12 January 2004 | pv71989
Interesting, but too long AND too short
I know it sounds like a contradiction, but "Ice Palace" suffers from a long running time while the movie's scenes are too brief to offer anything substantial. Based on a novel by Edna Ferber (who also wrote the best-selling novels Show Boat, Cimarron and Giant, all of which became classic, award-winning films), the movie deals with an almost life-long rivalry between Zeb Kennedy (Richard Burton) and Thor Storm (Robert Ryan) in the wilds of a still territorial Alaska. Zeb is a WWI veteran who comes back home to Seattle to find he can't get a job, thanks to local packers who see him as a troublemaker because he dances to his own tune and not theirs. He heads to Alaska aboard a freighter, along with a bunch of Chinese workers (he meets the character of Wang (George Takei in a demeaning role of a pidgen-English speaking role of comic relief). Zeb meets Thor (Robert Ryan), a local fisherman in the town of Banarov when he is beaten up by local cannery workers and thrown into the bay after stepping in to defend Wang, who's being threatened. Not to belabor a point, but Thor and Zeb become friends and conspire to open a rival cannery in Banarov to avoid having to grovel at the feet of the big cannery across the bay. Zeb then meets Bridie Ballantyne (Carolyn Jones), who is Thor's woman and business partner. He falls for her, makes her fall for him, then realizes it's wrong and decides to leave Baranov. Thor, unknowing of all this, gets him to set up financing in Seattle for the cannery. Zeb does this by marrying Dorothy (Martha Hyer) to get her father to back the cannery, thanks to some advice from best friend and future business partner Dave Husack (a pre-Gilligan's Island Jim Backus). Anyway, when Zeb, Bridie, Thor and Dorothy all meet up, it's like that song where Chicago says to look away. The jig is up and sets the tension for the rest of the movie. Zeb becomes a tyrant, in league with other big packers, while Thor becomes a protector of Alaska, seeking statehood so that federal laws can come in and stop Zeb, called "Czar" Kennedy by the locals. The problems with the movie deal mostly with the length of the novel, which rivaled "Giant." Whereas "Giant" and "Cimarron" dispensed with huge chunks of the books to avoid boring and losing audiences, "Ice Palace" tries to touch on all of the story. This leaves quick scenes that jump and leave the rest of us behind. Characters aren't allowed to develop fully. For instance, Zeb defends Wang and then, feeling guilty about Bridie, decides to leave well enough alone. A moment later, he's a cruel, callous tyrant who calls Eskimo kids "half-breeds" and mistreats his wife, Dorothy (Diane McBain in a wasted role). The costumers and set designers do a marvelous job of advancing Baranov year by year and a little make-up does wonders to make Burton et al age with the times (although Jim Backus, who was 14 years older than Burton, seemed to just let the Just for Men wear off). In no short time, we're introduced to Chris, Thor's son by his Eskimo wife (Dorcas Brower, a gorgeous woman who's character is barely touched upon because she conveniently dies off-screen in childbirth). Grace, Zeb and Dorothy's daughter is seen briefly as a little girl and then as a teenager who elopes with Chris. By this time, Zeb is a shell of a husband and Thor spends his every waking moment railing against Zeb like George Bush against Saddam Hussein. Then, suddenly, Grace is pregnant and she and Chris are flying across the frozen tundra on a three-week journey via dog sled to the nearest town so she can give birth (don't ask). They get lost and Thor and Zeb come to the rescue. Great drama until the scene with Chris fighting a man in a bear suit (watch how the bear throws Chris to the ground, then hams it up in a death scene; it's unintentionally hilarious). No doubt, the movie has a great cast, but most of the roles are underdeveloped and a few are totally out of place. George Takei's voice-over work on the English version of "Rodan" must have seemed a godsend compared to the simpering man-servant Wang. Kar Swenson as the full-blooded Irish father of Bridie is a hoot. Swenson is best known as lumber mill owner Lars Hanson of "Little House on the Prairie" and his Scandinavian accent massacres his attempts at speaking with an Irish brogue. Bridie is also wasted. She's supposed to be the object of love for Thor and Zeb, yet she marries neither, tries to help Thor raise his son, but is rarely shown in the same space as the boy. As she ages, she begins to resemble Bette Davis (it's hard to imagine her later role as Morticia Addams). It's become more and more difficult to believe she can still harbor any love or like for Thor or Zeb, both of whom lose audience sympathy by being total jackasses. Of course, all would seem to come together in the end, despite a despicable plot by Zeb and Dave's son, Bay (Ray Danton), to use his granddaughter Christine (Shirley Knight in another wasted role). But even this is left flapping in the breeze, literally, when Thor and a local pilot do the cliche "small plane in a snow storm hitting a glacier" plot twist. You can guess what happens next, which leaves you feeling cheated.
"Ice Palace" plays out more like the pilot for a TV show, where you hope unresolved issues will be answered. Actually, it probably should have been made into a TV show a la "Peyton Place" where the whole story line could have been given its proper due. All in all, it's an interesting little film to watch if you happen to be the kind of person who doesn't hit the "pause" button when the phone rings or the doorbell rings in the middle of the viewing. If you miss a scene, don't worry. You'll be just as confused as if you had watched it.