Sun Valley Serenade (1941)

Despite not having a particularly complicated plot or premise, Sun Valley Serenade is the kind of movie that you almost have to see to believe. I say "almost" because, while there's a lot to like here, some dated stylistic elements hold it back from crossing that line into unconditional recommendation territory. It comes close, mainly thanks to the mid-movie sequences in which... well....

Okay, here's the thing: this movie occupies a very unusual place on the spectrum of movies best seen unspoiled. There's a delightful twist in tone and point of view that's entirely unintentional. Audiences in 1941 were already in on something that those watching eight decades later won't be, and it recontextualizes the movie in some fascinating ways.

So, if you're a really big fan of romantic comedies from this era and have a high tolerance for musical numbers that are mostly video recordings of famous performers playing instruments (a substantial portion of this movie is footage of the Glenn Miller Orchestra playing now-classic songs), consider checking out until you've tracked this down. Again, I'm not saying this is a movie you need to see, but I want to leave the door open for anyone interested.

For the rest of you, let's jump into the plot. The movie opens by introducing Ted Scott (played by John Payne, who'd go on to star in Miracle on 34th Street later the same decade) and his band (played by Glenn Miller and the Glenn Miller Orchestra). Ted falls for a famous singer, Vivian Dawn (played by Lynn Bari), who reciprocates his interest and agrees to team up with the band for a gig over the holidays at a ski resort in Sun Valley.

This is a big break for Ted and the band, and they're thrilled for the opportunity. But just as they're getting ready to celebrate, Ted gets a telegram that he's been selected to take in a war refugee due to an attempted publicity stunt he participated in months earlier and forgot about. He's not happy about the idea of having to look after an orphaned child, but his manager convinces him they'll be able to juggle it along with the job. With the band in tow, he heads to Ellis Island to make the most of the situation and try to get some flattering news coverage out of the deal.

Only instead of a child, he discovers he's been given the task of looking after the welfare of Karen, a full-grown Norwegian woman played by Sonja Henie, who - along with fleeing her home - came to America in search of a man to marry. Less than a day later she informs Ted she's decided that man is going to be him, and she's not deterred by the fact he's adamant about his relationship with Vivian.

Ted attempts to leaves Karen behind when he heads to Sun Valley, but she follows in secret. She follows him up the ski slopes and starts down after him. And here's where the experience of watching the movie seriously diverges for those of us without a strong background in 1940s popular culture.

I sincerely doubt anyone watching in 1941 would have been in the least bit surprised by what happened next, because they'd have known who the real star of the movie was. If you're like me, you probably honed in on the name, Glenn Miller, the legendary jazz performer, and glossed over Sonja Henie, unaware she was a world-famous Olympic skater and one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. So audiences then would have expected her to ski rings around Payne, typical gender politics be damned.

And that's what happens. She essentially picks a fight and chases him down the slope, easily ducking out of sight, switching places, jumping over his skis, ducking between his legs... you get the idea. It's basically Looney Tunes-style hijinks in live-action, with her playing the part of the loveable trickster, and him the confused and outclassed straight man. It's a delightful deviation from the dynamic I was expecting.

And it keeps up. Karen isn't just a better skier - she's more clever than anyone else in the movie. She's always one step ahead, and she always seems to know how to manipulate those around her. The only character who seems capable of challenging her at all is Vivian, who catches on to her game and nearly ends it by announcing that she's decided to accept Ted's proposal. Karen then tricks Ted into one last ski down the mountain, in which she fakes an injury and manages to get the two of them alone in a lodge, giving her both time to win him over and push Vivian into giving Ted an ultimatum.

By now, though, Ted's having so much fun he's willing to just go along with the nonsense and get married. As for the fact they kind of needed Vivian to fulfill the band's obligations to the venue, well... this just kind of gets brushed aside and instead of resolving the plot there's an extended imaginary skating sequence closing out the movie.

To be fair, it's a gorgeous sequence, with a perfectly reflective black pond (there are horror stories as to how that effect was achieved) and some incredible skating from Henie.

That's the plot, though it's worth noting it's probably less than half the movie, due to the many extended musical sequences, most of which are built around The Glenn Miller Orchestra. The most striking of which is probably a performance of "Chattanooga Choo Choo" in which Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers appear as well.

It's worth noting the musical numbers are, for the most part, relatively grounded compared to iconic Hollywood musicals. Aside from the ice skating sequence at the end, there's not much in the way of fantasy. The movie does tend to push the limits of feasibility around the size and layouts of the sets and effort was clearly taken to film the performances cinematically, but the focus is to capture the performance, not create some sort of Hollywood magic.

I don't think that's inherently bad, but it does limit the movie's lasting impact. We're used to seeing and hearing recorded performances now, so watching them with little embellishment doesn't have anywhere near the impact it used to. This is a big part of why I hesitate to endorse the movie to people who aren't obsessed with this sort of thing.

Another reason is the movie's decision to turn Vivian into an antagonist. I celebrated the ways this subverted gender cliches, so it's only fair I acknowledge its shortcomings, too. Halfway through, I actually hoped they'd sidestep this when they established Vivian wasn't anywhere near as invested in her relationship with Ted as he was. In addition, when she initially met Karen, Vivian was kind and seemed encouraging.

But no such luck. As soon as Vivian realizes Karen's interested in Ted, she decides she wants him after all, and the movie transitions into a generic contest between the two of them. By the end we're supposed to dislike Vivian, despite the fact if anyone's been wronged here, it's her. It's not a deal-breaker on its own, but it does make the whole thing feel a bit less progressive than it otherwise might have.

Let's move on to Christmas. Or let's at least attempt to, because the movie skirts the line of what most people would consider a Christmas movie. The events play out during the lead-up to the holidays, so it technically counts (at least according to my litmus tests), but the holidays themselves are largely absent. There are some decorations, but these appear sparingly. Likewise, Ted wears a Christmas sweater (or at least what I'd consider a Christmas sweater) for the last act of the movie, but there's not much in the way of anyone acknowledging the holidays directly.

On top of this, the movie focuses on Glenn Miller's music, so it certainly doesn't sound like what we've been conditioned to expect from the genre (though it's worth noting the typical holiday music "sound" was mostly established in the decade after this came out).

As far as themes or holiday connections are concerned, there's not much here. You could, of course, read into the idea of time stopping at the end of the year as being manifested symbolically by the wintery ski resort... but mostly I think they just wanted an excuse to feature Henie's athletic skill. Likewise, I'm not sure I'd buy the idea that this is intentionally playing with connections between the holidays and transformative life changes, so much as it's following a generic romantic comedy template.

Regardless, it certainly looks festive, thanks to the snow and associated winter imagery, and it's set at Christmas (the movie's a tad ambiguous, but I'm pretty certain the last scene is supposed to be on December 23rd).

Before wrapping this up, I feel like I should touch on one of the reasons I suspect Sonja Henie isn't better known, and - I'm warning you now - it's a doozy. While there is a great deal of mitigating context (or at least there's arguably mitigating context), prior to the start of World War II she was on relatively good terms with Adolph Hitler, who was a huge fan. She once greeted him with a Nazi salute, she joined him once for lunch, she accepted a photo from him... you get the idea. And, while there doesn't seem to be any evidence she was sympathetic to his politics, this is all at a time when those politics were recognized for what they were: she was heavily criticized for being friendly with him.

That said, she went on to make several movies critical of Germany (including, at least to a limited degree, this one). I don't feel like I understand the situation well enough to weigh in as to what degree this should tarnish her legacy, but - at the very least - it seems worth acknowledging. I also think it's likely her background contributed to her being largely ignored by history, despite having been a massive movie star and apparently leaving a lasting mark on figure skating, both as a sport and as a form of popular entertainment.

And, for what it's worth, she's good in this. The whole cast is, but the movie ultimately rests on Henie's shoulders, and she carries it. I should also acknowledge Milton Berle does good comedic work in a major supporting role. The aspects of the movie that hold it back aren't due to a lack of quality, so much as simply not holding up over time.