One in a Million (1936)
1936 was a big year for Sonja Henie. In February, she competed in the Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany, where she won her third consecutive gold medal in figure skating. That record still stands, and probably always will.
And in December, her first Hollywood film premiered, turning the Olympian into a movie star nearly overnight.
But before she got to Hollywood, she skated her way to a stellar career in international competition. The 1936 Games were Henie’s fourth Olympics; the Norwegian skater first became an Olympian at the 1924 Games when she was only eleven years old. She finished 8th of 8, but just three years later she had worked her way to the top of the figure skating world.
In 1927, at the age of fourteen, she won her first of ten (consecutive!) World Figure Skating Championships, and in 1928, 1932, and 1936 she took home the Olympic gold medal. You can watch a video of her practice round at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1932 here, and a 1936 newsreel about the skater here.
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 successfully defending her Olympic title in February 1936, 24-year-old Henie turned professional. She headed to Hollywood determined to conquer films as she had the ice. When she first arrived, she set her price at $75,000 per film, and refused to consider being a featured player who only performed specialty numbers and then disappeared from the film. She wanted to be the star in a movie built around her.
No studio agreed to those terms, as her asking price was astronomical (roughly $1.2 million in 2016), especially for a first movie. For example, MGM’s star William Powell was earning $3,000 a week in 1936, so he would have had to work 25 weeks to earn the sum Henie was requesting. And Henie’s bold price was even more impressive because this movie only took about six weeks to make!
Since no studio signed her at that price, Henie set out to prove her drawing power. She rented a rink and put on a live ice show, which brought in $28,000 in just a few nights. (She donated $8,000 of it to charity.) After that impressive display, the studios began to take more notice of the petite Norwegian skater, and she was able to negotiate a stunning deal with 20th Century Fox.
She was paid $60,000 to make One in a Million, and then signed a five-year contract with Fox giving her $125,000 per film. She agreed to make one movie a year and would only film in the summer because she wanted to tour with her live ice show in the winter.
Compare that to Fox’s big star Alice Faye, who made $45,000 in 1937, or Henie’s co-star Don Ameche, who earned $34,500. Of course, huge stars like Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich were making over $200,000, but it’s pretty incredible that Henie was able to get $60,000 as a newcomer and then sign such a fantastic contract!)
Fortunately, One in a Million was a hit, and Fox quickly put more Sonja Henie films into the pipeline. She would go on to make twelve movies in Hollywood, with her last coming in 1948. Henie quickly became one of the biggest stars in the world with a salary to match. It must have quite satisfying for Henie to know that the studios who first dismissed her began offering Fox upwards of $200,000 to borrow the star for just one movie after the success of One in a Million!
Can you imagine the same thing happening today? What if after winning gold in London in August 2012, Michael Phelps then went to Hollywood, started filming a movie seven months later, and it premiered about a month after that in May, 2013? (Never mind that such a speedy production schedule is unheard of now.) And he became one of the biggest movie stars in the world? Weird.
Fun fact: Henie’s box office power and star quality also got the studios thinking about other athletes they could turn into movie stars. In fact, when national champion swimmer Esther Williams was being courted by MGM, she noted that the studio hoped she would become the “Sonja Henie” of swimming.
According to Williams’ autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, was howling for an answer to Henie’s ice spectaculars at 20th Century Fox, and he told his staff to “Melt the ice, get a swimmer, make it pretty!” It’s lucky for Esther Williams that Henie was such a success because it made MGM anxious for its own female athlete star!
The Ritz Brothers, otherwise known as Al, Jimmy, and Harry Joachim, (Ritz was a stage name) were a comedy-dance team who started in vaudeville in 1925. They were headliners in the 1930s, and after starring in a successful short film in New York in 1934, 20th Century Fox brought them to Hollywood.
One in a Million was their third movie at Fox, and they worked steadily in Hollywood through the early 1940s, usually as specialty acts in musicals.
Unlike the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges, the Ritz Brothers did not have distinct personas and instead derived their comedy from typical brotherly pranks and silly songs. They play up their startling resemblance, and it’s difficult to tell them apart.
To the film! It begins on a train chugging through Switzerland.
Tad Spencer (Adolphe Menjou) leads a rehearsal of his all-female band. They can barely play because they are so cold and hungry, though. His wife, Billie (Arline Judge), is particularly vocal about her discomfort.
It seems that Spencer is not a great bandleader, and they’ve run out of money. They are on their way to a gig at a hotel, though, so things might be looking up.
The Ritz brothers (who play themselves) are also part of the group. They give a performance in their compartment, and then a stray harmonicist named Adolphe (Borrah Minevitch) catches Spencer’s attention. He adds him to the band, though most of the group finds the incessant harmonica rather annoying. Plus, Adolphe doesn’t speak any English.
Audiences in 1936 might have recognized Minevitch. He was a famous Ukranian harmonicist who also led a 10-piece harmonica band named the Harmonica Rascals (they appear later in this movie.) He performed onstage to great success and first began appearing in movies in 1934. He was a big deal.
So far, we’re about ten minutes into the movie, and we’ve already gotten a song by the band, a performance by the Ritz brothers, and a song by Minevitch. And that’s how this movie goes: very little exposition or plot, but lots of specialty numbers and musical interludes.
This film is basically Fox playing pin-the-talent-on-the-movie, throwing whatever stars and acts are available onto the barest outline of a plot and hoping it will stick together. And if not, at least the audience will be so distracted by the dazzling performances that they won’t notice nor care if it’s less than coherent. So we get the Ritz Brothers, Minevitch and his Harmonica Rascals, a few songs by Dixie Dunbar (a singer who was under contract to Fox), and of course the big skating routines showcasing Miss Henie. The plot occasionally peeks out between these numbers, but it’s not especially crucial.
Anyway, the train arrives at the station and the discontented band hurries to the Grand Palace Hotel.
But they won’t be performing there, and they definitely won’t be getting paid. The hotel is destroyed, and firefighters still work to extinguish the blaze.
The group heads to the nearest inn, desperate for food and warmth. The inn is run by Mr. Muller (Jean Hersholt) and his daughter, Greta (Sonja Henie).
Fun fact: you may recognize Hersholt from the Shirley Temple version of Heidi (1937), where he played Heidi’s grandfather. But he is best known for playing the title character on the CBS radio show, Dr. Christian. It was a long running hit that lasted from 1937-1954, and Hersholt played the character in several spin-off films and on a television show, too.
Greta is a very sweet girl and a magnet for pretty close-ups. Only Henie gets glamour shots in this movie. Fox certainly wanted their investment in Henie to pan out, so they give her the full movie star treatment in this movie in an effort to make her a star, not just a pretty skater.
He dreams up a big production number starring the innkeeper’s daughter. First, she morphs into a spangly costume as she spins:
Then she is joined by a chorus of white-clad, fur-trimmed skaters in a dream-forest.
It’s a lovely introduction to Henie and the type of production numbers Fox concocted around the star. Here she is in a production still with the strange Little Bo Beep backup skaters. Fox costume designer Royer concocted the incredible outfits for this film and for most of Henie’s movies.
Spencer runs back to the inn to tell his wife about his brilliant idea of building a show around Greta’s “dancing on ice.” She is skeptical. He has lots of brilliant ideas, but so far none of them have ever worked.
Meanwhile, Bob Harris (Don Ameche), a reporter from the Paris Herald, and his partner Danny (Ned Sparks) arrive at the inn. They have come to investigate the Grand Palace Hotel fire, which they suspect might be arson or maybe even a sinister explosion. They chat about a certain notorious man who was seen at the hotel before the fire, and a woman in a mink coat who fled the blaze. Very suspicious.
But, all thoughts, no matter how serious, flee when Bob sees Greta. He starts flirting with her immediately, and she seems receptive to his charm.
Ameche looks so different without the tiny mustache that he wore for most of his films!
Greta likes this handsome reporter, but as gets dinner ready, she sees Bob massaging one of the band members. She doesn’t know that the woman slyly tricked Bob into giving her a neck rub, so her feelings are rather hurt.
Greta turns cold and arranges for her father to serve Bob, instead. Bob is rather disappointed, but he hopes to spend time with Greta the next day.
He thinks it is Greta with his breakfast, but actually it’s Spencer. He heard that Bob is a reporter, and he wants Bob to help him promote his new ice skating star. Spencer is ready to go ahead with his scheme, though he hasn’t actually asked Greta if she’d like to become a professional ice skater and perform with him. Details.
Bob tells him to get lost. He has a hotel fire to investigate!
Mr. Muller is at the pond coaching Greta, and he tells Bob that she is training for the Olympics. He also reveals that he himself was an Olympic figure skater, and his dearest wish is for Greta to win gold. He is certain she will, too. It’s a cute little joke with the audience because by the time this movie was made, Greta/Henie had won gold. Three times!
Pragmatic Bob doesn’t drift into a dream sequence as he watches Greta, but instead dons skates and clumsily joins her on the ice.
He asks her about her father, and learns that Mr. Muller won gold in the 1908 Olympics, but his medal was taken away because of charges of “professionalism.” No, he wasn’t too qualified and competent; he apparently took money for teaching a rich man’s kid how to skate, so technically he lost his amateur status.
Greta claims that the money was a gift for her father to buy new skates, but the Olympic committee didn’t believe that, and they stripped Mr. Muller of his title and medal.
So Greta’s Olympic dreams are not only for herself, but also to redeem her father. But she is still mad at Bob for the massage incident, so she leaves him on the ice and returns to the inn.
Bob is fascinated by this father-daughter Olympic drama, so he calls his editor from a very strange telephone (read my History Through Hollywood: Telephones for more on that) and pitches a new idea. He thinks the hotel story is dried up, but instead he wants to write about Mr. Muller and Greta. He thinks it is a great human interest piece. His editor agrees, and lets him stay in Switzerland to write the story.
Meanwhile, Spencer has arranged for an audition at the St. Moritz casino. He even finagles a small fee to cover the cost of the trip. He tells Greta that it’s just an exhibition performance, so she happily goes with the band. They play and sing the whole way there!
Back at the inn, Bob asks Ned to tail a suspicious guest after they learn that he had been staying at the hotel until the fire. Despite his new ice-skating story, Bob hasn’t totally given up on the hotel fire. The man Ned follows is the one with the monocle (Montague Love). He pops up a few times throughout the film, mostly to complain about the noisy guests.
Mr. Muller tells Bob about the “exhibition” in St. Moritz, and Bob hurries over to see it. Greta skates beautifully and wows the crowd, of course. Fun fact: St. Moritz hosted the 1928 Winter Olympics, where Henie won her first gold medal.
Bob enjoys the show until a horrible thought strikes him. What if Spencer is being paid for this performance?! That would make Greta a “professional” and ruin her chances at the Olympics!
He rushes backstage and confronts Spencer. Greta is horrified to learn that she may have lost her eligibility, but Spencer doesn’t seem to care. He wants to force her to keep performing with the group, but his wife takes him aside to talk some sense into him.
She explains that Greta must compete in the Olympics because if she wins she will be world-famous, and it will be much easier to put on their ice show if it stars a gold medalist! But if she’s just Greta Muller, an unknown skater, no one will care. Spencer sees her point. Fortunately, the Olympics start next week (!), so he won’t have to wait too long for his ice ballet.
Bob takes Greta home, but we stay to watch the Ritz Brothers perform “Horror Men of Hollywood” by Harold Rome and Lester Lee.
The brothers impersonate Peter Lorre, Charles Laughton, and Boris Karloff. Lorre was famous for playing a serial killer in M (1931), and had recently appeared as an evil, insane surgeon in Mad Love (1935). “Laughton” appears as Captain Bligh from Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), and Karloff is Frankenstein from the classic 1931 film.
The song is a comic tune about how they are actually nice guys but they have to play these scary parts. You can watch it here:
Meanwhile, Bob and Greta make their way home, and naturally things get romantic. It’s a rule when traveling by sleigh.
After some incidental drama at the hotel concerning Spencer’s bill, the whole gang goes to Garmisch-Partenkirchen for the Olympics. Spencer has to hock various musical instruments to pay the band’s hotel bill, since all of the money he got from the performance at St. Moritz went to their travel expenses. He is desperate to make some money off of Greta, but he knows he has to wait until after the Games.
We get some footage of the ski jump competition and then a program for the figure skating finals.
The night before Greta skates, the whole group enjoys a party with songs by the band, Bob, and the Harmonica Rascals.
You can watch the performance here:
And then she takes the ice!
And she looks super cute in her Olympic rings costume!
The style and choreography is quite different from what you’ll see in the Olympics today. Henie skates with short, choppy movements and she doesn’t perform any jumps of the kind we’re used to. Instead, she runs across the ice on her toes like a pixie, stops on a dime in pretty poses, and performs tight spins at breakneck speed. You can watch the performance here:
There are no extended leg lifts lasting the length of the rink, expressive hand gestures, sustained glides with upturned faces, or double axle triple toe loop combinations. But the number is fun to watch because of the differences, and because Henie is an adorable and charismatic presence. You can watch other Henie numbers here and here.
She is the last to skate, and as soon as she finishes the French flag is hoisted above the stadium. She got second! The crowd is shocked, and the judges appear confused. They hurriedly confer, and overrule the first decision. There was a mistake in the scores, and actually Greta did come in first! Hurray!
Fun fact: here is Henie at the actual 1936 Olympics just months before she filmed this movie:
Bob rushes backstage to congratulate Greta on her win. They’re in love. Spencer comes to see her, too. He has already hashed out the details with an associate in New York: they are renting Madison Square Garden for a series of ice shows starring Greta. He’s hired 100 skaters and a symphony orchestra, and they need to leave for America at once!
But Greta doesn’t want to perform for Spencer. She tells him that she has decided to compete in the 1940 Olympics (obviously they didn’t know those Games would be cancelled), so she needs to keep her amateur status.
Spencer is furious. He threatens to tell the Olympic officials that Greta performed with his group in St. Moritz and got paid unless she agrees to star in his show! This is the first that Mr. Muller had heard of this, since, like Greta, he thought that the performance was an exhibition. But rather than wait to hear more details, or perhaps let his daughter explain what happened, Mr. Muller marches into the Olympic Committee office to return his daughter’s gold medal.
He tells the astonished officials that his daughter is ineligible, but asks that instead of publicly shaming her, could the Committee simply announce a return to the first (erroneous) decision that awarded the French skater first place? He doesn’t want Greta to have to face what he did back in 1908, though he seemed to have no problem turning her in without any effort at finding the truth!
The Committee agrees, impressed by Muller’s character. He returns to his miserable daughter. Then Bob arrives, finds out what happened, and goes to work setting the story straight. He explains to Muller that Greta didn’t know it was a “professional” event, plus she never got paid, even though Spencer did. And since Spencer used the money to pay for expenses, it may not matter anyway!
The group goes to talk to the Secretary of the Olympics (?), who happens to be the mysterious guest who Ned and Bob suspected of playing a part in the hotel fire. (Actually he was just enjoying some downtime incognito before the Games! It makes no sense; let it go.)
He listens to their story, and without requiring evidence or corroboration of any kind, he decides to reinstate Greta as the gold medalist! Everything is fine!
Cut to Madison Square Garden. For some reason, Greta has forgotten about keeping her amateur status for the next Olympics (we never learn why she changed her mind), and now she is starring in an enormous ice show!
She dances across the ice with a large collection of skaters, then does her solo thing. We get glimpses of Mr. Muller, Bob, and the Spencers in the audience, cheering on their adorable, world-famous daughter/fiancee/friend. Mrs. Spencer is clad in a gorgeous fur coat, so we know that the show is raking in the cash!
Greta exits the ice to let the Ritz Brothers perform a bull/matador routine set to the Carmen score. It’s strange. Two of the brothers are in that bull costume, and the lucky third gets to be the matador.
But the number ends in chaos when the two bull brothers realize that the coin they’ve been using throughout the movie to decide who gets the blankets, food, or matador costume, is actually a trick coin with heads on both sides. So the matador brother has been cheating them the whole time! It’s a fun little side story if you like the Ritz Brothers’ style of vaudeville humor.
After they finish, Greta returns to the ice for a big finale.
It reminds me of the “Continental” number in The Gay Divorcee (1934) with the black and white costumes and the endless array of extras.
It’s not a surprise that this film drew on the RKO Astaire–Rogers films like Top Hat, The Gay Divorcee, and Roberta. Indeed, in an interview with The New York Times in March 1936, Henie said that, “I want to do with skates what Fred Astaire is doing with dancing.”
This was a bold statement, but she pulls it off, essentially creating the genre of skating musicals as she goes. As Laura Jacobs wrote in her article on Henie in Vanity Fair:
It was pretty savvy, Sonja’s focus on RKO’s Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers franchise as the model for what she might do in pictures. She saw that as a dimpled soubrette she’d have to do some form of musical comedy. She also knew that Hollywood wasn’t stocked with leading men who could skate. What Fox copied were RKO’s black-and-white Art Deco sets, the nimble pace, the stock characters, the silly plots, and the big production numbers that got more inventive—black ice, special effects, dream sequences—with every movie.
You’ll see MGM use this model for Esther Williams a few years later, though by the 1940s it was Technicolor and a strange mix of neo-Classical/rococo instead of black-and-white art deco. But the “nimble pace,” stock characters, plots, and inventive and innovative production numbers that Jacobs mentions as characteristics of Henie’s Fox films can be seen in Williams’ MGM spectaculars, too.
That’s a big reason I find Henie so interesting, and why I enjoy writing about her movies despite their status today as curiosities or even, unfortunately, footnotes in film history. It’s fascinating to trace the development of this kind of film. And without Henie, I doubt MGM would have searched for someone like Esther Williams. Audiences were ready for a mermaid and swimming musicals after cheering on their ice queen in skating musicals for years!
The end! We never figure out what happened to the Grand Palace Hotel–that subplot was unceremoniously dropped. It’s almost as though a scene that wrapped up that storyline is missing.
Filming on One in a Million began in late September and lasted until November 14, with retakes on the 25th and 28th. Rather amazingly, the movie premiered on New Years’ Eve just a month later.
Fun fact: the New York premiere on December 31, 1936 makes this movie a little tricky to date. For example, the American Film Institute and Turner Classic Movies classify this film as a 1937 release because that’s when it opened elsewhere. But I’ve gone with the majority who label it a 1936 film because of its New Year’s Eve premiere.
The film was a hit, and Fox immediately started planning more Henie films: Thin Ice premiered in September 1937, with Happy Landing hitting screens in January 1938.
Henie turned into a movie star almost overnight. Fun fact: Motion Picture Daily reported that the Screen Actor’s Guild voted her performance in One in a Million the best performance by an actress in January, 1937! (Porter Hall took the best supporting actor’s prize for The Plainsmen, but the best actor and best supporting actress winners weren’t included in the article.)
One in a Million’s vaguely named “Skating Ensemble” number, directed by Jack Haskell, was nominated for the now-extinct Academy Award for Best Dance Direction. But The Great Ziegfeld took home the statuette. Fun fact: this award only existed for three years in 1935-1937. The next year, Henie’s film Thin Ice was also nominated in this category for the “Prince Igor Suite,” but lost to Hermes Pan‘s “Fun House” number in A Damsel in Distress.
After she finished filming this movie, Henie turned her attention to live ice shows. She approached promoters as confidently as she’d approached the studios, and demanded the large nightly guarantee of $10,000. They refused her demands just as the studios had, so she set out to prove she could pack in the crowds. She rented a rink for three nights in Hershey, PA, and her show was as successful as she knew it would be. She reportedly brought in $28,000 over the three nights, and the promoters who initially balked at her terms immediately signed her up.
Henie was an incredibly savvy businesswoman who possessed extraordinary, and well-placed, confidence in her star power and popularity. She knew that her ice shows and movies only fed her stardom in an unending loop of cross-promotion, and she capitalized on it. You can read more about her in this great Vanity Fair profile.
To read about another Sonja Henie movie, head over to my It’s a Pleasure (1945) and Everything Happens at Night (1939) reviews. And follow me on Twitter, tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram at BlondeAtTheFilm, and Facebook. You can buy this movie here, and as always, thanks for reading!