Monday, December 2, 2013

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for December on TCM

Perhaps you plan to have under your tree a box of chocolates for that unexpected guest or unplanned for gift exchange. It's not the most expensive candy touted in flashy ad campaigns, but familiar, satisfactory and gussied up for Christmas with a bow. TCM has such a box of treats waiting for us under their tree on Christmas Eve.

Twentieth Century Fox's 1941 release Sun Valley Serenade is directed by H. Bruce Humberstone with a script by Helen Logan and Robert Ellis, the team that brought us, among others, Charlie Chan at the Olympics, Charlie Chan at the Race Track, Three Little Girls in Blue, and Hello, Frisco Hello.

Sonja Henie, John Payne, Lynn Bari

The smooth milk chocolate coating of this romantic comedy follows the mixed-up love life of Ted Scott played by John Payne (Miracle on 34th Street, 99 River Street). He's a musician with Phil Corey and his Dartmouth Troubadours, actually the popular Glenn Miller Orchestra in their film debut. Ted has a thing for name singer Vivian Dawn played by Lynn Bari (Sleepers West, Margie). As luck and scriptwriters would have it, the band finds themselves backing Miss Dawn at an upcoming engagement in Sun Valley. Ted flashes Vivian a winning smile. Vivian gives Ted the once over during a love ballad. Bam, instant couple!

Well, after all, Ted is played by John Payne and he's the perfect romantic comedy leading man with his handsome face, athletic build, and light baritone. In time Payne becomes the perfect film-noir protagonist as his handsomeness grew more rugged and the eyes more soulful. As producer and star of TVs The Restless Gun, Payne also showed his grit as a western actor. Why Lynn Bari never became a top-flight A level star is a mystery to me. She's one of the most likable of actresses to watch from this era, especially when she plays one of those high-handed gals. Lynn was one of the movie actresses my late father had a thing for, but don't let on. We wouldn't want to make my mom, Barbara Hale or Susan Hayward jealous. 

Things are going well for our once struggling musicians, but before they head to Sun Valley they must follow through on a publicity stunt dreamed up by their quipster manager, "Nifty", played by Milton Berle. He has signed Ted up to sponsor a European refugee. After all, kids make great copy. Only this Norwegian refugee is no kid. No. 36 at the Port Authority is Karen Benson played by three-time Olympic Gold Medalist Sonja Henie, star of a dozen movies for Fox in a twelve-year Hollywood career. Karen's plans for a new life in a new world are to find a man to care for and marry. She gazes upon the perfection that is Ted. Bam, instant triangle!

The Glen Miller Orchestra

The delicious nugat filling of this treat is the music of "The World Famous Glenn Miller Orchestra" as the organization is currently billed. Yes, there is still a place in the world for the tunes and arrangements that were so popular in the 1930s and 1940s. Glenn Miller was at the height of his fame and popularity when he signed with Fox and made two films prior to volunteering to "modernize the Army band". Tragically, he would be lost during the conflict flying over the English Channel in 1944. But in 1941 we have Glenn and his guys on screen playing their hits In the Mood and Moonlight Serenade. They would also play four Harry Warren and Mack Gordon songs: Chatanooga Choo Choo, I Know Why and So Do You, The Kiss Polka and It Happened in Sun Valley. Bam, instant standards!

Chatanooga Choo Choo was nominated for Best Original Song by the Academy, losing to Jerome Kern's The Last Time I Saw Paris from Lady Be Good.  Emil Newman was nominated for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture with the winner being Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace for Dumbo.

Harold Nicholas, Dorothy Dandridge, Fayard Nicholas

Chatanooga Choo Choo was a top seller for the Glenn Miller organization and to commemorate the selling of over a million copies, RCA awarded the band the first Gold Record. In the film, the tune is presented with a specialty dance number featuring the mind-boggling virtuosity of the Nicholas Brothers and the simmering star wattage of 19-year-old Dorothy Dandridge. 

Location filming at the Sun Valley resort must have done wonders for its business. Never has snow looked more inviting. On one hand, I would have liked to have seen the movie in Technicolor, but I imagine black & white works better for the process shots of actors skiing. Have no fear, the black and white cinematography turns out to be one of the great strengths of the film. Cinematographer Edward Cronjager received the second of his six Academy Award nominations for the film. Travis Banton was the costume designer for the film and nobody made ladies look more elegant yet at ease in their fashion. Lynn Bari wears a checked coat with a hood that makes me salivate. 

The cinematography is used to particularly fine effect in the skating sequence finale. After all, you don't have an Olympic champion and keep her on the bench. The stark and lovely set with skaters reflected in black ice is like the most wonderful Christmas window display you could ever imagine. Sonja Henie and her signature spins is like the beautiful ballerina in a music box brought to life. The music used for the dance, which was staged by the great Hermes Pan (Swing Time, Top Hat), is a musical reprise of I Know Why and So Do You combined with the lovely melody of At LastAt Last had been filmed by Lynn Bari dubbed by Pat Friday, but was cut from the film. The song would officially debut in the 1942 release Orchestra Wives with the Bari/Friday combination.

TCM is giving us Sun Valley Serenade at 10:00 pm on Christmas Eve. It may not be the fanciest present under the tree, at least it doesn't proclaim itself as such, but it's one you will enjoy and recall with much fondness.


  1. The continued absence of "Sun Valley Serenade" on DVD is one of the great marketing mysteries of our time. In the meantime, TCM's showing means Christmas will be coming a few hours early. I can't wait to see it again.

  2. Kevin, I've been singing the title song all day long. Snow never looks as good as it does in this movie. Sleigh bells and sweaters and Glenn Miller. Who could ask for anything more?

    "I remember oh so clearly how you nearly passed me by, then it happened in Sun Valley when you slipped and fell and so did I."

  3. You had me at "Nicholas Brothers."

  4. The movie is very tightly paced, but I think we'd all be better off with just a little bit more of the Nicholas Brothers.

  5. Tracey, it is fun. I don't know if it would ever replace "White Christmas" for your movie to wrap gifts by movie, but a more good-natured flicked would be hard to find.

  6. Sweet. Love your analogy to the box of chocolates. Now I want to sit down and watch this movie with a box of chocolates in my lap. Thanks a lot. As if not gaining weight during the holidays wasn't difficult enough.

    Agree with yours, and your dad's, estimation of Lynn Bari. The process of achieving stardom, or not achieving it, is indeed a mystery.

  7. It's the holidays, JTL. Everybody knows candy calories are non-existent during the holidays. Go for it!



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