Monday, December 14, 2009

Frolics on Ice (Everything’s on Ice) (RKO, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” was a really peculiar effort called Frolics on Ice, originally made by producer Sol Lesser at RKO in 1939 and called Everything’s on Ice and then reissued in this version by something called “Screencraft Pictures,” presumably a TV label, in the 1950’s. We downloaded this one from and it turned out to be an indigestible mixture of skating musical and situation comedy. The main function seemed to be to create a screen vehicle for prepubescent skater Irene Dare, who’s cast as “Irene Barton,” younger daughter of barber Joe Barton (Edgar Kennedy) and his wife Elsie (Mary Hart). Elsie’s brother, Felix Miller (Roscoe Karns), talks Joe out of a loan of $150 (out of the $2,000 Joe has saved up to buy the barbershop at which he works) to launch Irene’s career, so while Joe stays behind in Brooklyn Felix, Elsie, Irene and her older sister Jane (Lynne Roberts) all journey to Florida.

On the train they meet up with nondescript nebbish Leopold Eddington (Eric Linden, who was about a decade too old for his role — he’s the living proof of all those gags in the Gold Diggers movies about youngish-looking men persisting in the juvenile roles until they get lumbago), who we’re told — but the principals are not — is actually a millionaire, having been made so in his teens by the sudden death of his oil-tycoon father (were the writers, Adrian Landis and Sherman Lowe, thinking Howard Hughes here?). He falls in love with Jane — and she with him — at first sight, but Felix thinks Leopold is an impoverished jerk and tries to break him and Jane up. Instead he seeks to pair her off with Harrison Gregg (George Meeker), who’s posing as a millionaire but is in fact about to be thrown out of the hotel for not paying his bill. There were quite a few other movies of the period, including The Gay Deception and Hands Across the Table, that did far more with these tropes than Frolics/Everything’s on Ice did, and eventually it all turns out as we expect it to: Harrison is exposed as a four-flushing gold-digger (we could tell all along because he was blond and had a “roo” moustache), Jane insists on marrying Leopold and finds out only afterwards that he is genuinely rich, and Leopold ingratiates himself with the family by buying Joe (ya remember Joe?) the barbershop and underwriting Irene’s latest production number, introduced by a quartet of singing bears (actually, of course, actors in ill-fitting bear suits), in which she plays a newly hatched baby penguin brought into the world by an avian medico named “Dr. Quack” (I’m not making this up, you know!) — the latter decision makes one (this one, anyway) think his love for the heroine outweighs his brains or good taste.

Irene Dare was billed as six years old — she was actually eight (she was born February 14, 1931 in St. Paul, Minnesota) — and she certainly knew her way around a rink, though her routines seem a bit dated today simply because she doesn’t do the spectacular jumps we expect from top-level figure skaters now. She gets to skate in four big production numbers that don’t involve any other members of the cast — just a bunch of chorus skaters and a stereotypical screaming-queen director staging them — including an introduction set to the title song by Milton Drake & Fred Stryker; an Americana number in which she skates to “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” and other moth-eaten “patriotic” favorites; a Hawai’ian number in which she attempts a hula on skates (she can’t do it but it’s highly doubtful anyone could have); and that ghastly final major production, staged by Dave Gould (whose faux-Berkeley spectacles weighted down the early Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies, and who’d done a far superior ice ballet in the 1933 musical Melody Cruise) to a song called “Birth of a Snowbird” by Victor Young and Paul Francis Webster (both of whom did much better work elsewhere). Dare’s ice numbers look like they were spliced in from another movie, and though she luckily escaped the fate of JonBenet Ramsey (according to Dare is still alive!) there’s something of the sick exploitation of the young about her appearance here, especially when that obnoxious Uncle Felix (judging from this film and also the far superior Road to Happiness, Roscoe Karns’ whole stock in trade seems to have been obnoxiousness!) coaches her to say, as part of his attempt to pass off his family as rich to attract a rich husband for Jane, “I don’t have to skate for money. I skate because I like to.”

Irene Dare (true name: Irene Davidson) was first introduced to movie audiences the previous year in a film also produced by Sol Lesser, Breaking the Ice, with fellow child star Bobby Breen, and she made only one other movie (Silver Skates, for Monogram in 1943, starring Kenny Baker and adult skater Belita with Patricia Morison and the real-life comedy skating duo Frick and Frack), and in a few minutes on the Web I haven’t been able to find out what happened to her after that, but she’s a personable little kid who deserved a better vehicle than this bizarre retreat of old movie clichés (with workmanlike but hardly inspired direction by Erle C. Kenton) in which we’re always two to five reels ahead of the filmmakers in figuring out what’s going to happen next.