Friday, December 23, 2011

It's a Pleasure and Call Me Madam

Add Sonja Henie to the list of cultish movie stars to watch for a campy laugh--a list which causes my partner to run screaming from the room. The others include Esther Williams and Carmen Miranda. If I want to watch a movie with any of these stars, he throws a fit. Henie is new to the list because recently my friend Lyida gave my two used DVDs a friend of hers who was cleaning out her house gave away. Lydia thought I might like them. They were Call Me Madam with Ethel Merman and Donald O'Connor and It's a Pleasure with Miss Henie.

I remember seeing Call Me Madam on the Channel 3 Sunday afternoon movie in black and white when I was a little boy in Philadelphia and loving it (this should have warned my parents). After that, my sister and I went around the house singing "You're Just in Love" (which we thought was called "You Don't Need Analysing"). We loved the counterpoint between Merm and Donald O'Connor. I watched it again recently and it really doesn't hold up. But it is one of the few films in which Merman repeated a Broadway triumph, so it has historical significance. In the film, Merman is a Washington hostess appointment ambassador to a tiny European country lead by suave George Sanders. Naturally, she falls in love with him. O'Connor goes along as press attache and falls in love with Vera-Ellen, the country's crown princess engaged to Helmut Dantine, a duke. Of course, Vera dumps the Duke so she can marry Donald. This subplot was pretty interesting because it showed the romantic values of the 1950s. Donald is a good dancer, but skinny and not particularly sexy, an all-American average guy. Vera drops Helmut, one dashing, hunky and hot stud with a title. She obviously chose Donald so they perform dance numbers and have a wholesome relationship. If she had gone with Helmut the sex would have been sizzling, but no dancing for the musical portion of the film.

It's a Pleasure is just plain awful, but I was glad to watch it because Henie is part of my family mythology. My mother, who grew up in Maine, always tells the story of going to see a Sonja Henie movie matinee with her big brother, my Uncle Edwin. They loved it so much, they sat through a second showing. Halfway through, the manager made an announcement, calling both their names and that they should report to the lobby immediately. There was my grandmother, furious that they had not come home on time. They were in big trouble, but my mother remembers loving the ice-skating Henie did.

This week is Christmas vacation and my friend Diane and I watched It's a Pleasure while playing Scrabble, which helped us tolerate the film. I was never really familiar with Henie's oeuvre, except a satire Carol Burnett did on her variety show. Henie was an Olympic figure skater but a terrible actress. It's a Pleasure was not the film my mother saw (it was made in 1955 and my mother was grown up and married by then), but it's in color and features a dreadful plot and simplistic dialgoue ("You sure roast a wicked weinie," says one character at a hot-dog party). The acting is bad all the way round. "I'm leaving Buzz, meet me at the station at five," announces the bitchy wife of the manager of the ice show as if she were ordering coffee. When she's not in skates, Henie is a frozen doll, no emotion registers.

The highlight was the big finale in which Henie and her troupe skate to Tico Tico while wearing South American outfits and elaborate headdresses and holding exotic parrots. It's one of those bizarre Hollywood numbers you have to see to believe--Brazil on ice!

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