Friday Film: Sonja Henie, Scratch Spin Master

itsapleasurecoverThis week’s Friday Film is a somewhat obscure movie I picked up at my local library. The title of the film is It’s A Pleasure!, but the title has so little to do with the story, I think I like my title much better (see above). I can’t say I liked this film but I found it interesting for several reasons and I had to think for a while about how I could explain what it brought to the screen and why my little audience (consisting of myself and Second Daughter) was a) bored and b) fascinated, both at the same time.

Sonja Henie

Wow! Scratch the surface on Norwegian figure-skater-turned-actress Sonja Henie and come up with a young phenom, a batch of controversy, and a relentless ambition. Sonja competed in the very first Winter Olympics in 1924 at the age of 11, then won her first gold medal in 1928. She went on to win gold in 1932 and 1936, parlaying her skating success (and her father’s fur trade money and influence) into a Hollywood film career that showcased her ground-breaking skating talent while ignoring her lack of acting experience. She was, above all, a performer, and the Hollywood of the ’30s and early ’40s was perfectly fine with that as long as it made them money.

A complex figure, profiles of Sonja (Wikipedia and 1994 Lillehammer profile on YouTube) mention her sweetness, skating innovation, and star-power along with her vulgarity, her ruthlessness, and to varying degrees, her connections with the Nazi party and Adolf Hitler himself. At the 1936 Winter Olympics, Sonja drew criticism from detractors for greeting Der Fuhrer with the Fascist salute and shaking Hitler’s hand. Of course, Sonja was one of the most popular sports stars of the day, and it was SonjaandHitlerinevitable that she would meet and greet Adolf personally at the Olympic venue in Germany. However, rumors (now largely debunked) circulated about an alleged affair with Hitler, sparked by her acceptance of an invitation to his Birchtesgarten hideaway in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, home of the 1936 Winter Games. Nazi ties notwithstanding, Sonja and her skating led the arena of ice show entertainment, on screen and off, well into the 1950s.

The Movie

It’s A Pleasure! (MGM, 1945) serves up Sonja Henie in all of her skating star glory, but the convoluted plot drags her out of the spotlight as she struggles to convey her on-screen love for an unworthy, unlikeable hero. In the film she plays the role of unassuming show skater Chris Linden, who falls in love with rough-and-tumble hockey star Don, played by Michael O’Shea. Don’s drinking and fighting get in the way of his hockey playing, and when he punches a referee in a game, he is banned from his sport. Sonja/Chris takes up for him and offers him a stunt skating job in a new ice show. They fall in love and get married, but as Chris Linden’s star rises, her husband’s wanes. Finally his drinking and his involvement with calculating femme fatale Gale Fletcher, played by Marie McDonald, run him aground and he leaves Chris to her skating stardom. But a happily ever after ensues when, urged by friends, Chris reunites with a reformed Don, who has taken to coaching hockey for underprivileged boys.

The Post-War Propaganda Machine

it-s-a-pleasure-sonja-henie-1945Hollywood got behind the war effort in 1941 with movies that celebrated America and urged its citizens, particularly women and minorities, to get out and work. The most famous of these images was Rosie the Riveter. But by 1945 it was time to return to “traditional values” and free up jobs for men returning from war. Hollywood turned its efforts to a post-war blitz directed at  women working in traditionally male careers. It’s A Pleasure has all those messages and more. The movie could be titled Why Your Career Needs To Take A Back Seat to Your Drunk Philandering Husband. There is actually a scene where Don fake-hits Chris Linden, and they joke about how it’s all okay to a bystander who objects. Crazy. This, I think, is where Second Daughter dropped sync on the plot and asked me to fast forward to the skating scenes.

The Scratch Spin

The scratch spin is an upright spin where the free leg is crossed over the skating knee and then pushed down towards the ice. As the arms are pulled in towards the chest, a blur effect can be achieved if the spin is done fast. It is the most popular spin among figure skaters.

~By , About.com Guide

Used to the polished jumps and spins of Sonja Henie’s successors, we could point out the flaws in Sonja’s quirky toe pick runs and easy waltz jumps. I had to keep reminding Second that Sonja Henie was the first female skater to perform some of these skills in competition. Sonja Henie’s scratch spin, though, is peerless. We even used the super slow mo on the DVD player to see how she entered the spin. Cool.

Here’s a YouTube clip from the movie, so you can get an idea of her amazing level of mastery.

Sonja Henie Stats

First to use dance choreography in her free skate

First to sport the white boots and short skirts now ubiquitous in women’s figure skating

Won 3 consecutive Gold Medals and 10 consecutive World Championships

Practiced and performed as much as 7 hours a day

One of the ten wealthiest women in the world when she died of leukemia in 1969

Any Sonja Henie fans? Budding figure skaters? What do you think of films that push a message or agenda?

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Friday Film: Roman Holiday

As promised after reviewing the 1940 film of Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, I will be posting some more of my impressions of the old black and whites in a new blog feature, Friday Film.

First up, Roman Holiday (1953) starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in her first major role.

Fairytale in the Eternal City

Audrey_Hepburn_Roman_Holiday_croppedPrincess Ann (Hepburn) is a Royal princess (country of origin undisclosed) traveling through Europe on a whirlwind “goodwill” tour. Newsreels show her waving at crowds in London and Audrey_Hepburn-Harcourt_Williams_in_Roman_HolidayParis with much fanfare and pomp. She gets to Rome and upon her lady-in-waiting’s recitation of a complicated schedule for the following day (COUNTESS: 10:45 Tour of Automobile Factory where you will be presented with a small car. PRINCESS: Thank you. COUNTESS (frowning): Which you will NOT accept. PRINCESS: NO, thank you.), Princess Ann has a tantrum/break down. Her handlers respond to her exhaustion by calling a kindly doctor who injects her with “a new drug,” which will help her sleep and make her happy. (NOTE: This drug-the-silly-hysterical-woman device, while apparently normal behavior for the time, has always disturbed me. Alfred Hitchcock directed a similar scene to chilling effect in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) with Doris Day and James Stewart after Doris Day’s character becomes hysterical when she realizes her son has been kidnapped! They actually hold her down to stick her in the arm in that one!) In Princess Ann’s case, the drug is slow to take effect, and she decides to escape her handlers by sneaking out of the palace/embassy where she is staying. Unfortunately, the drug overtakes her when she is out in the city.Gregory_Peck_in_Roman_Holiday_trailer_cropped

Gregory Peck as American journalist Joe Bradley comes upon the drugged Princess in the Foro Romano. Not knowing who she is, he thinks she has had too much to drink and alternates between treating her like she is a hustler and thinking she is an innocent who needs taking care of. Eventually his chivalrous instincts win out and he takes her back to his tiny apartment in Via Margutta to sleep it off.

When he wakes the next morning, the princess is still sleeping and Joe still doesn’t know who she is. He quickly figures it out, however, when he pays a visit to his editor who informs him that the princess has been taken ill and has cancelled her press conference. Reporter Joe senses a scoop and a scandal in the making that could be very lucrative for him. His motivation: to score enough money from this story to get back to New York to work at a “real newspaper.” With the help of a Gregory_Peck,_Audrey_Hepburn_and_Eddie_Albert_in_Roman_Holiday_trailerphotographer friend, played by the brilliant and funny Eddie Albert, he proceeds to show “Anya” a great time on the town while managing to take pictures of her with a little cigarette lighter camera. Rome gets showcased in all its dusty glory. Anya rides around the Piazza Venezia on a scooter, visits the wall of wishes (which no longer exists, more’s the pity) and the Bocca della Verita (the Mouth of Truth), and ends up in a night club brawl on a barge on the Tiber under the shadow of the Castel Sant’Angelo.Audrey_Hepburn_and_Gregory_Peck_on_Vespa_in_Roman_Holiday_trailer

No spoilers here! But suffice to say for me the story ends in an emotionally satisfying but believable way. There is certainly NO lack of chemistry between Gregory Peck and the luminous Audrey Hepburn. And you get the impression that Eddie Albert is a little in love with her too, which makes the Princess’s day out with these two “hardened” journalists charming and poignant.

Rome is a character all to itself in the movie, and as a former resident, I loved seeing the Eternal City on a bright sunny day into a sparkling night as I scrambled to identify the streets and places showcased in the Rome tour montage.

Definitely one to put on your must watch list!

Roman Holiday Tidbits

* Screenwriter Dalton Trombo did not receive a credit on the film because he had been blacklisted in the film industry for suspected communist sympathies. He was one of the “Hollywood Ten” who refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and were subsequently prosecuted for contempt. The blacklist/boycott included Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, and to some extent even Humphrey Bogart.

From the detailed Wikipedia article: “The Hollywood blacklist—as the broader entertainment industry blacklist is generally known—was the mid-20th-century list of screenwriters, actors, directors, musicians, and other U.S. entertainment professionals who were denied employment in the field because of their political beliefs or associations, real or suspected.”

Don’t present me with the choice of either being in contempt of this committee and going to jail or forcing me to really crawl through the mud to be an informer. For what purpose? I don’t think it is a choice at all. I don’t think this is really sportsmanlike. I don’t think this is American. I don’t think this is American justice. ~Actor Larry Parks in 1950 to the House Un-American Activities Committee

* The screenplay for Roman Holiday was originally written with Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor in mind, but when they were unavailable, director William Wyler selected the unknown youngster Audrey Hepburn with a clever screen test that kept the camera rolling even after the “formal” audition was complete. William Wyler also directed Mrs. Miniver, for which role Greer Garson took home the Academy Award in 1940.

* Audrey Hepburn was “discovered” by Colette (French writer and author of Gigi) and plucked out of obscurity to play the title role in the stage play of Gigi.

* After filming in Rome, Gregory Peck insisted that Audrey Hepburn’s name be moved to top billing alongside his on the movie posters, predicting she would win the Academy Award. Which she did. She also took home the Film Critics Circle Award, the Golden Globe, and the BAFTA (British Actors’ Award) for her portrayal of Ann/Anya in Roman Holiday. The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and took home 3, including Best Costuming and Best Screenplay (ironic right?).