Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to usher in the second of writer and old pal Edward Z. Epstein’s two guest blogs — written exclusively for Classic Movie Chat — on Belita, the ‘ice maiden’ (yup, that’s her above with co-star Barry Sullivan).
Belita -Take 2 Part II
by Edward Z. Epstein
Sonja Henie’s films were happy stories, family entertainment. Suspense, planned (in 1946) as Belita’s “break-out” film, was a tale of adultery and murder, and the film would certainly prove that skating was not out of place in a melodrama. It provided Belita with an opportunity to showcase her outstanding versatility, and it was Monogram’s first “A” production, complete with million-dollar budget.
The director was Frank Tuttle, a Hollywood veteran. The script was by Phillip Yordan, who’d successfully guided Ava Gardner through her first starring role the previous year (in Whistle Stop). A top supporting cast was assembled, including Barry Sullivan, Bonita Granville, Albert Dekker, and memorable character actor Eugene Pallette (this was his last film).
Although uncredited, the legendary Edith Head (under contract to Paramount) created Belita’s wardrobe; the producers were sparing no expense, and wanted everything about her first-class. The great Nick Castle conceived the skating numbers — a moving camera, mounted on a crane, an expensive piece of equipment in those days, was utilized for some numbers, and deftly captured the excitement and momentum of ice skating. Daniele Amfitheatrof’s music and Karl Struss’s photography were top-drawer.
It’s definitely not like watching a skating competition on television.
One of the crucial plot points involves skating star Roberta Elva (Belita) doing a split-jump through a hoop of “knives.” She bursts from the “Jaws of Death,” skates flashing, her costume glittering. She circles the rink at ever-increasing speed, building to the split jump.
It wasn’t trick photography, she recalled. They weren’t knives, of course, but they might as well have been. The “blades” were fashioned of hard rubber, pointed and dangerous and sheathed with aluminum that had enough of an edge to draw blood if you ran your finger over it.
The stunt was perilous. The hoop wasn’t the prop I’d been prepared for. I’d been training to jump over a line of “knives,” a high jump. At the last minute the producers switched it and suddenly I had to do a long jump.
She did it on the first take. Tickets had been sold for the day’s shooting (which required an audience). The producers, the King brothers, wanted a second take, she recalled. I did it only once.
A memorable solo number had her costumed in off-the-shoulder white, her blond hair dressed Greek goddess-style. The number is exciting and timeless, combining the power of skating with the grace of ballet, culminating in a “Charlotte” spiral that is a virtual show stopper, even by today’s standards. (The great American skating champion Sonya Klopfer Dunfield summed up this routine, and Belita’s technique, when she exclaimed, with unbridled enthusiasm: ”The control! The control!”)
In the film, Belita also performs a sexy, throbbing Latin number; at another point she skates on a small frozen mountain “lake,” executing turn-and-a-half flips and a blurry cross-foot spin. The film is a tour-de-force for her, not only displaying her skating but revealing a believable, understated, likable persona in the acting scenes.
As one of her longtime friends told me: If she’d been a relentless self-promoter, money oriented and determined to be a household name, she could have and would have accomplished that. But she was first and foremost ‘an artist,’ she could be quite difficult, and life held other attractions, and distractions, for her.
There were many love affairs. She was married twice: to Joel McGinnis (the marriage lasted ten years) and, for thirty-three years (until his death), to Irish actor James Berwick.
She studied acting with Charles Laughton (even appeared with him in a stage production of The Cherry Orchard), but, after Suspense, she skated in no more films (although she starred in her own highly successful ice show abroad). The cycle for skating films had run its course; even Sonja made no more movies after 1948 (except for her self-produced Hello, London! ten years later).
Belita was re-united with Suspense co-star Barry Sullivan in a well-regarded noir, The Gangster. She was in The Man on the Eiffel Tower (Laughton was one of the stars). She had a small role as a ballerina in Silk Stockings, and, in a long, platinum Veronica Lake-like wig, was the featured “killer blonde” dancer in Gene Kelly’s Invitation to the Dance.
There were other films, but Belita off the ice was like Esther (Williams) out of the pool: a major element was missing.
That memorable June evening in 1992, (mentioned yesterday) — the Ice Theater of New York benefit — was awash in nostalgia. Belita was sixty- seven, a survivor (including a bout with cancer), and proud of it.
There’d been no plastic surgery on her face. She looked glamorous in a coffee-colored chiffon cocktail dress, sling-back high heels, her blonde hair worn up, a delicate pearl and diamond brooch sparkling on her shoulder.
After the screening of Suspense, there was a question-and-answer session. She began by making a statement: I appreciate your response, but I must emphasize that the company of skaters in ‘Suspense’ was marvelous! A wonderful, talented group of people. I want to make a special point of that, how important they were. We inspired each other to do our best.”
She was pleased with the adulation she inspired, but hardly viewed her Hollywood years, or her years as a skating star, through a rose-colored filter. Quite the opposite.
Her skates, the “lucky” pair she’d worn through much of her career (and in Suspense), were discreetly displayed on a side table. One couldn’t help staring at them — they were old and worn, but for a skating buff they had the same impact as the ballet slippers Moira Shearer wore in The Red Shoes.
Belita died in 2005, at the age of eighty-two. Will future skaters, and believers in the art of film noir, be inspired by the magic of Belita? To quote one of the people at the tribute: As long as ‘Suspense’ remains in circulation, so will she.”
Joe Morella and Frank Segers saying thanks, Ed. Your two parter on Belita was fascinating.
Our readers might like to know that Ed Epstein, who has co-authored a number of books with Joe Morella, is also a skater, a former Middle-Atlantic States Novice champion. He wrote the notes for, and helped organize, a festival of Sonja Henie’s films for MoMA in New York; he’s also written a biography of young figure skating legend Michelle Kwan (Ballantine).
Epstein’s biography of Jennifer Jones, “Portrait of Jennifer,” the only full-scale, hardback biography of Jones to date, has recently been published by Simon & Schuster in a trade paperback edition.
Here’s one more shot of Belita.