Sonja Henie’s Glam Winter Fun

Sonja Henie straps on the blades to catch her man. Image: dkjf dkfj
Sonja Henie straps on the blades. Image:

Today we’re bringing you a movie with figure skating.

No, wait! Don’t go. Hear us out first.

Sun Valley Serenade is a film starring Sonja Henie who, in the 1930s-40s, was the most famous figure skater in the world. (She was famous because she won 10 world figure skating championships in a row. Plus, she won three gold medals at three different Olympic Games. Also in a row.)

So why wouldn’t she go to Hollywood and make skating pictures? She was photogenic, winsome and ambitious. “I want to do with skates what Fred Astaire is doing with dancing,” she said.

She did. Her movies made piles of money for Twentieth Century-Fox. According to her obituary in the New York Times, her 11 films with the studio grossed $25 million. (That’s over $300 million in today’s dollars, adjusting for inflation.)

Yup, we hear you. It’s hard to imagine films with skating and flimsy plots as Must See Movies. But you might be surprised. Let’s look at today’s example from 1941.

Sun Valley Serenade stars John Payne as a big band musician who is booked, along with his band, for a gig at a fancy-schmancy ski resort in Sun Valley, Idaho. But get this: the band is actually the Glenn Miller Orchestra, a wildly popular group during World War II.

Glenn Miller and his orchestra audition for a gig in Sun Valley. Image: YouTube
Even Glenn Miller has to audition for the gig in Sun Valley. Image: YouTube

The band is managed by a fast-talking Milton Berle who has the best lines in the film, e.g.: “Money doesn’t mean a thing to me. It’s the last thing I think of – before I go to bed.”

In an attempt to score publicity for the band, Berle arranges for the members to “adopt” a child refugee from war-ravaged Europe. Due to an immigration mix-up, the “child” they collect is Henie, freshly arrived from Norway. She is assigned to Payne’s care and subsequently falls in love with him. Payne, however, is uninterested, having just become involved with the glamorous Lynn Bari.

The rest of the movie is spent with Henie chasing Payne, and employing all sorts of tricks to make the poor slob fall in love with her. (Truthfully, if we were one of the characters in this film, we would be somewhat afraid of Henie and her Stop-At-Nothing-To-Get-My-Man M.O.)

Yet, there’s so much more to this charming film. The witty lines, for one, plus the Travis Banton wardrobe and the enticing exterior shots of picturesque Sun Valley. There’s also exhilarating ski footage, i.e. real skiing on a real mountain.

We haven’t even talked about the cinematography. Director H. Bruce Humberstone has crafted some original shots, especially when it comes to Glenn Miller’s energetic Orchestra. There are heaps of artistic musical performances. It’s MTV for the 1940s!

But it wouldn’t be a Sonja Henie film without this:

Henie in a breathtaking finale. Image: YouTube

Henie in a breathtaking finale. Image: YouTube

Because the movie stars world-renowned Sonja Henie, there must be glamorous figure skating, and we’re not disappointed. Henie provides us with a Grand Skating Finale, and it’s perfect. She performs incredible spins in her routine; it’s a wonder her blades don’t drill a hole through the ice. Her skating is graceful and gorgeous, and when it’s finished you want to watch it all over again.

 Sun Valley Serenade will make you long for winter adventures in crisp mountain air. It will also show you why Sonja Henie became a big deal in 1930s pop culture.

You can watch Sun Valley Serenade free on YouTube.
You can read Vanity Fair‘s fascinating profile of Sonja Henie HERE.

Sun Valley Serenade: starring Sonja Henie, John Payne, Glenn Miller. Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone. Written by Robert Ellis, Helen Logan. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., 1941, B&W, 87 mins.

This post is part of the Winter Sports Blogation hosted by Le Mot du Cinephiliaque. Click HERE to see today’s fab entries.




  1. You know, Ruth, I always steered clear of Sonja Henie movies — I just figured they would be kind of dumb. I really didn’t know she was THAT popular. I did the same thing with Deanna Durbin movies. This Henie movie sounds pretty good, especially with the Glenn Miller subplot. I’ll have to open up my mind and watch it! Thanks for the tip!


  2. I’ve never been particularly excited to see a Sonja Henie film, but after falling in love with the work of MGM’s Henie (Esther Williams), I figured it’s time I gave the lady a chance. TCM will be showing Sun Valley Serenade in a few days and I’ve got it all set to record. I think I made the right decision after reading your fun post.


    • If you like Glenn Miller’s Orchestra, then you have to see this film. There’s a very funny scene near the beginning of the film where the orchestra has to audition (Audition!) for the gig in Sun Valley. Lots of great music.

      Thanks for organizing this blogathon. Will it become an annual event? (hint hint)


  3. I’ve known of Sonja Henie since I was 15, 16, taking for granted many of her movies shown on tv back in the 1960’s and now not seeing any of them for 40 years accept this one. ( 20th Century Fox DOES keep its library in, what…Fort Knox? ) I liked this easy breezy film. Ha! It’s like they took Esther Williams’ swimming pool and froze the water into black ice for Henie. Don’t get in Henie’s and Lynn Bari’s way when they’re both out to get John Payne. Whew! You’ll be collateral damage. Let me give a shout out to the Nicholas Bros. doing their thing with the dancing to Miller’s Chatanooga Choo Choo with none other than the beautiful Dorothy Dandridge.

    But this is all Norwegian ice skating star, Sonja Henie’s movie. What an athlete. She skates fast, spins with breakneck speed and stops on a dime. She was cute as a button and one of the richest women in show business. HOW the HECK did she do it? Practice…practice…practice. Count me as a fan!


    • Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers are fab in this film. It is SUCH a great dance they perform – smart and sassy. I had originally included them in my post, but then realized there should be a separate post to talk about their careers, influence, etc.

      You’re right about doing a frozen version of an Esther Williams film. And what an era that was, for films to showcase these talented and athletic women.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. When Mom was alive, mention Ms Henie or Ms Williams and a great smile wold light up her face. Mom was a bit of a tom boy in her youth, playing whatever sports young girls were allowed. She was a young woman when these 2 athletes made their films and they were her heroes.
    You’re right, Ruth. “Sun Valley Serenade” is a wonderful film and a fitting one for the holidays. Another one for Netflix.


    • Good point: Girls play so many sports these days and we forget there was a time – not that long ago – when some sports were off limits to girls.

      If Sonja Henie and Esther Williams were your mom’s heroes, then I think she had very good taste.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It sounds like this film has a lot to offer! I’m so glad it is on you-tube. I never would have thought I would enjoy a movie like this, but after your description, I think I would. The music sounds like it adds so much and the picture of the finale looks like it would be beautiful. Thank you for calling this one to our attention, Ruth!

    Liked by 1 person

Start Singin', Mac!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.