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Sun Valley Serenade

Sun Valley Serenade(1941)

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teaser Sun Valley Serenade (1941)

Sun Valley Serenade (1941) had its genesis in a spontaneous brainstorm by Darryl F. Zanuck. The Twentieth Century-Fox studio chief was on a winter vacation in Sun Valley, Idaho, with one of his contract directors, Bruce Humberstone, and their wives. Wouldn't this be a good setting, mused Zanuck, for a Sonja Henie film? And wouldn't Humberstone like to move up from the "B" movie world and direct it? The answer to both questions was a clear "yes."

Henie, the famous Norwegian figure skater who had won gold medals at the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Winter Olympics, had become a big star for Fox since signing with the studio. She was very popular, and her seven films so far had made lots of money. But as eager as Zanuck was to build a movie around her in the winter resort town of Sun Valley, he was equally fed up with her difficult, temperamental nature, and was strongly considering not renewing her contract, which would end following this film.

In fact, Humberstone later said that Zanuck hated Henie and was actively looking for an excuse to get rid of her. But Humberstone had only good experiences working with her on this picture and had no negative words to offer. In the end, Henie did sign a new contract for three more films, and while none was very good, all were profitable.

Sun Valley Serenade, meanwhile, wound up as probably her best picture. The story is essentially a romantic triangle between a big band pianist (John Payne), the band's singer (Lynn Bari), and a Norwegian war refugee (Henie), who all converge at Sun Valley when the band lands a job there. Milton Berle is on hand as the band's manager, and portraying the band is the Glenn Miller Orchestra, complete with Glenn Miller himself as the bandleader.

While Miller had appeared in an earlier movie (The Big Broadcast of 1936, 1935) and a musical short, this was the first feature film to showcase the Glenn Miller Orchestra and to use Miller as such an integral part of the narrative. It was a big deal and a huge draw to audiences, as the Glenn Miller Orchestra was the number one band in America at the time. Sun Valley Serenade was the movie that introduced the song "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," which went on to become the first record to be certified gold, with sales of 1.2 million. Written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, it garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Song (though it lost to "The Last Time I Saw Paris" from Lady Be Good [1941]), and became one of the best-loved songs of its era. What's more, it's performed in the film by Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers in a show-stopping routine.

Other great songs here include "In the Mood," "Moonlight Serenade" and "I Know Why." Miller also recorded another new Gordon-Warren song that would eventually become an enormous hit, "At Last," but Zanuck decided to save it for his next Glenn Miller movie, Orchestra Wives (1942), because he figured he already had an overload of musical riches for Sun Valley Serenade. However, brief instrumental portions of "At Last" can be heard here in the background of two scenes.

The location filming of Sun Valley Serenade was difficult. Transportation of equipment to the town was long, complicated, and costly, and much of the equipment itself proved heavy and challenging to use in the snow and ice. Worst of all, terrible weather led to constant disruptions. In fact, none of Sonja Henie's skiing or skating ended up being shot on location -- it was all filmed in the controlled environs of the Fox studio lot. But even though the film had a high, $1.3 million final cost, Zanuck didn't get too upset about the delays since he was using the location shoot as an excuse to frolic at Sun Valley with a French girlfriend.

According to producer Milton Sperling, who also contributed to the screenplay and wrote several of Sonja Henie's previous films, Henie did quite a bit of frolicking herself. Sperling, quoted in Raymond Strait and Leif Henie's book Queen of Ice, Queen of Shadows: The Unsuspected Life of Sonja Henie, said: "The place was overrun with handsome young blond ski instructors from Austria and Germany. All good-looking men, and I'm sure that Sonja knew all of them -- intimately. I think she ran through the whole bunch of them, one at a time. They all spoke highly of her. I'm sure she was very good in the sack, she had such enormous enthusiasm... She was always hungry for sex."

Director Bruce Humberstone had until now been turning out B movies, including several Charlie Chan entries, so Sun Valley Serenade represented a big promotion. But he had to fight to get Zanuck to approve his choice of cinematographer, Edward Cronjager. Despite Cronjager's considerable experience, and his Oscar nomination for shooting Cimarron (1931) ten years earlier, Zanuck didn't think he was up for a big-budget production like this one. Humberstone protested to Zanuck, "Eddie is one hell of a cameraman, and...I know what I'm going to do with him. In the first place, we're going to do a thing with black ice." "What the hell are you talking about?" said Zanuck. "Ice ain't black." "Well it can be," replied Humberstone, "and we're going to do it. That's why I need Eddie."

Zanuck relented, and Humberstone and Cronjager did indeed make black ice for a marvelous Henie skating sequence by adding black ink to a water mixture before freezing. The black ice was highly reflective, like a mirror, and Cronjager worked hard to ensure that no overhead spotlights would be reflected on the ice below in the finished shots. Said Humberstone: "Eddie did one hell of a job...because there is not one in a million who could have photographed it the way I wanted...when Sonja was skating around." Cronjager was rewarded with an Oscar nomination, and went on to garner four more nominations in the years ahead. And Humberstone soon found himself directing top Fox musicals like Hello Frisco, Hello (1943) and Pin Up Girl (1944).

Reviews were strong. Variety praised the movie as "an excellent compound of entertaining ingredients, displaying Sonja Henie as a sparkling comedienne of top rank without necessity of putting on the blades... [Henie has] a wealth of personality and vivacious eyes that work continually." The New York Times called it "a visual delight" with "Henie more charming and lithesome than ever," and described the black-ice sequence as "a beautiful ice ballet in which Miss Henie and a glistening chorus perform enraptured dances upon a sheet of dark mirror ice."

Sun Valley Serenade was such a hit that Fox quickly turned out a follow-up, Orchestra Wives, again featuring the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the songs of Mack Gordon and Harry Warren. Two years later, Miller was dead in a plane crash over the English Channel, probably as the accidental result of bombs being jettisoned by RAF pilots flying above, though there has never been a conclusive official explanation.

By Jeremy Arnold

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