17 February 2002 | Ron Oliver
Miss Henie Skates - Miss Merman Sings
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.