What name springs to mind when one thinks of Ice Skating?
Sonja Henie, you say?
You are right! She is to ice skating what Babe Ruth is the baseball. Synonymous. While many today don’t know what she looked like or what she accompished, they know her name.
Sonja Henie (there she is, above) was not only a superb world class athlete and BIG movie star in the Thirties and Forties, she was the first to bring the world of skating to the masses.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your Classic Movie guys, here to begin our multiple-part visit with a groundbreaking figure of literally Olympic proportions who is, for our money, the most successful athlete-turned-movie star in Hollywood history.
We’ll be joined in our Sonja Henie triptych by longtime friend Edward Z. Epstein, who co-authored with Joe more than 15 books about show business and stars that drive movie box office. Ed is particularly suited to assess Henie the athlete since he himself has been a skating enthusiast since childhood, and is a former Middle-Atlantic States Novice Champion.
The diminutive (5 foot 3 inch) “scintillating sensation on ice” was born in Oslo, Norway in 1912, the daughter of a fur wholesaler. She was given her first pair of skates when she was just six years old. By 14, Henie was Norwegian skating champion. A year later she won an Olympic gold medal in skating, as she would again in 1932 and in 1936.
In all, Henie won 10 consecutive world championships. Writes Epstein: “to the present day no singles’ skater has ever equaled (or come close to equaling) Sonja’s competitive record.”
Forget Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Michelle Kwan, Katarina Witt, Nancy Kerrigan — much less Tonya Harding. Sonja Henie is a figure skating legend who set the competitive and sylistic bar. She brought ballet, white skates and short skating dresses to competition, and inspired Walter Winchell, that notoriously curmudgeonly newspaper columnist, to dub her “Norway’s most dazzling export.”
By the late Thirties, Henie was the world’s most famous non-movie star. Following her Olympic triumphs she turned professional and toured with her own ice show. With an eye towards establishing a movie career despite the conventional wisdom of the time that no figure skater can “carry” a picture, Sonja booked Hollywood’s sole ice arena and staged her shows.
As Epstein writes, “she was a sensation. Her show became the hottest ticket in town, with such local notables as Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy and Ginger Rogers on hand, ‘yelling themselves hoarse, applauding like first-time fans at a football game,’ recalled actor-comedian Jack Oakie.”
Also in the audience was Darryl F. Zanuck, the mogul sitting atop 20th Century Fox, who later recalled that he was told “to watch the boy she was dancing with.” In his biography of Zanuck — “The Last Movie Tycoon” — author Mel Gussow noted that instead, the Fox boss’s gaze was riveted exclusively on Sonja.
The studio boss quickly “signed her to a contract without a screen test — in purely commercial terms one of Zanuck’s best decisions.” By 1937, Henie was the highest paid actress in Hollywood, earning almost as much money as Zanuck himself.
We’ll have much more on Henie’s Hollywood career in a later blog. And relying heavily on Epstein — after all, what do we know about figure skating? — we’ll also take a look at Sonja Henie the athlete.