Sunday, 25 March 2012

Sun Valley Serenade (1941)

Dir. H. Bruce Humberstone
Starring: Sonja Henie, John Payne, Milton Berle, Glenn Miller

“It happened in Sun Valley
 Not so very long ago…”

Sun Valley Serenade is a weird little number. A box office smash upon its original release, I think now it is only notable as a curiosity piece. I had certainly never heard of it. I would say that to watch it you really have to be in the mood

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a struggling big band, the Dartmouth Troubadours. When news reaches them that the famous Sun Valley Inn is looking for a headline act for their winter season they get the gig – thanks mainly to some swift talking from their chirpy manager Nifty (Milton Berle) and an instant attraction between their pianist Ted (John Payne) and marquee-name soloist Vivian dawn (Lynne Bari). However, before they can head off to the frozen north, one of Nifty’s other little schemes comes to fruition. To gain publicity for the band he had volunteered Ted to take responsibility of a refugee from war-torn Europe. Unfortunately the refugee turns out to be not the cute 10-year-old they had expected, but rather fully-grown Norwegian cupcake Karen Benson (Sonja Henie). She, too, instantly falls for Ted, and follows the band to Sun Valley. There she attempts to scupper Ted and Vivian’s relationship through, obviously, her knowledge of winter sports. I swear I am not making this up!

There are three things that make this film noteworthy really. The first is the aforementioned winter sports. Sun Valley Resort is a high-class ski lodge. While Vivian may not ski, Ted and Karen certainly do (the former’s skill being attributed to his “Eskimo blood”). I can’t think of any film earlier than this to feature skiing so prominently. There are two impressive ski chases down Bald Mountain. To be honest they compare favourably to later skiing scenes in James Bond movies like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The Spy Who Loved Me. Except that they have a bit more humour to them – witness Karen zipping between Ted’s legs! There are also two ice-skating scenes for Karen, where she shows off her speciality of whirling around and around faster and faster like a drill bit. And unlike the obvious stand-ins for the skiing, these scenes were acted by Sonja Henie. Not surprising considering that Henie was a massively successful figure skater. And when I say ‘massively successful’ I mean ‘astonishingly massively successful’. We are talking Olympic champion in 1928, 1932 and 1936 and world champion ten times on the trot between 1927 and 1936. She managed to parlay this into one of the best paid contracts in Hollywood. It is therefore understandable that she gets two big ice skating scenes (she did want a third, but the producer Darryl Zanuck would only consider it if she funded the production costs herself). So there you go: a female romantic lead who was actually a champion ice skater.

The second noteworthy point is the comedy. It is, perhaps, a bit hit and miss, but Milton Berle stands out for his performance as Nifty Allen, the band’s publicity agent. Berle later went on to become ‘Mr Television’, American TV’s first bona fide superstar, and his comedic skills are put to good use here. He can be a fast-talking schmoozer one moment and then suddenly outsmarted the next. He is a cheerful, optimistic and bubbly presence throughout the pic, cigar in hand, draped in a ridiculous fur coat. He provides most of the one-liners and certainly all of the best facial expressions in the film.

The third noteworthy point is the soundtrack. It is a zinger. The ‘struggling’ Dartmouth Troubadours were portrayed on screen by the actual Glenn Miller Orchestra – with Miller himself appearing as the Troubadours’ band leader Phil Corey. I knew the music of Glenn Miller, and I knew what he looked like, but for some reason it felt rather eerie to see and hear the man in action – three years later his plane was to vanish in fog over the English Channel. The soundtrack, then, is pure Miller swing: ‘I Know Why (And So Do You)’, ‘Moonlight Serenade’, and – obviously – ‘It Happened in Sun Valley. But the two big show-stopping numbers have to be ‘In The Mood’ and Chattanooga Choo Choo’. ‘In The Mood’ is a full concert performance set in a New York hotel ballroom prior to their departure for Sun Valley and provides all the visuals you could ever wish for for a documentary on big bands. The orchestra are dressed up, looking sharp, hitting their notes, and the camera work focuses in on key sections of the band, often with striking angles, often catching the silhouettes and shadows of the musicians on the walls behind. The choreography of the audience could have been better (they just sort of palpitate on the spot when I was expecting and hoping to see some proper swing dancing) but the music was great. The choreography cannot be faulted for Chattanooga Choo Choo’ however. The scene starts off in a practice room, the musicians casually dressed in warming knitwear. It then segues, somehow, into a staged version of the number with Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers performing a soft-shoe tap version of the same number. There is no link between the main story or even the practice room scene with this little set-up. Apparently this was so that the scene featuring talented black performers could easily be excised in certain states to make the movie more palatable for a bigoted white Southern audience. Frankly, the bigots missed out. These two numbers would be worth the entrance fee alone.

In Sun Valley it's always Miller Time!

The rest of the movie I could take or leave. Henie’s Karen might be all guileless girly giggles but she does set out single-mindedly to win Ted as a husband, even knowing that he is already attached. She has some good interplay with John Payne (who resembles a clean-cut Jimmy Stewart type), but I’m not sure the storyline is strong enough to recommend the film by itself. If you were to describe it, it would be described as ‘the Glenn Miller film with the skiing and skating and Milton Berle’.

What have I learnt about Idaho?
That it is a skiing destination. That I didn’t know. Colorado, yes; Idaho, no. Moreover it is (or, certainly in 1941 was) a very high class one that could attract top talent from across the United States for its winter season. And they would arrive there by train, before debouching into pony traps and husky sleds to take them up to their hotel. The Sun Valley Resort was obviously rolling in money and cleverly marketed – that it could star in its own movie just five years after opening is proof of that. I’m sure skiers would pick up more information that I have – I have no idea whether skiing from 9,000 feet up a mountain is in any way out of the usual. The snow-covered terrain and the fir-tree-fringed mountains provide some stunning Idahoan scenery.

Can we go there?
Sun Valley is still a premier winter sports resort. One can no longer reach it by train, as shown in the film, as Union Pacific discontinued the service in the 1970s. The railroute has, however, been turned into a  trail  that can be walked or cycled. The resort had not been around for long at the time of filming, only opening to the public in 1936. The film can thus be seen to be one long advertisement for Sun Valley. Sun Valley had the world’s first chair lift up Proctor Mountain – those up Baldy Mountain, featured in the film, were installed later, in 1939. They do still disgorge intrepid skiers some 9,000 feet up the mountainside. The top destinations in town have to be the Sun Valley Lodge and the Sun Valley Inn, where much of the action was set. The ice rink outside Ted’s room still exists too. In both locations there is a dedicated hotel TV channel that shows the film on continuous repeat. If you are not lucky enough to be staying there, the Sun Valley Opera House shows the movie at 16:30 every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday throughout the year, and at 17:00 every day during the peak summer and winter seasons. Whenever it is shown there is no admission charge.

Sun Valley’s neighbouring town is Ketchum (as shown in the train station name sign). The Ketchum Sun Valley Ski and Heritage Museums might be a recommended stop for those interested in the history of winter sports in the area. Novelist Ernest Hemingway is buried locally (he wrote most of For Whom The Bell Tolls whilst staying in Room 206 of the Lodge). There is a memorial to the writer about a mile northeast of the Lodge just off Trail Creek Road. Other local citizens, past and present, include Gary Cooper and Tom Hanks.

Overall Rating: 2/5 

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