Everything Happens at Night (1939)
First, it must be said that this is one of those titles that makes no sense. Plenty of action in the story happens during the day, and it isn’t a cute pun or a reference to a line of dialogue. It seems more likely that it was a pleasing series of words in a file marked “Possible Titles,” and someone reached in and picked it at random when they needed to name this film.
In fact, this movie’s working title was “Doctor,” and the story was based on the adventures of, you guessed it, a doctor. But 20th Century Fox executive Darryl Zanuck dismissed that idea and told his scriptwriters to turn the doctor into a political refugee.
So Art Arthur, Robert Harari, and an uncredited F. Scott Fitzgerald (!) got to work on the new screenplay.
Fun fact: Fitzgerald was working as a freelance screenwriter in 1939 after two mostly unsuccessful years under contract to MGM. Although he did not enjoy working in Hollywood, he needed the money. He passed away in December 1940, about a year after this movie was released, and before he finished his last novel, The Last Tycoon, based on MGM executive Irving Thalberg.
I wouldn’t search too hard for Great Gatsby-esque themes or turns of phrase in this movie, as the fact that Fitzgerald didn’t get a screen credit suggests his contributions were minor at best. His involvement is more trivia than anything else.
Anyway, the strangely named Everything Happens at Night stars Sonja Henie, which means there will be ice-skating!
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 her twelve years domination of competitive figure skating, Henie decided to turn pro. After winning gold at the 1936 Olympics, she headed to Hollywood where she made twelve very successful films, becoming one of the highest paid movie stars in the world. Audiences were delighted by this little blonde’s peppy, photogenic face and her amazing feats on the ice.
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. I’m fascinated by this phenomenon of athlete-turned-movie star, so Henie is especially interesting because she 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 profitable ice spectaculars at 20th Century Fox. He ordered his minions to “Melt the ice, get a swimmer, make it pretty!” (The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography, 57).
Irving Cummings (no relation to Robert) directed this film. He had been in Hollywood since the early teens first as an actor and then as a director. He is most famous for directing a string of big Technicolor musicals starring Betty Grable, such as Down Argentine Way (1940) and Springtime in the Rockies (1942). Everything Happens was the last film he directed before beginning that series.
The movie begins in the early morning hours in Paris. Ken Morgan (Robert Cummings), a reporter for the New York Express, reluctantly and sleepily meets with his editor Fred (Alan Dinehart) at a small cafe to discuss a very important story.
Fred has a hunch: even though everyone believes that famed Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Hugo Norden was assassinated a year ago by the Gestapo, Fred thinks he is actually still alive.
Why? Because newspapers all over the world have been receiving editorials over the last six months that match the tone and style of Norden’s writings. They’re such brilliant essays that the newspapers have to publish them despite the mystery of their origin. Ken suggests that maybe Norden’s followers are sending out some of his old writings, but Fred explains that the editorials reference events that happened after Norden was supposedly killed.
Sidenote: the latest editorial, “European Clouds Grow Darker: War Seems Inevitable” doesn’t seem that brilliant or unique. In fact, weren’t lots of people saying that in 1939? Also, this movie places immense importance on one man’s power to change the world through his words. It’s a nice but naive thought, especially because we know that war is indeed coming.
Anyway, Fred thinks that it was Norden’s secretary who was killed by the Gestapo, and that Norden was able to escape without anyone realizing the mistake. Norden was an important figure, the leader of “the” peace movement and a powerful voice against Fascism. He escaped from a concentration camp before being targeted for assassination by the Gestapo, so it would be an incredible story if the man was still alive. Ken is skeptical, but he agrees to go to a small village called San Palo in Switzerland where Fred thinks Norden is hiding.
On the train from Paris, Ken meets an Englishman who claims to be a botanist. His name is Geoffrey Thompson (Ray Milland), and he’s actually a reporter from the London Daily Globe.
Ken and Geoff are both on the trail of Norden, but they make fairly comical attempts to hide their true identities and purpose. Their deception gets trickier to maintain when they are forced to share the last available room in the hotel together. But that makes it easier to listen in on each other’s phone calls and snoop around their belongings. Cool suitcase with the tie rack and shirts expertly folded around cardboard.
Ken hurries off to make inquiries in the village, stopping at the chess club first since Norden was a chess master. Geoff arrives shortly afterward, and they have a cute little encounter through the frosted glass.
It does seem awfully dangerous to ski down the street like that, but let it go.
Ken and Geoff forget their top-secret, super-important mission immediately and instead start competing for the woman’s attention. Her name is Louise (Sonja Henie) and she is a nurse who lives with her elderly patient in the mountains above San Palo. But we suspect that her “patient” is probably Norden, right? She has to be involved somehow.
It’s all reminiscent of another brink-of-WWII film, Foreign Correspondent (1940). In that movie, Joel McCrea plays a reporter on the trail of an important story that could potentially avert the coming conflict, but he is easily sidetracked by the appearance of a pretty girl.
It’s a little disconcerting to see such an important mission forgotten because of a crush, but remember that these movies were made before the war began in earnest. So they don’t know how unseemly such comic romance in the face of war would seem. (I’ll discuss the strange timing of these movies a little later.) I have no problem with silly movies about silly things, but when they’re silly movies about serious things it can get a little more difficult to watch. It’s just weird to see a movie about Nazis or WWII that also maintains a silly, light tone!
Back to Everything Happens. Louise visits the hotel that night, but Ken is already occupied with the only other woman in the place, a big brunette who is the exact opposite of adorable, petite Henie. So Geoff gets Louise all to himself. We’re supposed to pity Ken and laugh at their silly male games, but mostly we just want the plot to keep moving.
The film is full of pretty close-ups of Henie. She is very photogenic and is undeniably the star of the film, so it’s not surprising.
After dancing for a while, Geoff and Louise head into the mountains (always a wise move when it gets dark.) They romance under the stars, and seem to have a genuine connection. She invites Geoff to the winter sports carnival the next day, then skis away back to her patient before things get too serious.
Fun fact: the snow scenes (and there are several) were filmed in Sun Valley, Idaho in March, 1939. Two years after this film, Henie would make a movie called Sun Valley Serenade (1941) which was set and filmed in Sun Valley. And Esther Williams and Van Johnson also skied at the popular vacation spot in Duchess of Idaho (1950):
He arrives at the house and is rather surprised when the brunette from the night before emerges and welcomes him inside. Ha! It was a trick! Ken wrote the note to get Geoff away from Louise so that Ken can have his turn!
Ken goes to the festival but arrives after the skating competition. He patronizingly assumes that Louise lost, and offers her some skating pointers so that she can do better next time. It’s an inside joke with the audience–of course Louise doesn’t need skating pointers! She’s Sonja Henie, for goodness sake!
Ken takes a hard fall as he “teaches” Louise, and then feels rather foolish when she demonstrates her skills.
He’s even more enamored with her after she glides and spins. It’s the same old story: men love ladies who can ice skate.
Cue the dream sequence: Ken stares into the ice and hallucinates a big skating routine for Louise. (You knew they had to get one in there somehow!)
Henie skates to Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube” with some Latin and Jazz sections thrown in. The number is nearly five minutes long and takes place in a white dream palace with columns, chandeliers, and grand rococo flourishes.
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 besides one split and a few hopping spins. She runs across the ice on her toes, stops on a dime in pretty poses, and performs tight spins at breakneck speed.
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 part of this number here (it starts at 9:27), and watch other Henie numbers here and here.
Ken resurfaces from his daydream and joins Louise in a sleigh back to town. They cuddle and get sort of pre-engaged, though this is a surprising twist because Louise had seemed enamored with Geoff just a few hours ago. But now she has wholeheartedly transferred her affections to Ken.
Meanwhile, Geoff makes his way back to San Palo after his wild goose chase. His sleigh stops at a woodcutter’s house to allow the horses a brief rest. Guess who happens to be there playing chess? Norden immediately leaves, but not before Geoff notices the man and gets suspicious.
Geoff asks the woodcutter about his chess partner and learns that he is named “Mr. Bruner.” When he returns to San Palo, he makes friends with the police chief (Fritz Feld) so that he can learn more about Mr. Bruner.
While Geoff is actually working the story, Ken calls his editor. He says that he hasn’t made any progress, but that he should stay for a while anyway (he just wants to be with Louise). A man listens outside of the phone booth…suspicious. It’s Leonid Kinskey, whom you may recognize from Duck Soup (1933) or Casablanca (1942), among many others.
While Ken is pleading with his editor to let him stay in San Palo, Geoff moves in on Louise. He asks her if she knows a man named Bruner. She stiffens and gets even more nervous when he tells her that he and Ken are both reporters searching for Dr. Norden, and that he thinks Bruner might be Norden in disguise. She lies and says that he’s wrong: Bruner has lived in San Palo for years, and he doesn’t even look like Dr. Norden.
Then she gets out of there on her speedy skis. But Ken follows and takes a nasty fall. So she goes back to help him and stupidly brings him home with her. (Geoff just told her that Ken is a reporter, and that he’s looking for Norden! Come on, Louise!)
They chat in the semi-darkness and eventually Ken asks her to marry him and come to Paris. They’ve known each other for slightly over 24 hours, so it was about time! (For more on speedy classic Hollywood romances, visit my History Through Hollywood: Love post.)
She calls him “father” (though Ken didn’t hear it) so now we know what we already suspected: Louise is Dr. Norden’s daughter. Ken isn’t quite sure what he saw, but he’s definitely suspicious. He gets home and draws a beard on his photo of Norden–eureka! It’s the same man! He rushes to the telegraph office to wire his editor the story.
Geoff follows Ken to the office and comes up with an ingenious plan. Once Ken leaves, he calls the telegraph office and pretends to be Ken. He tells the operator that he made a mistake, and asks him to send the telegraph to the London Daily Globe instead of the New York Express.
Louise subdues her father and takes him back upstairs. When she returns, she begs Ken and Geoff not to publish the truth about him. If anyone finds out that he is still alive he will be in terrible danger. The Gestapo tried to silence him once, and they will certainly do so again. Poor Louise doesn’t know that the story has already been published!
They break the bad news, and she is terribly sad and worried, naturally. She is also furious, and lets loose with the old “you care more about your story than anything else!” and “I thought you cared about me, but you were just using me to get your scoop!” routine.
After that outburst, Ken and Geoff convince Norden and Louise to come with them immediately. They will whisk them to safety before anyone can get to San Palo.
And so the slow-moving romantic comedy turns into a suspenseful thriller. Norden and Louise hide in Ken and Geoff’s hotel room while they wait for a sleigh to take them to the train station. There is a train to Paris leaving that night, and they must be on it.
Geoff and Ken attack him but then realize it was all a mistake. He really is just a waiter!
But then a real threat arrives: the Gestapo! They come to the hotel and congregate in the bar, because everyone knows that when searching for someone, it’s best to announce your presence and then hang out in one spot for a while to allow your prey plenty of time to plan an escape.
Norden decides to turn himself in. He doesn’t want his daughter to be in danger, so he thinks it would be better if he gave himself up. But Louise begs him not to, and he reconsiders.
Meanwhile, Geoff fetches his police pal who stalls the Gestapo by requesting to see their passports. And since the Gestapo are always willing to pause in their missions to abide by local laws, their ruse works.
During all of this drama, the suspicious man who listened to Ken’s conversation the night before lurks around the edges. Is he a Gestapo agent? A good guy? It’s very confusing. He never steps in to help the good guys or the bad guys, but just watches what’s happening with a mysterious look on his face before he disappears from the movie! Weirdly, we never get any closure or even basic information about him. It’s almost as though there is a scene missing.
Anyway, while the Gestapo agents are occupied with paperwork, Ken, Geoff, Louise and Norden sneak out of the hotel and take off in a sleigh. The Gestapo follows at once, and so begins a thrilling chase through the snow. Poor horses.
Ken drops his three passengers at the train station then turns the sleigh around. He deliberately crashes into the Gestapo’s sleigh, thus preventing them from reaching the station. As he apologizes for his “mistake,” the train rumbles by in the distance. Success!
Since the Gestapo were famously kind to strangers, particularly those who messed up their plans, they let Ken go without any reprisals! Or so we think, because the film cuts to the Paris docks.
Norden, Louise, and the two reporters have booked passage to America. But Geoff asks if they wouldn’t rather just go to England? They’d be perfectly safe there, he says. Ken jumps in with a stirringly patriotic speech about how they must go to the United States because: “America, sanctuary of democracy, haven for Europe’s greatest minds!” is the only place to go. It’s the promised land where one can escape the turmoil and ugliness of the coming storm. It’s a heavy-handed moment, but you know why it’s there.
Despite this patriotic turn, the movie isn’t finished with childish pranks. Geoff still wants Louise, so he pays a man to steal her bag. Ken runs after the thief, as Geoff knew he would, and it looks as though Ken will miss the boat. But the plan backfires because Geoff gets detained by a policeman who saw him talking with the thief, and Ken makes his way back to the ship much faster than Geoff expected. Ken ignores Geoff’s pleas to vouch for his identity and hurries to the gangplank. He barely makes it, and Geoff misses the boat.
But as he watches it pull away, Norden shouts that Louise’s bag, which Geoff retrieved from the thief, contains his memoirs. He tells Geoff he can publish them, thus granting the unscrupulous reporter a huge scoop. Norden and Louise get to safety, Ken gets the girl and Geoff gets the memoirs! Perfect.
Admittedly, the plot doesn’t make much sense. As Frank Nugent, critic at The New York Times wrote in his review:
Wilder and wilder grow the tales the old California frontiersmen spin over their campfires about Sonja Henie, the Miss Brinker of Norway, who could work out an income tax on a hair-acre of ice, adding with her right skate and subtracting with her left; who wore ski boots with her evening gowns, and had only to bat her ice-blue eyes at a man to send him into a long trance in which he would see ice ballets surpassing all the dreams of an Eskimo opium-eater. Wilder and wilder grow the tales they spin, and none is wilder than the one Art Arthur and Robert Harari have combed out of their typewriters for “Everything Happens at Night”…This time they have refrigerated Miss Henie into a tiny Swiss Alpine village as daughter of a Nobel Peace-prize winner whom all the world believes dead, foully murdered the year before, and now in hiding among the snows and skating rinks…
It’s pretty true; this movie is a strange mixture of romantic comedy/thriller, and neither of the parts make much coherent sense. Henie transfers her attentions from one man to the other seemingly at random, the two men are entirely ruthless but also not very committed to their jobs, and the importance of Dr. Norden remains very vague.
But the plot isn’t that important, as it’s mainly an excuse to photograph Henie in pretty poses and skating routines. As Time Magazine wrote, “whether she is gliding backwards or forwards, or skating rings around Greek columns…Sonja Henie on blades is still the best part of one of her pictures.”
Even so, Nugent wasn’t a fan, concluding his review with this zinger: “Dismissing its implausibilities—and using a 10-ton snow plow for the purpose—we suggest it is not good Henie, although Mr. Milland and Mr. Cummings are diligently lighthearted, and we suggest that Twentieth Century-Fox summon a repairman: the refrigerator for keeping Miss Henie on ice seems finally to have collapsed of nervous exhaustion.”
What makes this film especially interesting, though, is the timing. It went into production in September of 1939, and premiered just three months later on December 15.
Movies made on the cusp of World War II about the coming conflict can be fascinating to watch today. Sometimes they are full of foreboding, though the accuracy of their predictions vary. Sometimes they talk about Hitler or the Nazis very openly, and sometimes the threat is vague and unnamed. For instance, in Everything Happens, we never hear about Hitler, the Nazis, or even Germany; instead the “Gestapo” is the enemy.
It’s easy to watch these films and scoff at their naivete, or alarmist but wrong rhetoric, or obvious propaganda elements, or the bumbling Nazis so easily defeated by the brave American heroes.
The condescension of the present is particularly difficult to mute in movies that are so topical about such an enormous historical event. But try to remember that the filmmakers (and the world) didn’t know what was coming. So they made comedies about the Nazis, and they invented strange conspiracies, and they wrote silly speeches that ring hollow today (and some that remain gorgeous and stirring). And that’s part of what makes them so fascinating.
For instance, in Foreign Correspondent (1940) we watch Joel McCrea uncover a strange, mostly useless plot to assassinate the leader of a peace movement. He runs around Europe chasing shadowy conspirators and giving patriotic speeches designed to galvanize the clueless American public and break the war wide open with a newspaper story.
It’s essentially a tighter, more suspenseful version of Everything Happens at Night, minus the ice skating: it’s set in Europe, there is a vague conspiracy, a powerful man urging peace whose ideas are a threat to Hitler, his pretty, single daughter, and an adorable American reporter on the trail of a scoop.
And in All Through the Night (released in January, 1942), Humphrey Bogart is a New York wise guy who stumbles upon a Fifth Column Nazi scheme. He and his gangster pals pretty easily take down the scary but incompetent Nazi saboteurs, leaving the audience cheering for the tough Americans while simultaneously freaking out about secret Nazi cells.
Then in Casablanca (1942), made slightly later (and post-Pearl Harbor), the war is already in full swing and America doesn’t need warning so much as encouragement and a cynical-then-fully-committed hero to symbolically rally around.
When watching these films, it’s easy to think “Why aren’t they more worried about this? How can they make jokes or seem happily unconcerned about the coming storm?” Well, remember that they didn’t really know what was on the horizon, though they did their best.
For example, Foreign Correspondent finished shooting in May 1940, but they shot a new ending that July when it became clear that the Germans were going to start bombing England. They finished the new ending on July 5, and the Nazis began bombing five days later. I’m sure the opening dedication was added later, too.
Through these movies, we get a glimpse of what the world was like on the brink of WWII. It can actually be quite chilling to watch them because you feel like a time traveler who knows a momentous, terrible secret and has to stand by as people stumble towards something awful.
For instance, in All Through the Night, which is mostly a silly thriller, a character finds out that her father died in Dachau. The American characters don’t know how to pronounce the word, and the whole idea of “concentration camps” is a new one.
Of course, the full horror of the concentration camps was years away from hitting the mainstream, and Dachau is included in this film as a throwaway moment, a handy plot device.
But it’s heavy and horrible for a modern viewer. And it’s that kind of smash-up between the film’s world and today’s that can be so interesting and unsettling.
Besides the timing, Everything Happens at Night is also an intriguing movie because of 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.
Some even believed that she’d been Hitler’s mistress for a while, and many in her home country were dismayed at her lackluster anti-Nazi support. You can learn more about Henie in this brief profile made for the 1994 Olympics:
And enjoy this funny article about being an extra on this movie! I doubt its veracity, as it details rehearsing for a big production number with fifty ice-skating extras dancing a rhumba, but it’s still a fun read.