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Deck the Halls December: Sun Valley Serenade (1941)

Chestnuts over an open fire, stringing popcorn for the tree covered in Shiny Brite ornaments and angel's hair, hot chocolate after an afternoon of ice skating: it's time for another classic movie Christmas. Cozy up with Rodney and Samantha this week as we discuss Sun Valley Serenade.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: While not strictly in the groove at a Christmas picture, Sun Valley Serenade meets our criteria by being adorned with lots of garland and ski slopes named after yuletide charms. Also, it’s a darn fun picture and I’m glad we jumped at the chance to view it.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: It is always depressing when Christmas ends and suddenly all the music, the holiday movies and the general atmosphere disappears. This movie was a nice comedown from the festivities because it is light, happy and decorated in winter fun.

RB: The plot, incidental as it is, as a way for us to enjoy so many of the highlights of the Glenn Miller songbook, centers around Miller’s band (ahem, Phil Corey’s band) trying to get a gig for the winter performing at the Sun Valley ski resort. No dice with these attempts, until manager Nifty Allen (Milton Berle), manages to link them up with singer Vivian Dawn (Lynn Bari) which gets them the job. Meanwhile, Nifty has another bright idea to bring in a refugee from Norway under the care of orchestra pianist Ted Scott (John Payne). They expect a little girl, but instead, they get Karen Benson (Sonja Henie) who quickly falls for Ted, competing with Vivian for his affection.

The plot is really just a framing sequence for countless great musical numbers performed by Miller’s orchestra, then riding high as the most popular band in the US. Vocals are lip synced by Lynn Bari and dubbed by Pat Friday, who had quite a career start at the time, serving as the summer substitute for Bing Crosby on radio. Crosby supposedly blackballed her when she nixed her association with him upon her marriage. FOX signed her on to dub Bari’s vocals, but she was contractually obligated not to reveal that she was working on the film, enabling studio publicists to promote Bari’s newfound vocal gifts (most critics were fooled, Motion Picture Daily reporting that she “sings enchantingly”). The Nicholas Brothers and Dorothy Dandridge are also on hand for a number, and Henie stops the show a couple of times with crowd-pleasing ice skating numbers.

SG: The Chatanooga Choo Choo scene is split into two sections. One is the Glenn Miller Orchestra performing the song, with a few insert shots of Miller and a group of trombonists playing directly into the camera, a moment screaming out for 3D technology. Then it switches to a caboose set where Harold and Fayard Nicholas flirt with a beautiful Dandridge in black satin. The boys perform a routine based on the Lindy Hop with gymnastics mixed into tap, and it is incredible. They deserve much more than the piteous applause they get on screen from the band, and they did with theater audiences who cheered when the song was over. The reason this sequence feels separated from the rest of the film is because it was designed that way so that southern theaters could cut the black people out of the movie if they so chose. Racial segregation was alive and thriving at the time of this film's release.

RB: The film provided a big break for star Lynn Bari, the first big budget role FOX put her in arguably one of the two biggest pictures in which she starred (the other being Orchestra Wives). Darryl Zanuck himself thought of the basic plot while vacationing in Sun Valley and assigned a full staff of writers to flesh out his plot idea. With Zanuck’s direct involvement and a high budget, this was slated to be a bigger film than many cast members (Milton Berle included) had been used to.

Zanuck sent Bari and Payne on a large multi-city promotional tour coinciding with the film’s release, including countless radio interviews and attending local film premieres. This culminated with an appearance in Lynn’s hometown of Roanoke, VA, as they were greeted by a mob of hometown fans. Meanwhile, things weren’t going so hot for Sonja Henie, whose last few films hadn’t performed well at the box office, which did little to curb her wild demands for money. She was on the verge of being dropped by the studio, and there are multiple reports of stubborn and erratic behavior on the set of Serenade. Fortunately for her, the film proved to be a big hit, and even though Zanuck couldn’t stand her, he permitted her contract to be extended for two films (neither of which performed well, possibly because they didn’t contain Miller’s music, but that’s just a hunch on my part) before canning her.

SG: Henie was a big Olympics star from Oslo, Norway. She was courted by several movie studios, but she held out for Twentieth Century Fox because she felt Zanuck handled oddball subjects the best. She struggled to convince him she was leading lady material, and fought to keep her skating scenes from becoming inserts the way the Nicholas Brothers dance number was. She worked very hard and said that shooting skating numbers for films was more brutal than her Olympic training and for the first time she began getting massages after a day's work. Her abilities are breathtaking and look impossible. She was a dizzying talent.

RB: Speaking of Sonja Henie and her onset behavior, Bari tells an amusing story in her biography, Foxy Lady. It seems that she was to wear a certain dress for a now cut number that would’ve introduced the world to the classic, At Last that Henie took a shine to and wanted to wear in the scene. I’ll let Lynn pick up the story from here:

“It seemed that Sonja wanted to wear the dress. She was playing a peasant girl! Everything stopped on the set and now they’re all talking about my dress. So Darryl Zanuck comes down. When Zanuck comes down to the set, something really terrible is happening, even a cameraman’s death wouldn’t bring him down! He said to her, “But Sonja dear, you’re playing a peasant girl. You’ve just come over from

Norway. It would be ridiculous for you to wear this. She put her foot down, “I want that dress!” Ther’s a pall, and finally the two of them go into her dressing room for a long talk.”

Eventually, the scene is shot (without Sonja wearing the dress), so you’d assume that would be the end of it, but it wasn’t. As Lynn continues:

“Later on, Sonja had us up to dinner when she was married to Bob Topping…while the guys were all having a brandy she came over to me and said “Come upstairs. I show you my bedroom.” It’s a big, elegant room. She opens the doors to this tremendous closet. And there’s that dress! Miniature sized. She swings it out and says, “Vell, I had to do it. I had it made. Looks like hell on me!” She was a very persistent lady”.

SG: That's too funny, and an example of how the Hollywood lifestyle can go to your head. But also that Henie had a sense of humor about herself and was willing to fess up to Bari about it.

RB: Really, the only negative thing I can say about this film is that the always funny Joan Davis was wasted in only a couple of scenes that didn’t wind up on the cutting room floor. I’d have liked to have seen more of her, but that’s a small nit pick. The songs are absolutely fantastic, Bari is at her peak (much better than the last time we covered one of her films, the dreadful Amazing Mr. X), Henie’s ice skating numbers are super fun, and there’s just a general delightful vibe all around. Sadly, I guess due to music rights, this film has never seen a proper home video release in the US, which is a shame because anyone who enjoys the music and fun of a 1940’s musical would do well to spend time with this four star film.

SG: For me this was just a three star movie. It is a lot of fun with great music and it is bursting with talent, but the story fizzles out at the end, with a couple of awkward moments. At the end, Henie tricks Payne into staying in a cabin with her feigning injury, attempting to seduce him. She initiates a pillow fight, and he goes from anger to laughter too quickly, and then she says that if he married someone else he would never have fun like that. It is too on-the-nose and feels awkward and forced. However, if you're looking for a happy diversion, Sun Valley Serenade is a great choice.

Join us in January for movies about juveniles. Have a great New Year!

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