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Sunday, June 12, 2016

20th Fox Lets It Snow

Sun Valley Serenade (1941) Is A Swing Vacation

Fox Crew and Cameras On Location at Sun Valley

The Sirius music service I subscribe to has a Christmas channel that each year uses It Happened In Sun Valley among holiday rotation. I never considered this a Yule song, but maybe it should be for celebration that is Sun Valley Serenade, my nominee for best of all black-and-white Fox musicals (favorite in color? The Gang's All Here). Unaccountably not on DVD, Sun Valley Serenade has gone wished-for and unfulfilled since a laser disc release that was 20th's last word till recent arrive of HD broadcasts on the FXM network, which look/sound great. Want the Glenn Miller songbook in toto? This one has nearly that. Fans of the sweet band King (wait, I should say Orchestra) must regard this a Holy Grail. Certainly the movie does, its camera pulled slowly back as His Reverence begins a first full-on number (and there's little wait, for it comes early). We can guess or look at history re Miller's popularity, living/listening in 1941 an only way to truly feel his impact. Fox put Glenn prominent on every poster and ad. He wasn't an actor, played not himself (instead, a character named "Phil Corey"), but Miller in background amounted to patron idea of foreground, him not needing to talk or emote to be in command. Demon publicist Milton Berle refers to theirs as "the sweetest band in the country," which Miller's group was, but who wants to know about sweet bands in 2016? Glenn Miller can be called, at least, the most fashionable of an unfashionable breed of vintage bands.

He'd came back big in 1954 with The Glenn Miller Story, so much so that Fox reissued both Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives (soon afterward came rock/roll to splinter music's audience). The Miller orchestra had continued after the war under leadership of Tex Beneke (some good CD's available), "ghost bands" US-touring through the 60's and (how far?) beyond. Dying out of the initial audience and celebration of "true" jazz pushed Miller into margins afterward, a 1985 revive of The Glenn Miller Story doomed to fail. Like all big bands, Miller's played heavily at movie housing, before and between flix, but his live act was confined to larger cities that could fill capacity, small bergs making do with screen work by him and the boys. Miller knew rubes bought records too, and had juke/radio access, so film appearance was a needed thing, whatever the better $ he could earn on roads or shellac sales. Sun Valley Serenade could cross-promote his latest 78's set, while Miller staff handed out Serenade flyers at all touring stops. This was synergy revved up for the good of all, no one with access to media failing to get word of Sun Valley Serenade. Personality helped a bandleader unless music was exceptional enough not to need it. Glenn was one that didn't need it, his being screen spoon bread mattering not the least. Glenn became Tyrone Power with lift of baton and making with the Miller sound.

The Nicholas Brothers with Dorothy Dandridge
Someone should mention Sonja Henie, a freak sensation of the time, or so it seems to watchers now who'd not imagine a decade of profit-makers attributable to her. Henie wasn't glamour by H'wood reckoning, but they'd make her seem so by prevailing duck-to-swan measures. None of swans could pinwheel like Henie, however; I shouldn't think anyone would look to spin at speed enough to leave brain damage, an always-highlight that bothers me near as much as Ben Turpin's always-crossed eyes. Wasn't there limit to what human bodies could give for sake of entertaining? Henie characters had to work harder to land their man, this necessary to make happy fades credible. Her persistence after John Payne is more stalking by modern definition, but there again is wacky fun of oldies where they address contest between sexes (Zanuck felt the Henies should duplicate what he called the "perfect formula" of Deanna Durbin pics at Universal). Ice shows were a roaring pastime then, folks skating lots for recreation too (is it as popular today?), so seeing Henie perform was both thrill and inspiration (like Astaire dancing, many a customer came away saying, "Let's rent skates and try ourselves"). Fox had to top each Henie specialty with a bigger one, her "black ice" revue at Sun Valley's finish a spectacle no coliseum could duplicate. She'd decline and exit movies eventually (to travel with skates, and probably bigger money), this after twelve years doing one screen thing wonderfully well and making us pay to watch it.

Back in Hollywood and Shooting a Sun Valley-Set Dance Number

Movies always saw fun in folks busting their rear on skis, as snow was soft and one could plunge off abyss to no serious harm. Zanuck had sent a unit to capture winter wonder of Sun Valley, a retreat he knew from vacationing there. Technical assist is credited to Otto Lang, a ski instructor that DFZ befriended, and eventually made a Fox producer, which shows, I guess, how pliable moguls could be when approached on leisure grounds. Location footage ended up a best boost Sun Valley could hope for, and surely would have paid higher had the war not complicated American life a few months after Sun Valley Serenade was released. Train arrival to the resort has romance few vacation spots, at least ones in the US, could boast, making me wonder if Sun Valley still offers access by rail. Background mattered most to Fox musicals, maybe because they couldn't beat leader Metro at any other level, but wait, 1941 was still wide open for any firm to lead at song/dance, and I expect if you asked fans that year who made the best tune-fests, they'd say 20th. Certainly MGM had nothing in 1941 to top the Glenn Miller showcase that was Sun Valley Serenade.


Blogger Supersoul said...

Sun Valley, a well-known ski resort in central Idaho, was developed by the Union Pacific in the 1930s. Train service from the Union Pacific utilized a branch line from the UP OSL mainline beginning at Shoshone, heading northeast across the desert following the Wood River to Ketchum, a small city adjacent to Sun Valley. There was a loop track at the end of the line to enable trains to turn around. As late as the 1960s, UP ran ski specials consisting of many coaches and 3-5 E-8/9s. Freight service for the local sheep industry and ranches ended in the 1980s, and rails were pulled up in 1997. The right of way and many of the bridges remain.

7:39 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks a lot for clearing that up, Supersoul. I had been curious about the train service since watching the film last week.

7:43 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

The Glenn Miller Estate apparently has four licensed, authorized "ghost bands" to this day, one in the U.S., and the other three based in the U.K., Germany, and Sweden.

11:27 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

Back in the 50s and maybe into the 60s, Disneyland would regularly feature big bands in the park. According to the book "Mouse Tales", several headliners, including Cab Calloway and Bob Crosby, brought their own costumes and music, but a Disney staffer would book freelance musicians to form a band for that gig. The trick was rotating musicians so they wouldn't be readily recognized week to week.

I'm assuming this wasn't unusual. No bandleader could support a permanent lineup without a packed calendar, with either long tours or a weekly broadcast gig like Lawrence Welk's.

1:24 AM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

I'm right with you in your high opinion of "Sun Valley Serenade". As a matter of fact, I'd say most of the Henie vehicles at Fox stand up pretty well. She may not have been quite as imposingly beautiful or as skilled a romantic comedienne as sister athlete Esther Williams. But I really did find her cute and sympathetic. It always surprised me that such an accomplished sports figure (three time Olympic champion by the time she launched her film career at age 24) could morph into such an endearing and hugely successful movie star. Of course, the cozy, suger-frosted vehicles Fox mounted for her - full of ski chalets, ice ballets and moonlight sleigh rides - suited her to a tee. Seventy-five years later that atmosphere looks more inviting than ever. “Happy Landing”( 1938) is pretty diverting. And “Second Fiddle”(’39) has fun spoofing Hollywood’s search for Scarlett O’Hara. Instead of “Gone with the Wind”, the tome in question is “Girl of the North” and skating schoolmarm Sonja turns out to be the chosen one. That movie also has Tyrone Power in top form plus an original score by Irving Berlin (no big hits – but every song’s a gem). The wartime vehicles “Iceland” and “Wintertime” both deliver the sparkle of crunchy snow and wonderful big band music. And as a bonus “Wintertime” features Cesar Romero’s funniest performance. But certainly “Sun Valley Serenade” is the pinnacle. The absolute best combination of all the ingredients that made the Henie musicals hits. Compared to today’s skaters, Sonja’s on-ice maneuvers are rudimentary, I guess. But her best films survive as more than just time capsules. She – and they - still give off a glow.

1:46 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I'd wondered why Joan Davis has so little to do in this picture, and your ad clinches it: "I'm Lena, the Ballerina" has to be a Joan Davis specialty that didn't make the final cut. I always enjoy this picture but I always gnash my teeth because on different occasions the Miller orchestra starts playing the introduction to the beautiful "At Last"... and then doesn't play the song! The vocals had been recorded by John Payne and Pat Friday (the latter dubbing for Lynn Bari) and the song was removed from the film, but the recording came out as a commercial Glenn Miller record, with Payne and Friday unbilled.

I went to a revival house about 30 years ago that booked SUN VALLEY SERENADE for a single midweek show. This house was changing bills twice a week so the one-day spot playdate was surprising. The place was packed, and I still remember one breathless fan who arrived very late (maybe an hour-and-a-quarter in) and addressed the crowd: "Has she done the black ice yet?"

8:26 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I can see how a 70's revival would have been well attended by people with fond memory of seeing "Sun Valley Serenade" in 1941. Some of those safety prints from the 1954 reissue were probably still in circulation for years after. Wonder how this one would play to a modern audience ...

8:46 AM  
Blogger Stinky Fitzwizzle said...

Sometimes I do not envy you, Mr. Greenbriar. Last week, George Murphy and Ronald Reagan. This week, Sonja Henie. At least, in between you got to see "Bandolero!"

10:32 AM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

According to this site:

... the Sun Valley Opera House plays "Sun Valley Serenade" every weekend and it's played on a dedicated channel in the hotel.

11:15 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yes, Stinky, it was an interesting week with those three. But at least they represent a variety ...

CollCatDaddy, I'm very pleased to hear that Sun Valley has not forgotten its 1941 "Serenade." I'd assume the Opera House plays it digital, and hopefully HD, as did FXM. This is a title that Kino should license for release on Blu-Ray, along with their other Fox pick-ups.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Yes, during the winter in New York you can always find plenty of iceskaters in the rinks outside 30 Rock and inside Central Park. It's delightfully old school compared the frenetic skateboards in the streets.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Mike Wallster said...

There is a soundtrack CD available, Glenn Miller In True Stereo. When recording the tracks for Sun Valley Serenade it was found that by placing multiple microphones around the orchestra and recording on separate tracks, a better sound mix could be achieved before mixing it down to mono for movie theaters. When the folks who put together the CD discovered this, they remixed them to give a true stereo sound. Only four of the tracks are in stereo, but it's pretty cool listen.

3:23 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Sounds like what Rhino was able to do with a lot of those old MGM musical soundtracks for CD release.

3:38 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

Warners also did this for some home video releases. It's jarring to see a 40s or 50s musical you know was originally released in mono suddenly burst into beautiful stereo during the musical numbers.

9:29 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

The 1943 "Girl Crazy," with its "I Got Rhythm" finish, is a good example of mono-to-stereo outburst on a DVD, although in this instance, the dual-track may be limited to a disc extra.

9:46 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Sun Valley was a great location for movies and TV.

The I LOVE LUCY folks did a one-hour special there in 1958 with guest star Fernando Lamas, even though Fred Mertz called him Ferdinand.

10:38 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon recalls "It Happened In Sun Valley" from the once-was-great AMC network:

And that's a reduction of the actual lyrics! I guess "not to very long ago" is pretty relative, isn't it? Yet, to me, born in 1953, they're awfully accurate!

I still remember a very nice Christmas when AMC network, then still prominently featuring their old movies format (in fact, I think the acronym stood for 'American Movie Channel', way before endless zombies changed their model), programmed a day full of Christmas movies, naturally featuring Fox's most-popular "Miracle on 34th Street", but also smartly including this one. BTW, one of the cohosts of AMC's movie program was Nick Clooney, brother of Rosemary, and father of George. I'd never seen "It Happened in Sun Valley" prior to that airing. However, I was familiar with its title tune, due to the fact that the late, great Mel Torme had recorded a perfect Christmas-themed album in the early '90s. And Torme addressed the fact it was his first-ever, saying that fans often said to him, "What was that Christmas album you once recorded...?", presuming that the co-writer of the Christmas standard "The Christmas Song" had to have made one, yet to which he'd always replied, "Nope, never done one!" But, now, he said, there is, at the time of the album's release on Telarc in 1992. And it remains a winner. Mel, with his huge appreciation of all kinds of music, was clever enough to include "It Happened in Sun Valley", which he delivered in a definitive performance with the Cleveland Pops Orchestra (as I recall, without having to go downstairs and find the CD and double check.) It was therefore a pleasure to encounter the film it came from, those several years later, on AMC. John Payne is quite good in it, in spite of the fact that music and musical numbers are its chef raison d'être . I grew up seeing its star, John Payne, on TV in a program I later learned he also produced: "The Restless Gun". Anyone my age (over 60, and then some) will recall that Westerns absolutely clotted the airwaves in the first burgeoning decade of television, the mid-'50s forward. And I believe Payne was smart with his money and retired a very rich man. But he'd apparently begun as a versatile song and dance man as well as straight actor.

3:28 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Craig Reardon:

Sonia Henie apparently (according to double-dyed fans of Tyrone Power) had an affair with Fox's top male star, and I do mean Ty Power. One website about Power has lip-smacking details about their supposed assignations in those boxes on wheels that were the private dressing rooms then, the status symbol for stars of that day, way before the ubiquitous luxury mobile homes [chiefly Winnebagos] that have dominated in the years I worked in the 'biz'. The funniest apocryphal story I ever read about affairs conducted in the old-style dressing rooms, though certainly not funny for the spouse[s], had to do with Leslie Howard being walked in on by his wife while 'otherwise engaged', and turning and scolding her with the immortal reproof, "Get out! We're rehearsing!"
Yes, I digress, and how! And, not very Christmas-themed, unless maybe it's that other old Christmas standard, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"! But I couldn't help it. And what's Hollywood without its trove of tales of extramarital affairs?

It's interesting for me to know that the great future film and TV composer Henry Mancini got early professional experience and exercise composing the 'charts' (which is mid-20th century pop music lingo for scores or arrangements) for the Glenn Miller Orchestra during its Tex Beneke permutation. From there he was hired on by the Universal-International music department in the late '40s, and labored there anonymously until he 'broke out' via early projects produced there by Blake Edwards, and a permanent partnership was forged thereby. I don't think I'm mistaken in saying that Edwards had first seen an early solo credit of Mancini's for U-I, the now-celebrated super 'B', "Touch of Evil", and was so impressed he sought him out.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I saw the Glenn Miller Orchestra under Tex Beneke circa 1983 (I remember the girl I went with so I'm sure of the date). Seems pretty amazing now that something dating back to those days was still roaming the country then, though plenty of rock and roll bands of the same age now are still performing.

6:00 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

For the record, AMC stands for "American Movie Classics." How many know it was "Montage" before that? :)

Oh yeah, I recall seeing Helen O'Connell in Disneyland in 1970.

7:26 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

I do remember the old, commercial-free AMC, when it lived up to its name of American Movie Classics, and had Nick Clooney and Bob Dorian as hosts. That's where I saw "Sun Valley Serenade" in its restored splendor in the mid '90s, the highlight for me being the "Chattanooga Choo Choo" number.
AMC's first original series was "Remember WENN," created by Rupert Holmes (of "Escape: the Pina Colada Song" infamy), about a fictional Pittsburgh radio station in the '40s. It was hampered by a low budget, and a lack of understanding how radio shows were produced in that era. ("Mad Men" wouldn't come until long after AMC started airing commercials, enabling them to afford to do a period show right.)

The first John Payne musical I saw was "Garden of the Moon," a Warner Bros. film that aired on TNT in its early years. (Studio publicity claimed that he was related to John Howard Payne, composer of "Home, Sweet Home.") Jerry Colonna stole the show, singing "The Lady on the Three Cent Stamp."
Payne's TV series "The Restless Gun" was based on Jimmy Stewart's radio show "The Six Shooter."

11:28 PM  

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