Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Ice Follies of 1939 (MGM, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles the movie Ice Follies of 1939. It’s historically interesting as one of Joan Crawford’s three appearances in color sequences of otherwise black-and-white movies (the other two were in Hollywood Revue of 1929 and The Women, the film she made immediately after Ice Follies in 1939 — and in which there’s a major sense of disappointment when her bright red dress turns back to black when the film reverts to black-and-white) years before she made her first all-color film, Torch Song, in 1953; and it also offers two chunks of the actual Ice Follies troupe of the time in their spectacular, though also incredibly banal and campy, performances. They look considerably more entertaining in color than they do in black-and-white earlier in the film, and the highlights of their performance are a duet between the company founders, Messrs. Shipstad and Johnson, in which one of them is in drag; and a spectacular skater dressed in a red-and-white striped costume in which he spins around and turns himself into a human barber pole. Otherwise it’s a terrible movie, an uneasy mixture of tear-jerking romantic melodrama with the Ice Follies sequences in which James Stewart and Lew Ayres play a skating team (though we never actually see them — or even doubles for them — on the ice) who break up when Stewart marries Crawford (his long-suffering girlfriend whom he added to the act, only to unbalance it and get them all fired as a result) and she talks her way into a film contract with a (fictitious) major studio. (In the script, Crawford declaims about how marriage and family are more important than any movie contract; in real life her MGM contract lasted 19 years — considerably longer than any of her marriages.) She becomes a star faster than you can say “Lucille LeSueur” and Stewart is reduced to playing Norman Maine Lite — without the ex-stardom or the alcoholism but with the same self-consciousness about having his wife support him (it was at about this time that I commented that in 1939, when Stewart got loaned out to other studios, he got classic films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Destry Rides Again; when he worked at his home studio, MGM, he got Ice Follies of 1939.) Eventually (aided by an impecunious producer played by the marvelous Lionel Stander) Stewart gets his Ice Follies together, and in the final sequences, now that he and Crawford have become independently successful, they are reunited when her producer (Lewis Stone, taking a brief break from giving Mickey Rooney lectures about sex) offers him a job on the lot, and he produces a sorry extravaganza called A Song for Cinderella which, like the film we’re actually watching, is redeemed only by the participation of the Ice Follies troupe. As I pointed out to Charles, casting three major stars like Crawford, Stewart and Ayres in a film like this stands as a dictionary definition of the term “overqualified” — and the writing and direction are so dreary they really don’t belong in what should have been a nice, happy, fun, uplifting movie about the Ice Follies. Still, the final color sequence saves it somewhat. — 2/22/99


Charles and I ended up watching a movie, The Ice Follies of 1939, we’d screened once before in our early days together but had little memory of — and it’s no wonder because it’s not a particularly good movie but it is a really strange one. Someone at MGM took notice of two entertainment phenomena of the late 1930’s — the huge popularity of Olympic ice skater Sonja Henie’s movies at 20th Century-Fox and the major audiences being drawn to the rather schlocky Shipstad and Johnson Ice Follies live shows (I remember growing up in the 1960’s and still seeing newspaper ads for the Ice Follies and its knockoff competitor, Ice Capades) — and decided to cut a deal with Shipstad and Johnson (two guys who do a boy-and-girl routine, one of them in drag, in the movie) to bring the Ice Follies to the screen. Oddly, they decided to fill in their Ice Follies movie with an all-star cast in the non-skating roles: Joan Crawford, James Stewart and Lew Ayres, all of whom practically define “overqualified.” What’s more, they hired a trio of major writers — Leonard Praskins, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf — and gave the direction to an arty German filmmaker, Reinhold Schünzel (though they billed him without his umlaut). What they came up with was an oddly schizoid movie that co-stars Crawford, Stewart and Ayres (no one gets billed above the title; the second card says “Joan Crawford with James Stewart,” and Ayres and Lewis Stone head the next cast card — yet more evidence, if Crawford needed any, that she was on her way out at MGM) as a skating team who get fired in the opening scene because they’re just there to perform during halftime at a hockey game and the audience couldn’t be less interested in them. (None of the leading actors could skate, so the script was structured so we never see the principals skate either — they didn’t use doubles.)

The first half shows Larry Hall (Stewart) and Mary McKay (Crawford) suddenly decide to get married — the big stars get hitched early on so the writers didn’t have to trot out the hoary old romantic-triangle schtick (though at times Lew Ayres seems so queeny one thinks he’s jealous of Crawford for taking Stewart away from him!) — instead the writers trot out the tired old schtick of having a poor husband feel “unmanned” by the sudden success of his wife, who wins a movie contract from Monarch Studios head Douglas Tolliver, Jr. (Lewis Stone), gets her name changed to Sandra Lee (familiar territory to the former Lucille Le Sueur, who got the name “Joan Crawford” from a name-the-starlet contest MGM ran nationwide in 1925!), and makes a ton of money which she hopes to use to back Larry’s idea of a big skating revue that will “tell stories on ice — do things no one’s ever done on ice before!” Instead Larry bitterly turns down the idea of his wife investing in his show — “There’s a name for a man who lives off a woman, and it’s not a pretty one,” says Stewart with the intensity with which he complained about being stuck to the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan in It’s a Wonderful Life (indeed, one of the odder parts of this movie is how much emotional commitment Stewart brings to a nothing role in a movie that doesn’t deserve it — he made this silly film the same year he made a masterpiece, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, that proved how well he could act) — and instead he high-tails it to New York, where he gets producer Mort Hodges (Lionel Stander) interested in backing the Ice Follies even though it turns out Hodges doesn’t have any money, either. Nonetheless, Hodges still has enough rich friends he’s able to round up the investors, because the next thing we see is a potted version of the Ice Follies revue of the period, including one skater doing spectacular jumps over barrels and through hoops of fire, a Russian number, a Native American number (which in some ways is the most charming item in the mini-show), and a few other heavily costumed ice specialties that, if nothing else, at least document for future generations (assuming they’re interested) what an Ice Follies performance was like. Once he’s a success in his own right, Larry assumes he’ll be able to get back with his wife — only she’s on a personal appearance tour and her schedule meshes so badly with his it looks like the only time they’ll have together is a half-hour to neck in Central Park. (MGM’s screenwriters created so many sequences set in Central Park that the studio eventually built a replica of it on the backlot — and it became a favorite place for amorous studio employees to neck for real.)

No matter: kind, fatherly, gracious studio head Douglas Tolliver, Jr. gives Larry a contract to produce a film called Cinderella on Ice with Sandra Lee as star — though all Joan Crawford gets to do in the number is sit on a huge throne, wearing a bright blue dress with the longest train seen on screen since John Murray Anderson’s “My Bridal Veil” number in King of Jazz, and warble a few lines in the middle of a huge production number featuring some overhead shots à la Busby Berkeley. The sequence representing Cinderella on Ice is filmed in full-out three-strip Technicolor even though the rest of the movie is in black-and-white — making this one of three films in which Joan Crawford is seen in color sequences in otherwise black-and-white films decades before she made her first all-color film, Torch Song (1953). (The other two are Hollywood Revue of 1929 and The Women.) It’s a pretty lumbering spectacle but it’s still more entertaining than the bulk of the film, which is essentially Ice Follies performances grafted onto a pretty standard plot that’s acted by the three principals with far more intensity and commitment than it deserves — Crawford goes through virtually the entire movie with a gritty look of disdain and she’s photographed by Schünzel and his cinematographer, Joseph Ruttenberg (he shot the black-and-white sequences and Oliver Marsh shot the color finale), in neo-Gothic shadows that would have been more appropriate for the films noir she started making at Warner Bros. after she switched studios in 1944 and did Mildred Pierce in 1945. The Ice Follies of 1939 (most references to this film omit the article at the start of the title, but it’s there in the opening credit) is a pretty strange film, reasonably entertaining despite the weirdness of the concept and the decision of MGM to throw major star power at a simple exploitation subject just about any other studio would have used as a way to build up their unknowns. — 12/28/16