Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Film Reviews: Sun Valley Serenade & Wintertime

"Sun Valley Serenade" **** (out of ****)

It happens at the end of Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels" (1942) where a filmmaker learns the best way to serve a movie going public is not by making heavy, hard hitting social or political films showing the plight of the working man but instead by making them forget their problems and laugh.

I believe in that sentiment myself. Many, many times, there are movies that I like simply because they put me in a good mood. They aren't the best acted, best directed, most cleverly written or inventive, yet, they fulfill me. They provide me with exactly what I need. I smile endlessly while watching them. I forget my troubles and take delight in the characters and situations on-screen. That's good ol' Hollywood escapism and "Sun Valley Serenade" (1941) is a terrific example.

There will be film snobs, mostly of the younger variety, who may look at this film (if they have actually heard of it) and say there is no reason to praise this film. There are loop holes in the plot. The story doesn't go anywhere. They may be right on those counts but they are missing the point of watching a movie such as this.

"Sun Valley Serenade" has a very simple plot that is only slightly touched upon and addressed when it needs to be. The pleasure of the film comes in way of the music and comedy. "Sun Valley Serenade" is a 20th Century Fox musical starring Sonja Henie and John Payne with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Milton Berle in comic relief.

When it comes to musicals my feeling has always been a musical in only as good as the music in the film. If you have a decent enough plot with great music the movie will succeed. The music in "Sun Valley Serenade" is great. It is the real star of the movie and what gave me the most pleasure. It is filled with songs us old timers grew up listening to. The score includes Glenn Miller hits such as "Moonlight Serenade", "In the Mood" and "Chattanooga Choo Choo". These are the songs which take us back to our childhood.

For those unaware Glenn Miller was one of the giants of the big band era. He practically defined an era with more than 20 number one hits, including the three I already mentioned. His career was sadly cut short after he joined the army during WW2. His plane crashed and was never found. But here Miller & his Orchestra steal the show.

The thin story line involves John Payne as Ted Scott and piano player with Phil Corey's (Miller) band. They are looking for work. In fact they have been for weeks. Their manager, "Nifty" Allen (Milton Berle) is mostly good for cooking up publicity stunts which never get them anywhere. But "Nifty" thinks he can land the band a gig at a ski lodge in Sun Valley.

The band's luck starts to change when they just happen to be around when a famous singer, Vivian Dawn (Lynn Bari) gets into an argument with a bandleader over an arrangement of a song. Ted proclaims he and his band would be able to play the song the way Vivian wants and thus they land the job.

But that's not enough. You see, one of the publicity stunts worked out by "Nifty" involved them adopting a refugee since war is going on in Europe. They head down to immigration expecting to find themselves with a baby boy or girl. But what do they get? A grown Norwegian woman, Karen Benson (Sonja Henie). And now it is Ted's job to watch over her.

"Sun Valley Serenade" turns in a charming romantic comedy musical. Karen and Vivian have both fallen for Ted but naturally only one can get him. Which one?

An interesting note on the film is, there is really no mention of the war. Yes, Karen is a refugee but the film doesn't have a sentimental, patriotic feel to it. This isn't a war time musical comedy. Of course, the attack on Pearl Harbor happened at the end of 1941, clearly before this film hit theatres. But you can say the same about the other Sonja Henie film I'm reviewing, which was released in 1943 (!).

A lot of younger readers may have no clue who Sonja Henie is, a shame. She was, during this time, one of the highest paid female actors in Hollywood. Henie was born in Norway and was a famous figure skater. She won the gold medal at the Olympics three times; 1928, 1932 and 1936. Miss Henie however, after her skating career was over, decided she wanted to become an actress in Hollywood movies. So in 1936 Sonja Henie appeared in "One in A Million". In total she was in 11 Hollywood movies.

I can't in good faith say Henie was a great actress, she wasn't. But she was a likable personality. And she never took on more than she could handle. All of her characters were Norwegian and could figure skate. All of her films were light hearted musical comedies.

I can also say if you are looking to see Henie at her peak, "Sun Valley Serenade" probably isn't the best place to start. It could be one of the flaws of the movie. Henie's ice skating isn't given enough attention and properly coordinated into the plot. If you want to see Henie ice skate try finding "Happy Landing" (1938), one of her earlier films.

The reason for this is because so many other aspects are fighting for our attention. The music plays a big part and with a bandleader of the stature of Glenn Miller, you have to give them proper screentime. Also you have the comic relief provided by Milton Berle. And the love triangle.

Though even if we don't get to see Henie skate, the movie does allow her to give more of a performance. She plays the kind of woman you would find in a screwball comedy, scheming to find ways to win her man.

Milton Berle wasn't Mr. Television yet. He plays the kind of character most comics played in movies. Not only the best friend of the leading man, but an agent. Fred Allen, Jack Benny and even Jack Oakie would all play similar parts. More on Oakie later. Berle gets a lot of good one-liners in.

The film was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, a studio director at Fox. Most of the films I have seen by him were musicals. He directed Betty Grable in "Pin Up Girl" (1944, which I have reviewed) and Alice Faye in "Hello Frisco, Hello" (1943).

Leading man John Payne is probably best known to today's audiences for his role in the Christmas classic, "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947). But he was also in another Sonja Henie musical, "Iceland" (1942). Here he gets to sing a few songs and does them quite well.

There are flaws with "Sun Valley Serenade", the lack of Henie's ice skating for one. Joan Davis has brief role, almost a cameo, too bad more wasn't done with her and finally it has a very, very weak ending. Still, "Sun Valley Serenade" is simply too good natured. It becomes infectious. I smiled throughout the whole movie. The great music, likable actors, funny lines. It all makes "Sun Valley Serenade" a pleasure.

The film was nominated for three Oscars; "Best Song" (Chattanooga Choo Choo), "Best Music" and "Best Cinematography". Also spot the Nicholas Brothers and Dorothy Dandridge doing their version of "Chattanooga Choo Choo".

"Wintertime" *** (out of ****)

Hollywood often thinks if it simply repeats itself it will be able to strike lightning in a bottle twice. Sometimes they get lucky and it works, other times it feels like a pale imitation. That is somewhat the case with "Wintertime" (1943).

"Wintertime" is another Sonja Henie musical. It too has an attractive cast consisting of Cornel Wilde, S.Z. Sakall, Cesar Romero and Jack Oakie. Like "Sun Valley" with Berle, here the comic is Oakie, also playing an agent. We have a leading man (Wilde) caught between two women and even a bandleader. This time Woody Herman.

But "Wintertime" isn't as light hearted and carefree. "Sun Valley Serenade" lets the plot wash over you. "Wintertime" takes itself too seriously.

Hungarian leading man Cornel Wilde is Freddy Austin, who owns an abandoned inn in Canada. Oakie is Skip Hutton, who has devised a plan to boost Freddy's business. He has tricked a wealthy Norwegian and his niece into staying there. The plan is, once people find out about this, others will flock to it.

The wealthy Norwegian turns out to be another famous Hungarian actor, S.Z. Sakall, best known for his roles in "Casablanca" (1942) and "Christmas in Connecticut" (1945). The niece is, you guessed it, Henie as Nora Ostgaard. Strange that Hollywood would get a Hungarian to play a Norwegian. I guess to some people one accent sounds like the next. They don't but, I won't write another word about it.

Cesar Romero co-stars as Brad Barton a song and dance man with Herman's band, who prides himself on being a ladies man. Carole Landis is his female counterpart. They are sometimes romantically involved.

Some of the problems with "Wintertime" are, the music isn't as good here. Woody Herman was a very good musician. His band actually swung more than Miller. But the songs aren't as good and memorable. Though it is nice to see Herman. I've never seen him play. I've only heard him on my LPs. I hate to say it but, Jack Oakie isn't as funny as Milton Berle. Cornel Wilde isn't given much to do. He was still making a name for himself. He would have great success two years later with "A Song to Remember" (1945) his Oscar nominated performance as Chopin and in the film "Leave Her to Heaven" (1945).

"Wintertime" also does a bad job incorporating Henie's skating into the plot. She does more skating here than in "Sun Valley Serenade" but it isn't an important aspect of the plot. And it has a lousy ending that doesn't give us the usual happy couples ending.

Still "Wintertime" is harmless and has some funny moments and it is fun to see Woody Herman play. The same crowd that likes "Sun Valley Serenade" will probably find something good to say about this film.