 other than Sonja Henie. Interesting to see them and Sonja and compare them to Nancy Kerrigan or Johnny Weir or the infamous Tonya Harding.
Fortunately the next films for Stewart and Crawford were, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Women. The future was going to get better for both.
In the career of every big star, there often seem to be a few films
that in hindsight you wonder why they chose to be in this doomed
project. While Jimmy Stewart was NOT an established star in 1939 and
can't be blamed for appearing in such an awful film, you wonder how one
of MGM's biggest stars could get hooked into this awful mess! Joan
Crawford certainly deserved more than this, though I must say that she
seemed to try very hard to be a professional--even if the writers were
apparently chimps. Even Joan's later super-low budget films like TROG
and BERSERK are amazingly competent films compared to THE ICE FOLLIES
OF 1939! The biggest problems with the film were the wretched writing
and the impossibly dumb casting. Imagine Stewart and Crawford cast as
ice follies skaters! Interestingly, you never really see them dance or
skate--yet it's THE central theme of the movie. And who would have
thought that the public would have wanted THIS sort of a film?! My
assumption is that Fox's Sonja Henie movies must have been box office
smashes for MGM to try to cash in on this ice skating craze in such a
cheap and haphazard fashion.
Now if you remove the silly ice follies elements, you still are left with an incredibly terrible film. The movie actually made my entire family cringe at the terrible clichés--especially when the film tried to rip off A STAR IS BORN. How Crawford was "discovered" and became a star was totally ludicrous--and had the worst "discovery scene" in film history. It really looked like every rotten cliché about film-making was thrown into a goulash-like mess of a film--including the (uggh) ending where the studio makes Stewart a producer and director--even though his greatest prior success was directing and skating in an ice follies show!
Horrible writing, dumb situations, terribly long and ridiculous Busby Berkeley-style ice skating numbers and an over-abundance of clichés sink this one. I truly feel that the other reviewers were being far too kind to this turkey--perhaps because Stewart and Crawford have a lot of fans out there.
As far as the magnitude of this bomb, I'd rank this up among PARNELL (Clark Gable and Myrna Loy) and SWING YOUR LADY (Humphrey Bogart) for 1930s bombs by mega-stars. In Bogart's defense, he was not yet a major star when he made his bomb--what's Crawford's excuse?
This harmless piece of fluff is moderately interesting for reasons having nothing to do with its intentions, which must have been to tap into the lucrative ice skating fan base that was packing theatres to see Sonia Henie in 20th Century Fox features at the time. This opus does have a stellar cast (Joan Crawford, James Stewart, Lew Ayres, Lewis Stone) all at their best even though utterly wasted and a vivid Technicolor ice show sequence at the end in which we get to see the above-mentioned personages in color. It is also a way to satisfy the curiosity of MOMMIE DEAREST viewers who have always wondered what FOLLIES was about since it figures in the plot of that biopic. Well, it's about nothing much and was a good example of why Joan Crawford's career wasn't a bed of roses, even though she triumphed in THE WOMEN the same year. She's actually quite good in this, playing a nice girl who chooses marital bliss over movie stardom. For half the movie she is coiffed in an unusually severe and darkly tinted manner which accentuates the severity of her features, giving her a rather cruel and drawn appearance. In some of these scenes she strongly resembles Merle Oberon. Stewart gets a chance to practice pratfalls and inventive prop handling and excels at both. At one point after his character hears joyous news, he does a somersault from a chair onto a bed and back onto the floor like a skilled acrobat. He was a consummate actor even then.
I really like the Lew Ayres character in "Ice Follies of 1939." His
hapless "Take-it-on-the-Chin" wisecracker adds needed dimension to an
abbreviated screen play of the "Rags-to-Riches Coney Island" plot.
There are really no great "Lessons to live by" here, as we may find in other films of this ilk and during this period. Seems as though MGM had decided to film a skating show featuring performers who do not act, and to modify it with a fill-in plot centering around actors who do not skate.
Why not star resident beauty Joan Crawford with the up-and-coming James Stewart and young veteran actor Lew Ayres? - seems the reasoning of the moment. After all, she had done struggling performers in the past, and so a behind-the-scenes show within a show ought to prove right up her alley. Joan could then do at least one customary weeping scene, while James could add his token "Yippie!" routine, which seems mandated of his 1930's appearances.
"Ice Follies of 1939" may work a little more readily than it seems to do if its plot weren't as overdone as it were during its release decade. On top of this, it's abbreviated with one shortly-cut scene after another and practically devoid of plausible emotion in the process.
We rarely find Joan and James sharing the same train of thought here; when she is up, he is down. We don't know why these two care for each other, but Lew generally conveys his character's feelings through his bouncing around a room--most of them very small here, at least for him.
In at least two regards, "Ice Follies of 1939" seems dramatically incorrect: first in respect to the studio contract handed to Joan's character and response to her announcement one year later. The film proceeds from there, launching from black & white into Technicolor, which signifies that 1939 may have lasted longer than 12 months, according to this.
On a couple of additional positive notes, this film contains interesting figure skating routines by "The International Ice Follies" and, especially, its male solo skaters. Some of its cinematography during the sequences on ice proves outstanding, affording the film audience with reflections and contrasts. And, of course, Joan Crawford looks radiant throughout in appearance and fashionable wardrobe.
Ice Follies of 1939 is a Joan Crawford vehicle from MGM which has a
Warners feel with a supporting cast from Columbia and shot at Republic.
This is the film that Joan is prepping for at the beginning of Mommie Dearest.
Jimmy Stewart is Joan's male lead in this picture. He looks like he has just turned 18.
Joan looks old enough to be his mother in some shots.
The plot is secondary to what they put poor Joan through.
30 some minutes into the movie she isn't even in it for a long stretch where to is totally focused on the Jimmy Stewart character and his ice follies. The background bit runs straight into an ice follies review of skating. It is pretty hum drum. Cramped and shot cheaply.
The whole movie feels cramped until the end where there is an insane Technicolor nightmare of mediocre skating in garish costumes in an ill conceived Cinderella plot involving dear Joan. She doesn't skate.
She looks lovely when sitting in the audience watching herself on screen though. Reddish highlights to her hair in a gorgeous green and gold sparkly Adrian creation that defies description. One number she is forced to wear looks like it came off of a Lorretta Young picture, complete with halo.
You see Joan in several different looks in this picture. Few of them are flattering to her. Some make her look downright hard bitten and hawkish.
There is one scene early on where Joan is sitting at a table in yet another cramped room with Jimmy and Lew Ayres. She looks young and vibrant, her hair perfect for her. She looks great. then it is all downhill until the final Technicolor shots of her in the audience at the end.
Somebody wanted to make her look bad.
You can tell by where they spent the money.
One of the black and white skate bits is wonderful. Far better than the other ones. Then there is the color skate film in a film sequence at the end.
This film is designed to make the star look bad on the screen and on paper.
Joan does have one great bit where she plays drunk. It looks like she is really having fun with it.
Trog is better.
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