Monday, November 10, 2008

Happy Landing (1938)

Today we would never think that a figure skating idol could be one of the largest grossing money makers in Hollywood, starring in many large productions for a major studio, but this is just what happened to Sonja Henie.

Henie was already a household name, being the Olympic gold medal champion in the 1928, 1932, and 1936 winter games making her an international figure skating star. A desire to be in motion pictures from a young age, ultimately led to her being signed by 20th Century Fox studio head, Darryl F. Zanuck, to appear in films for the company. Her first film, “One In A Million” (1936) was a success and she would go on to appear in 9 more films for the corporation.

1938’s “Happy Landing” is kind of a screwball-comedy-on-ice with Cesar Romero as the big band leader (and ultimate cad) Duke Sargent, Don Ameche plays the friend/manager Jimmy Hall and Ethel Merman rounds out the cast as Sargent’s nutty and overbearing love/hate interest, Flo Kelly.

The film opens as Jimmy Hall is getting ready to fly Duke Sargent over to Paris for a musical engagement. The plane they are flying in goes off course and ends up landing in Norway where the forever skirt-chasing Sargent meets Trudy Ericksen (Henie). Sargent, who seems to only be inspired to write music while wooing women, writes a song for Trudy and makes her believe that he is in love with her.

Jimmy and Trudy go to a town celebration and a Norwegian custom (made up for the film of course) states that if you dance with a girl twice then you are engaged to her!! Duke’s friend Jimmy finds out about the custom and informs his clueless friend that he is about to be hitched so they both flee Norway for Paris leaving the heartbroken Trudy behind.

Eventually Jimmy and Duke return to New York City and the lovelorn Trudy travels to the metropolis to win Duke back but he’s involved with his old flame, Flo Kelly, and rejects Trudy. This leads to Jimmy spending more time with Trudy and when they decide to go skating in Central Park, Jimmy sees her real talent as an ice skater and decides to promote her talent and her career takes off.

Now as a skating star, Trudy realizes that she loves Jimmy and he adores her, but through a series of misunderstandings Trudy believes that Jimmy actually is in love with Flo! Of course, in true Hollywood fashion, it all works out in the end and everyone lives happily ever after.

Our hero, El Brendel, appears in just one short section of the film. He plays Yonnie, the bandleader in Central Park who sings the comedic tune “Yonnie and His Oompa” which was written by Samuel Pokrass and Jack Yellen (Yellen wrote many tunes including “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Ain’t She Sweet” as well as writing songs for many movies including another of Brendel’s 1938 films, “Little Miss Broadway” with Shirley Temple).

According to published reports at the time of the movie’s filming, Miss Henie received $80,000 for “Happy Landing” and was contracted to be paid $125,000 for each of her next 3 films, but in the January 31st, 1938 issue of Time Magazine thought that maybe those extra films might be poor judgment on Zanuck’s part:

“Happy Landing (Twentieth Century-Fox), is blonde, Figure Skater Sonja Henie's third motion picture, makes it clear that Producer Darryl Zanuck must soon find some other way of keeping Miss Henie's films fresh than by putting them on ice. To give Sonja presentable, even spectacular, settings in which to display her twinkling, silver-bladed eurhythmy is a set designer's holiday. But to blend a plot with her icebound talents is something not even a Zanuck budget seems to be able to accomplish. Happy Landing makes Miss Henie a million-dollar sideshow on a cheapskate circuit.”

But Variety said "Glitteringly performed," the third box-office hit of skating champion Sonja Henie "has just about everything...comedy, suspense, romance...action, music, dancing" and an "amusing story." and Harrison’s Reports singled out her skating, “Very Good. It is Miss Henie’s marvelous skating routines that make it exciting. She does not appear often, but when she does, it is something to see. She executes the most difficult feats on the ice with the utmost ease and grace.”

The working titles of this film were Bread, Butter and Rhythm, Hot and Happy and Happy Ending and in 1938 Henie was ranked by Motion Picture Herald poll of exhibitors as the third biggest money-making star of the year. It also is interesting to note that El Brendel’s name does not appear on any advertisements for this film or in the movie’s opening titles. It is only in the ending titles is he mentioned.

One final note about El’s acting situation at this time. From the Mansfield Ohio News-Journal of February 10th, 1938 in the column “Hollywood Speaks” by Robbin Coons, a short interview right after the release of “Happy Landing” the subject of Brendel not having any more major roles and being “washed-up” as far as Hollywood was concerned was mentioned to El and he replied:

“I wish I could be washed up the way some of these stars are. Hollywood says they’re finished so they go out and collect all kinds of money—washed up, heh?”


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the nice coverage of the beautiful Sonja Henie. I have always been a big fan of hers. Although some grouches may criticize her limited acting ability, she was always just so charming and pretty that she didn't need to be a great actress. And oh yes, she was a pretty decent skater, too!
I have Sonja's book "Wings On My Feet" (1940) and I checked it to see if she said anything interesting about "Happy Landing" or El Brendel. She writes about several good things that happened in her life at the time she made that movie, but nothing particularly worth quoting here...and no mention of El Brendel. By the way, it is a great book for her fans. It covers her life and career up to 1940 (although of course we wish there was an updated version that would take us up through the rest of her life and career). The second half of the book is devoted to ice skating instructions from Sonja, accompanied by several pages of illustrations with dozens of pictures. I never learned to skate, but will never tire of looking at the pictures!
More on "Happy Landing" coming in next comment...
--- Rich Finegan

Anonymous said...

Some more reviewer's comments on "Happy Landing":
In the January 29, 1938 "Motion Picture Herald" reviewer Paul C. Mooney, Jr. had this to say:
"Sonja Henie's effortless grace on the silver skates continues to be good motion picture "copy", and her natural appeal is as strong as ever. That she was selected to be eighth on the list of Money Making stars by exhibitors last year with only two pictures to her credit is testimony of the esteem in which she is held." He goes on to suggest ways to promote the movie, and gives a summary of the plot and mentions some of the story's locations. The only reference to El Brendel is his inclusion in a listing of some of the film's "engaging supporting cast".
In addition to the charming Miss Henie and a fun supporting cast (including of course El Brendel) one more highlight of "Happy Landing" is the appearance of the great Raymond Scott Quintet performing one of their unique novelty numbers, "War Dance Of The Wooden Indians".
---- Rich Finegan