Only 10 months after she turned professional, the world’s most famous non-Hollywood movie star was on the precipice of becoming, well, a Hollywood movie star.
Sonja Henie’s amateur figure skating career — boasting of an unheard of three consecutive Olympic gold medals plus 10 consecutive world championships — had electrified the sporting world. By the mid-1930’s Hollywood took notice. For her part, Sonja was more than ready to begin the movie career she had long coveted.
Enter 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck (pictured with Sonja above), who had been dazzled by her performances in one of Sonja’s ice-capades. “I’ve signed Miss Henie and her skates,” he announced. “Even if she couldn’t skate, I’d have signed her anyway, but not for so much money.” In fact, the skating phenomenon passed studio muster without having to take the usual screen test.
Hello, everybody, Joe Morella and Frank Segers back again with our pal, author and former figure skater Edward Z. Epstein, to continue our Sonja Henie series with a look at her abreviated (only 11 movies) but commercially hyper-successful Hollywood movie career.
What did Zanuck see in this diminutive, strikingly dimpled, 22-year-old Norwegian gamin that convinced him she was star material?
Besides having that charismatic je ne sais quoi genuine stars possess, Henie’s extraordinary skills afforded rare opportunities for the kinds of big, lavish production numbers that play well onscreen. From a strictly commercial standpoint, her signing was one of Zanuck’s best talent moves.
Henie made her screen debut in 1936’s romantic musical comedy “One In A Million,” playing an Olympic skating aspirant discovered by a theatrical manager (Adolphe Menjou), who brings his find to Madison Square Garden. Observing all this is a young Paris-based newspaper reporter (Don Ameche).
Making the picture wasn’t easy. Writes Epstein: It had been excruciatingly hard work to film the skating scenes. The cameramen had never had to photograph a swiftly moving skater. Keeping her in focus was a technical nightmare, and often skating scenes had to be repeated 25 and 30 times. The exhausted Sonya — only 22 years old — thought she’d drop from the effort.
She didn’t, and the movie was an enormous success at the box office. “One In A Million” set the boilerplate for a Henie picture, frothy comedies sometimes with music but always with extravagantly-mounted skating numbers. “I want to do for figure skating what Fred Astaire has done for dancing,” said Sonja early in her career.
She instantly became a star, and was cast opposite another Fox star, Tyrone Power, in the second of her movies, 1937’s “Thin Ice.” Described by Zanuck biographer Mel Gussow as “a creaky vehicle about a skating instructor who is wooed by a prince disguised as a commoner,” the picture — creaky or not — proved to be Fox’s biggest-grossing movie that year.
In fact, after making only two studio pictures, Henie was the highest paid actress in Hollywood.
“In 1937, she was making $210,729 ($3.3 million in today’s dollars),” according to Gussow, compared with studio boss Zanuck’s payout of $260,000 ($4.1 million in today’s dollars).”
The curtain rang down on Henie’s movie career in the late Forties, but before then she had appeared with a raft of Fox stars. She was reunited with Ameche in 1938’s “Happy Landing” and with Power (that fellow pictured to the right below) a year later in “Second Fiddle,” with the actor cast as a studio publicist of all things who falls for a Minnesota skating teacher.
Sonja played opposite Ray Milland and Robert Cummings in 1939’s “Everything Happens At Night,” and was double-billed with John Payne in 1941’s “Sun Valley Serenade” (notably featuring the Glenn Miller orchestra) and in 1942’s “Iceland.” Her costar in 1943’s “Wintertime” was Cesar Romero.
As Gussow put it, “Sonja Henie was (depicted) as pure as the driven snow, and in all her movies she was surrounded with it.”
Always an astute businesswoman, Henie parlayed her movie fame by appearing in The Hollywood Ice Revue, an in-person forerunner of today’s Ice Capades. Her show packed huge arenas. (Towards the end of her life — she died of leukemia in 1969 — Sonja was ranked among the world’s wealthiest women.)