Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, delighted to turn over our blog today and tomorrow to our pal and fellow writer Edward Z. Epstein, who best appreciates Belita because Ed was formerly a formidable figure skater himself.
Exclusive for Classic Movie Chat
Belita – Take 2
by Edward Z. Epstein
It was 1992, and Belita had traveled from London to New York especially for the event. It was quite an occasion, and took place on June 9 at Dick Button’s Manhattan apartment. Famous skaters, past and present, choreographers, and production people, many of whom had worked with Belita, were on hand — the star was being honored by Ice Theatre of New York.
It was an evening to benefit the organization’s Rehearsal Fund, and the highlight was to be a screening of Belita’s memorable (1946) film, Suspense, followed by a question-and-answer session.
I’d written an article on her — Fire & Ice: The Magic of Belita — for Ice Theatre’s skating magazine, and the reaction was totally unexpected. There were phone calls and letters from all over the world, from people who had worked with and admired Belita, a skater’s skater, and who wanted to know how she was, where she was, what she was doing.
Soon afterwards, I received an early Sunday morning phone call, at home. It was an unfamiliar female voice: “Mr. Epstein? This is Belita. I want to thank you for that article.” She was calling from London. The whispery, soft voice from Suspense had evolved into vintage Lauren Bacall, and she went on to say how kind I was for “bringing me back into the spotlight…”
Her absence from the spotlight had been voluntary. She’d retired from skating in 1956 (at the age of thirty-three), and three years later was out of show business altogether: “A civilian at last!” In 1981, at the age of fifty-eight, there was a brief return to the ice for a special one-night-only benefit performance at Madison Square Garden.
Maria Belita Gladys Olive Lyne Jepson-Turner had been decades ahead of her time in brilliantly combining figure skating and ballet (she’d had classical Russian ballet training). As a young dancer, she was partner to Anton Dolin, appearing with the prestigious Dolin-Markova ballet.
She would rise to prominence in the skating world, not as a competitor, but in the world of professional skating, a world unto itself. She was a sensation in an ice show at Manhattan’s New Yorker Hotel.
Hollywood came calling. She skated in several films in the early forties, but Suspense was the one with lasting impact (even the dance critic from The New Yorker was on hand to report on the Ice Theatre tribute).
It was a film noir, released in 1946, an outstanding year for noirs: The Postman Always Rings Twice, starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, and Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth, were big hits.
Like Lana and Rita, Belita was a femme fatale, but with an added element: she was a figure skater of breathtaking ability, and totally different in style than the skating world’s leading star attraction, the inimitable Sonja Henie.
Was Sonja intimidated? The two were as dissimilar as Lana Turner and Doris Day. According to Belita, Sonja’s studio, 20th Century-Fox, had early-on offered Belita a contract — “They told me I could name my own price” — with a proviso: she was “never to set foot on the ice again!” (One of Belita’s closest friends, Joe Marshall, owns a memento she gave him, a photograph of Sonja, inscribed: “To Velita [sic] — Sonja Henie.”
Thirteen-year-old Belita had competed in the 1936 Olympic Games, won by 24- year-old Sonja (Belita placed sixteenth.) If Cyd Charisse had been a figure skater, she’d have skated like Belita.
Gwen Verdon was a teenager living in California when she first saw Belita skate in person (the young women were around the same age). They used to let her skate between public sessions at the Pan Pacific rink in California, Verdon recalled. “The rink was huge, and there’d been so many people skating on it that there was a good inch of water covering the surface. But Belita would work out, she wanted the water there, because she was going to try dangerous moves and once she got her speed going, if she fell, she wouldn’t hurt herself because she’d just slide more with the water.
We all took up ice skating after seeing her, Verdon noted. She was so wonderful and her legs were so long.
Belita’s films were produced by a very small studio, Monogram. Silver Skates and Lady Let’s Dance were popular enough so that the studio had bigger plans for her, although Belita’s cool, artistic style was perhaps a bit too sophisticated for mass film audiences of the day.
Another factor inhibiting widespread recognition of Belita’s movies was the fact that there wasn’t room in those days for more than one “specialty” superstar per field. Esther Williams was the girl in the MGM swimming pool; Sonja Henie, of course, was the goldmine-on-ice at 20th Century-Fox. The major studios owned theatre chains; smaller operations had to distribute their product on a much more haphazard basis, the films usually playing in far fewer theaters and at dramatically less profitable terms.
STAY TUNED, LOTS MORE ON BELITA… PART II TOMORROW.
The photo above was taken by Constantine and is courtesy of Joe Marshall.