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Tall, lanky James Stewart had the perfect body for a figure skater, and probably could have been one of the biggest stars on ice -- if he'd known how to skate. But casting him as an ice ring superstar, with Joan Crawford as his wife and Lew Ayres as his best friend and skating partner, seemed cruel and unusual punishment, particularly after he had just distinguished himself in Frank Capra's acclaimed You Can't Take It With You (1938). Although all three were embarrassed by the brief shots of their actual skating in this 1939 flop, at least the film offers a look at real skating stars of the day in the 17-minute finale filmed at the International Ice Follies in Technicolor.
Perhaps MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer was trying to capture some of the box office generated by championship skater Sonja Henie's films at 20th Century-Fox when he approved the project. Or maybe he was flattered by the script's depiction of a kindly studio head (played by Lewis Stone) at a company that obviously was MGM (it's called Monarch in the film, possibly inspired by the studio's mascot, Leo the Lion). Crawford's explanation of the film was simple and to the point: "Everyone was out of their collective minds" (from Roy Newquist, Conversations With Joan Crawford).
Ironically, the film mirrored what was happening in Crawford's life at the time. Just as her character finds her marriage threatened when her success as a film star eclipses Stewart's status as a skater and ice choreographer, so her real-life marriage to Franchot Tone was falling apart, partly because he had never matched her success as a Hollywood star.
Still, Crawford tried to make the best of things. Although there was little of the star's skating in the film (she would later say she did all of her skating on her ankles), the studio sent out press releases to announce that she was rigorously training to sing in the film (she had already sung on-screen in a few early musicals like The Hollywood Revue of 1929). The flacks even suggested that the results were so impressive that after performing her six songs in Ice Follies of 1939, she was considering making her debut at the Metropolitan Opera. When the film came out, however, her songs had been reduced to two, both of which were dubbed by a professional singer. Crawford claimed her vocals had been cut under orders from Jeanette MacDonald, who was afraid of being supplanted as MGM's resident singing star. At least the situation gave MacDonald a good laugh.
Crawford, meanwhile, could content herself with the usual lavish MGM treatment. Adrian, who had helped shaped her star image in the early '30s, designed her costumes. The cinematographer was Joseph Ruttenberg, who had just won an Oscar® for his lavish black-and-white work on The Great Waltz (1938). And the Technicolor sequence gave fans their first glimpse of Crawford's true coloring. But the film's chief distinction would come 42 years later with its use as the picture she was making at the opening of Mommie Dearest, the 1981 biography starring Faye Dunaway and based on the scandalous memoir by Crawford's daughter Christina.
For both Stewart and Crawford, the best thing about Ice Follies of 1939 was moving on to other films. For Crawford, the film gave her another excuse for demanding better roles from the studio, which helped lead to her casting in the more prestigious and successful The Women (1939) later that year. Stewart would follow with the charming screwball comedy It's a Wonderful World (1939), which teamed him with Claudette Colbert, and the political comedy that helped shape his image as an all-American hero, Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
Producer: Harry Rapf
Director: Reinhold Schunzel
Screenplay: Leonard Praskins, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, based on the story by Praskins
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg, Oliver T. Marsh
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Roger Edens
Cast: Joan Crawford (Mary McKay), James Stewart (Larry Hall), Lew Ayres (Eddie Burgess), Lewis Stone (Douglas Tolliver), Lionel Stander (Mort Hodges), Truman Bradley (Melvyn Rodney), Marie Blake (Effie Lane).
by Frank Miller