It’s a Pleasure (1945)
Here comes Sonja Henie‘s only Technicolor film, in which she sambas in ice skates, waltzes in heels, and romances in a series of cute outfits. It’s a Pleasure was Henie’s 13th of 15th films, and her 11th Hollywood production.
Henie, like Esther Williams, was a champion athlete-turned movie star. Henie was born in Norway to wealthy parents who encouraged her athletic pursuits. She was a virtuosic ice skater who competed in the 1924 Olympics at the ripe old age of 11. She came in 8th of 8, but still! In 1927, at the age of fourteen, she won her first of ten (consecutive!) World Figure Skating Championships, and in 1928 she took home the Olympic gold medal.
She also won the gold at the next two Olympics; a feat which remains unmatched today. With her ten World Championships, six European championships, and three gold medals, she reigns as the queen of figure skating. Plus, she’s credited for introducing much of what we now take for granted in that sport, including ballet and dance influences in style and choreography, short skirts, and white skates.
After twelve years domination of competitive figure skating, Henie decided to turn pro. She headed to Hollywood in 1936 where she made twelve very successful films, becoming one of the highest paid movie stars in the world. Her salary, along with a series of highly successful touring ice shows, products, and endorsements helped make her one of the wealthiest women in the world.
Audiences were delighted with this little blonde’s peppy, photogenic face and her amazing feats on the ice. Just as Esther Williams brought synchronized swimming to the big screen, Henie starred in elaborate ice shows for the camera, although Henie did it first.
In fact, when Esther Williams was being courted by MGM, she noted that the studio hoped she would become the “Sonja Henie” of swimming. Apparently Louis B. Mayer , head of MGM, was howling for an answer to Henie’s ice spectaculars at 20th Century Fox. He ordered his minions to “Melt the ice, get a swimmer, make it pretty!” (The Million Dollar Mermaid, 57). It’s lucky for Esther Williams that Henie was such a success because it made MGM anxious for its own female athlete star!
Back to Henie and the film. All but two of her Hollywood movies were produced by 20th Century Fox, but It’s a Pleasure was made by International Pictures, Inc., a studio known for low-budget films, and distributed by RKO. International merged with Universal in 1945, and Henie’s last Hollywood film, The Countess of Monte Cristo (1948) was produced by Universal.
It’s a Pleasure has a pretty weak plot (New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it a “flaccid fable”), but it’s the only Henie movie in Technicolor, and it has plenty of entertaining spectacle. The credit sequence starts with a spinning Henie in white against a brilliantly red background. Yellow and then bright cornflower blue join the red for a fairly garish opening sequence.
Sometimes this movie seems like an excuse to show off Technicolor. It reminds me of Thrill of a Romance (1945) in that respect…you won’t believe how much brilliant white, teal, chartreuse, emerald, and hot pink they crammed into that movie and It’s a Pleasure!
The first scene is ice-bound, but it’s not figure skating. No, it’s the famous professional hockey player Don Martin (Michael O’Shea) and his team vs. the Seals. Note that helmets were not yet required, and that the red and blue of the title sequence is carried over in the team’s uniforms and publicity.
It makes me nervous to watch the hockey footage because guys are falling all over the place, pucks are whizzing by, and no one is wearing protective head or face gear! Don wears a little ear guard thing, but that looks to be just canvas.
Anyway, cut to a group of costumed ladies watching the match. In an ironic twist, our first non-credits glimpse of Sonja Henie comes when she strolls to join them and falls flat on her back when she steps onto the ice. Sonja Henie isn’t supposed to fall! Comedy!
She’s fine, though, and nice close-up on her smiling face! She joins her buddy Wilma (Iris Adrian) as they watch Don Martin fight with another player. We learn that Don has quite a temper, and that Chris Linden (Sonja Henie) has quite a crush on him. Her friends don’t like him, and they don’t want her with him. They can’t see what she sees in him, and frankly, neither can we.
Once halftime comes, Don skates over to an old college pal (instead of going to the locker room?). He and Buzz Fletcher (Bill Johnson), who produces ice revues, have been friends for a while, but Don has never met Buzz’s lovely wife, Gale (Marie McDonald).
Marie McDonald was the daughter of a Ziegfeld Girl, and grew up to be a showgirl, singer, and actress in primarily B-movies in the 1940s. She became known as “The Body” because of her intelligence. No, actually it was because she had a shapely figure. McDonald was a very popular pin-up in WWII, and led a scandalous life featuring seven marriages and various other tabloid-selling events. She’s great at being the “female heavy” in this film.
Gale is lovely, sure, but there’s something bad about her. She flirts way, way too much with Don, and she’s too perfectly coiffed and attired.
Cecil Eveland designed the costumes for this film, and he goes all out with colors, fabrics, and flashy details for Gale. Poor, sweet Chris is stuck with much simpler clothes, though that’s the point. Watch for colorful gloves used as pops of color on both women–it’s a wonderful technique used throughout the movie.
Don, Gale, and Buzz watch the halftime show, while Gale attempts to hold Don’s hand–even though her husband is sitting right next to her! Shame!
The green and purple-clad ladies do some nice tame skating in nice tame lines. They’re not very well synchronized, but ice skating is hard.
They aren’t very good, but that makes the “petite skating star” Chris seem even more remarkable once she takes the ice for a solo number in her adorable pastel costume.
She’s very quick, like a jack rabbit, and she does lots of running on the tips of her skates which you don’t see much now. Her spins are fast, and she skates very prettily, but it’s so different from what skaters do now. Her legs are never totally straight, for instance, and she’s much more crouched over than anyone in the latest Olympics seemed to be. Most of her routines are spin-heavy with some fancy footwork and very few, if any, jumps. The only jump she does in this routine has just one turn in the air:
I’m so used to triple axel-whatevers that this skating seems very ice-bound, though I don’t miss the contortionist leg spins I saw in Sochi. It’s interesting how the sport has changed, but don’t worry, Henie remains entertaining to watch:
You can watch this number here, and here’s a better look at her pale pink and blue costume:
Don Loper designed the ice-skating costumes and did some of the choreography for the “ice ballets.” He started in show business as a dancer, became assistant to Arthur Freed, and eventually became a clothing designer. You may recognize him from an appearance on “I Love Lucy” in which he played himself. He often designed for Lucille Ball.
Back to the film. Once the hockey match resumes, Don loses his temper again and punches a referee. It’s the third time he’s done that, so he’s banned from professional hockey for life. Can you believe you get to punch a ref three times before you get banned?
Chris is devastated for Don, and Don spends most of his newly-unemployed time drunk. Fortunately for Don, Chris hasn’t given up on him. She and the girls are working in Buzz Fletcher’s touring ice revue, and Chris gets Don a job with the show. Chris visits Don to give him the news: how nice of her to wear her brown-checked outfit that matches Don’s sofa! She’s very considerate.
When Don goes to talk to Buzz about the job offer, he finds Gale home alone. She told him Buzz would be there, but as we sensed before, she’s not really a devoted wife. She puts on her leopard outfit, piles her hair high, and lights some candles in preparation for Don’s visit. Those apple-green couches really pop in the background against Gale’s outfit and hair.
Don is upset to find himself alone with Gale, but she apologizes for her attempted seduction and tells him that when Buzz gets back they will all have supper together. But earlier she told him that Buzz wouldn’t be back for four hours…Either Don is really stupid or he doesn’t care, because he lets Gale pull him close and deliver killer lines about fabric:
Soon they’re dancing around the empty apartment…then the scene ends. Who knows what happened next? Did they or didn’t they? Gale seems up for anything, and I’m not sure Don could resist. More importantly, how impressive is Gale’s auburn hairdo? It’s exaggerated even for 1945, and seems especially so when compared to Chris’ simple waves. That’s the point, though…
Anyway, Don joins the show. He’s happy to be working again, and Chris is happy to be with him again. Don’s act is a bunch of stunts, like jumping over a bunch of barrels. This somehow makes him the headliner, though Chris’ pals aren’t too happy with him. They think (rightfully) that Chris should be the star, and they don’t like that Chris devotes most of her time to imbecilic Don.
Don needs a lot of attention, because often he shows up for the show really drunk and can barely perform. After one night when he was so “tight” that he only just made it over the last barrel, Chris makes him practice again and again.
I suppose it’s a nice stunt, but I don’t really understand why that is more impressive than what Chris can do. Michael O’Shea was not a skater, he was a comedian, vaudevillian, and actor best known for his role in The Lady of Burlesque (1943), and for his radio and TV appearances. So this stunt was performed by Paul Bradley, an extra with an impressive list of “uncredited” performances in movies and TV shows.
Perhaps my favorite part of this whole scene is that Don is practicing in these clothes. Chris gets a cute, short skating outfit but Don is doing jumps in a collared shirt, sweater, and heavy slacks belted tight.
Anyway, it’s this practice session that makes Don finally realize that Chris is utterly devoted to him, and might be “good” for him, too. So he proposes marriage, just like that.
Chris says yes. She’s finally got him! Next thing we know they’re at an outdoor skating rink talking about how they’re married and roasting hot dogs, allowing for this gem:
Then they ice-skate, but there’s a charmless interlude when Don pretends to hit Chris. A man stops to help her, but Chris tells him to move along. The man says, “But he was sockin’ ya!” and Chris replies in her surprisingly light Norwegian accent: “So what? A husband’s got to have some fun,” before she and Don skate off together. It’s hard to watch.
Things are going well for the show and for the newlyweds. A big-time producer, Jack Weimar, hears about Don Martin and talks to Buzz and Gale about him. Gale has a thing for Don, so she tells Weimar that Don is unreliable due to heavy drinking. Don hasn’t been drunk since he married Chris, but Gale can’t stand to have Don leave the show, and therefore leave her. She powders her face in a very evil manner as she plots her next move…
Anyway, Weimar plans to watch that evening’s show to see Don for himself. That afternoon, Gale waits for Don in this rather extraordinary hotel lobby all done in pink and green. Well done, art director Wiard Ihnen, Technicolor color director Natalie Kalmus, and cinematographer Ray Rennahan. Eveland’s costumes with those pops of buttery daffodil look great, too.
When Don comes in (he’d been buying a beautiful emerald ring for Chris, assuming he’d be able to pay for it once he gets a job with Weimar), Gale persuades him to go to a bar next door for a celebratory drink. The dummy acquiesces. He’s very easy to sabotage.
Hours pass, and when Chris returns to the hotel after rehearsal, her husband is nowhere to be found.
Soon it’s almost show-time, and still no Don. Chris is worried sick, and Buzz has people looking for Don everywhere.
Evil Gale, looking glamorous in grey with green gloves, stops by Chris’ dressing room to comfort the distraught skater. Snake in the grass!
They finally find Don, completely wasted, in the Paradise Bar. He’s much too drunk to skate, so Buzz asks Chris to “improvise something.” She skates out on this tiny rink in the middle of a nightclub where women must wear pink or chartreuse:
Chris wows the crowd with her hot pink sparkles and her tight spins and tiny steps. I’m impressed that the pink tower on top of her head doesn’t knock her off balance:
You can watch this number here.
After her performance, a courier brings Chris the emerald ring that Don purchased that afternoon. She’s so happy that she isn’t even mad at him for getting drunk, missing his big chance with Weimar, and potentially ruining his career. She must really like emeralds.
Chris soon gets exciting news that Weimar wants to hire her for his “Ice Fantasies.” She tells him she won’t do it unless he hires Don, too…Weimar refuses to hire drunk Don, as he’s far too unreliable, so Chris refuses this great chance.
When Don learns of Chris’ sacrifice, he feels terrible. He makes the tough decision to leave the show and to leave his wife so that she won’t be held back by his mistakes any longer. Wow, it’s the first selfless thing that he has ever done.
Don goes to Buzz’ hotel room to give him the news. Poor Buzz has just gotten some news of his own. Remember that Don was found in the Paradise bar? Earlier that evening, Buzz asked Gale for some matches, and she stupidly handed him a fresh book from, you guessed it:
All evening Gale had denied that she knew anything about Don’s whereabouts, but now she confesses. She says she is in love with Don, that she never loved Buzz, and that she sabotaged Don so that he wouldn’t leave the show and leave her. Poor Buzz. Does Gale’s faux necklace remind anyone else of shackles, or am I reading too much into it?
When Don walks in with his news, Gale rejoices and tells him that she’s leaving Buzz so now she and Don can finally go off together.
Don squashes that plan, telling her he has no interest in her at all. Ouch. But Gale has burned all her bridges with Buzz, so off she goes, never to be seen in the movie again. We’ll miss her costumes and hairstyles.
Don decides to leave in the middle of the night, thus avoiding any scenes with Chris. He gives Buzz a letter to give to Chris, and heads out for who knows where.
Buzz tells Chris that Don will meet them at the train station. She’s terribly anxious, especially when he doesn’t show up in time to catch the train. Fortunately, she has a gorgeous train case to comfort her.
Once on board, Buzz gives her the letter.
Don sure makes it seem as though he and Gale are going off together, doesn’t he? He knows that is the best way to make Chris move on.
And she does. She takes the job with Weimar’s show, and quickly becomes a star. Montage time!
Fun fact: Henie had been starring in the Hollywood Ice Revue for several years, so it probably wasn’t too difficult to get into character as the star of an ice show. The Hollywood Ice Revue was an extremely profitable show that packed in audiences. By the time Henie made this film, she had helped make ice shows an established form of entertainment. In Thrill of a Romance, released the same year as It’s a Pleasure, Esther Williams’ suitor even takes her (and her aunt and uncle) to the Ice Follies on a date!
Back to this film. Henie appeared in loads of magazines, too, and now “Chris Linden” gets her chance.
Notice that on the marquees, Chris’ last name is “Linden,” but on the cover of the magazine it’s “Martin.” Interesting.
So now Chris is a big star. She hasn’t heard from or seen Don in a long time when her friend Wilma tells her that he’s in town running a hockey league for at-risk youths.
Chris doesn’t want to see him, but her friends and Buzz go. Somehow, Wilma and the others have changed their minds about Don, even though they were never big fans.
They watch the match, and see Don break up a fight. What a nice, mature change from Don’s earlier habit of starting fights! He’s changed!
Back at the show, Chris takes a break from the ice and does some dry-land stuff. It’s a weird number in the film because you keep expecting Henie to don skates and go gliding about, but she never does. Instead, this is a pretty “summer dance” with lifts and twirls and fancy steps. Henie is a good dancer, and trained with great teachers all over the world, but it’s jarring to see her without her ice skates!
When Chris returns to her dressing room, she finds that emerald ring…Don must have sent it to her, again…and she decides a reconciliation would be just the thing! She asks Buzz to bring Don back after her next number. But before seeing her estranged husband, she’s got to samba in an inexplicable wintry landscape! This time on skates:
She whirls around on the glossy surface trailing feather plumes–look closely and you can see water sprays and puddles following her skates. It seems that they put a layer of water on top of the ice to get that mirror look.
She hurries back to her dressing room while the red-and-white-ladies take over.
You can really see the water layer in the skaters’ tracks in this image:
While the ensemble entertains the crowd, Don and Chris have a happy reunion:
And then it’s back to the ice!
Henie finishes with a glorious spin as Don and some of the kids from his hockey league watch from the wings. You can watch this astonishing Brazilian samba-ice-skating-extravaganza here.
She looks over at her husband and blows him a kiss:
And it’s happily ever after for all. Except for Gale. We never learn what happened to her…
Critic Bosley Crowther was not a fan of this film, but he did have something positive to say: “Miss Henie, it must be noted, takes to Technicolor as easily as she does to skates. And her whirling capers were never more varied or dazzling, especially one in which she skates to the sizzling strains of a Samba. “It’s a Pleasure!” in short, is correct as to title only when it is ice-bound. Once it leaves the rinks, it develops weak ankles.”
I must say that I agree, but it’s still quite an enjoyable jaunt into a Technicolor dreamworld where couches match costumes, ice sparkles, sequins glimmer, and husbands get drunk! Here’s my question though–the core conflict remains unresolved for Don and Chris. Will she give up her career to further his, again? Will he be content to be Mr. Linden if Chris continues her fabulous rise? Has he really stopped drinking? And surely Gale won’t just disappear into the ether without putting up more of a fight…
So it’s happily ever after, in that moment, sort of. But golly if Sonja Henie doesn’t make you forget about all of that as she sambas across the ice in lime-green gloves!
I must add that I’d like to know more about Henie…she was a complex figure who came under fire for her interactions with Hitler and other high-ranking Nazi officials before WWII, and her perceived lack of support for the Allies, and especially occupied Norway, during the war. She was married three times and had relationships with many famous men, including her co-star Tyrone Power and Liberace (?). She and her last husband, a Norwegian shipping magnate, used their fortunes to compile an impressive art collection, now the Henie-Onstad Art Centre in Norway, before she died at age 57 of leukemia. Fascinating woman.