Happy Landing

Released on January 28, 1938, Twentieth Century-Fox's dramedy "Happy Landing" was reported as the eighth highest grossing film of that year; the relatively new studio's second highest. It was three-time Olympic Gold Medallist and ten time World Champion Sonja Henie's third major Hollywood film. Produced by Darryl Zanuck and David Hempstead, the film was directed by Roy Del Ruth, who had previously directed the Oscar nominated MGM film "Broadway Melody Of 1936".

Sonja was reunited with Don Ameche and Jean Hersholt, whom she'd worked with in her first film "One In A Million". Cesar Romero, then better known for more serious roles, and singer extraordinaire Ethel Merman also headlined the cast. wo drums called "War Dance For The Wooden Indians".

Milton Sperling and Boris Ingster wrote "Happy Landing". The script went through at least three working titles including "Happy Ending", "Hot and Happy" and perhaps most amusingly, "Bread, Butter and Rhythm". The plot of the film involved an orchestra leader named Duke Sargent (played by Romero) and his manager Jimmy Hall (played by Ameche) accidentally landing their plane in Norway and meeting Trudy Ericksen (Henie's character).

Cesar Romero

The trio end up in America, where Trudy's figure skating talent is discovered and Jimmy becomes her manager. Trudy, the two men and Flo Kelly (Ethel Merman's character) become entangled in a series of romantic mishaps and misunderstandings and a double marriage ultimately occurs. As was the case in many of Henie's films, musical, dance, skating and specialty numbers often overshadowed the plot.

Don Ameche, Sonja Henie and Cesar Romero. Photo courtesy National Archives Of Poland.

The bulk of the filming for "Happy Landing" was done on stage fifteen of the Twentieth-Century Fox lot in Hollywood. "Silver Screen" magazine reported, "A section of a Norwegian street [on the lot] was covered by a huge black tent for shooting a night sequence in 'Happy Landing'. A man with a red flag kept all unauthorized persons away whenever shooting started. Inside this nocturnal tent was a bit of recreated Norway in midwinter. Snow - of the Hollywood variety, a mixture of gypsum and salt - lay deep on the ground. A bevy of comely blonde lassies in bright Norwegian costumes were dancing with the young bloods of the village to the spirited music of a native orchestra. The dancing platform was festooned around with swinging Japanese lamps."

Photo courtesy National Archives Of Poland.

Sonja worked hard to develop a new 'trick' for the film, a cannonball position sit spin where she held her leg as she pulled up into the upright position. In rehearsals, she tripped over a piece of cotton on the ice and flew backwards and hit her head, suffering a slight concussion and reportedly knocking herself unconscious for several minutes. Dr. William Branch told reporters "the injury was not serious and she would return to work within a day or two." 

Sonja Henie, Don Ameche, Ethel Merman and Cesar Romero

A number of rumours (many cooked up by Twentieth Century-Fox) helped fuel the 'publicity machine' until filming wrapped up on December 11, 1937. First and foremost of course was the tabloid's field day over a Sonja/Janet Gaynor/Tyrone Power love triangle. Sonja's appearances with Romero, Richard Greene and Jimmy Stewart gave gossip columnists cause to speculate over who the lucky man in Sonja's life really was. There was even a rumour about Sonja having a man back in Norway by the rather unimaginative name of 'Carl Carlson'. The mystery man likely never even existed.

A second rumour was that Sonja wore a beaded cap, bodice and a three hundred year old embroidered skirt in the film that had been passed down as a dowry in the Henie family. Sonja laughed this one off by saying, "How could I wear a dress three hundred years old? The silk would be all torn, wouldn't it?" A third  rumour suggested that Sonja was being 'difficult' on set. In her column, Louella Parsons wrote, "I've heard everything. Sonja Henie is asking for her release from Twentieth Century-Fox. The little ice skater had never made a picture and could barely speak English when Darryl Zanuck signed her and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building her to stardom and now Sonja, who was the sweetest thing I ever met when she first came to Hollywood, is going temperamental on us. Her grievance is the long working hours at the studio and her annoyance at being asked to close her highly successful personal appearance tour."

Ethel Merman and Cesar Romero

Perhaps most amusing was the rumour that Ethel Merman sent herself a corsage on set... and the bill for said corsage to Cesar Romero.

Don Ameche and Sonja Henie on set

At one point, Sonja was visited on the set by Viggo Christensen, the mayor of Copenhagen, who requested her autograph. After polishing off a slice of pineapple with shredded carrot and fruit compote for lunch, she agreed to speak to a reporter from "Silver Screen" magazine. She told them, "Figure skating for the screen is the hardest of all because you have to hit certain marks and always be within range of the camera. You don't have the freedom you enjoy on skating rinks elsewhere... I make up all my dance numbers. Figure skating is nothing but dancing on ice. I have a wonderful dance director to work with, Harry Losée. I first outline on paper what I want to do, and then talk it over with him. He knows everything about camera angles."

Photo courtesy National Archives Of Poland.

One three-minute scene took ten working days, none shorter than ten hours, to film. The sequence was an ice ballet with Sonja and an ensemble of thirty skaters, inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Snow Maiden". The set was an artificial 'Norwegian lake' surrounded by pine trees and snow covered mountains, with two twenty five foot high Papier-mâché snow figures as props. Some of the reasons there were so many takes were lighting problems, noises made by lookers-on which made their way on the soundtrack and timing issues by skaters. During filming, Sonja reportedly wracked up a bill in excess of two thousand dollars on hosiery alone. She wore out at least two pairs of stockings a day, which cost thirty-five dollars each.

Bert Clark

Sonja's stand-in for "Happy Landing" was a forty-five year old veteran named Bert Clark. Clark hailed from Winnipeg, Manitoba and competed against Norval Baptie and Everett McGowan in speed skating races in the roaring twenties. Clark first came to Los Angeles in 1924 to manage an ice rink. Two years later, he already was instructing and doubling for film stars with no skating experience. "Motion Picture" magazine noted, "Bert has to don clothes like hers, and do her stuff... They couldn't find a gal for the job so they hired Bert as the only male stand-in for a female players - and while Sonja rests as lights and cameras are set up, Bert goes through the routine to assure that when Sonja steps out, they'll get the best angle on her. Sonja's legs are neater." Bert was the only one on set Sonja would trust with her 'good' seventy dollar blades. The "Los Angeles Herald And Express" reported, "When Bert Clark called the ensemble together a spokesman politely informed him that no member of the chorus would rehearse until new skates – like those worn by Miss Henie – had been provided. Stumped because it is rather difficult to replace 80 trained skaters, the studio promptly agreed to supply the chorus with skates costing $45 per pair. One hundred pairs of skates arrived early Friday morning, long before the rink had been frozen. The 80 girls and boys are now skimming along in a very happy mind."

Leif, Sonja and Selma Henie at the premiere of "Happy Landing"

When "Happy Landing" was released, Twentieth Century-Fox spared no expense in promoting the film, which faced stiff competition from Walt Disney's first full-length feature film, "Snow White And The Seven Dwarves". 

In Washington, an airplane towing a "Happy Landing" banner flew over the city. Ads appeared in every major newspaper and when the show premiered in New York City, the Roxy had one of its biggest ever showings - a fifty-two thousand dollar take in its first week.

The fact that Sonja was in town skating at Madison Square Garden at the same time with her Hollywood Ice Revue didn't hurt whatsoever. Publicists claimed, "So many telephone calls were received at the Garden for information on the show that one of the operators, Miss Sally Dunn, became 'temporarily deaf' and had to consult and ear specialist. It was estimated that 18,000 calls have been received by the Garden concerning the revue in the last 20 days."

The Westhampton Cinema in Richmond, Virginia. Photo courtesy Dementi Studio Archives.

The reception to "Happy Landing" was overwhelmingly positive, with many theatre managers remarking on how patrons all seemed to leave with a smiles on their faces and reviewers applauding the picture's catchy melodies, comedic touches and production value. "Picture Play" magazine raved, "Sonja Henie is a latter-day phenomenon, an ace attraction on the screen and in the rink. The public is ice-skating mad, or is for Miss Henie's particular brand of gliding. In her case it is rhythmic grace, technical precision and brilliance, and what counts perhaps more than anything, a winning, infectious personality. She is at her best in the new picture. The ice sequences are splendidly staged. They have verve, beauty and imagination. Never do they partake of a gaudily mounted stunt."

As is always the case, there were a handful of negative reviews of the film to balance things out. One "Motion Picture Daily" reviewer complained, "Believe that her next picture would please even more if there was not quite so much skating. Sonja doesn't need skates to put over her pictures." Others bemoaned the fact the film was too long and that Sonja's acting was rather 'one-note'.

Even back then, you could always count on the fact that when it came to skaters, everyone had an opinion... and even Sonja Henie herself was fair game.

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