It's odd. Joan Crawford's career before entering the star-studded gates of MGM was littered with a closet full of trophies for dancing the Charleston. In fact, one of the ways the studio chose to market their new find very early on was to have Crawford warble and dance in the Hollywood Review of 1929. But almost immediately L.B. Mayer lost interest in grooming another musical star in his stable and took Joan's career in a different direction. All the better for Crawford fans today, who know and love her for playing the supremely elegant shop girl makes good, or devious bitch with a vengeful streak.
But MGM never entirely gave up on la Crawford the musical star either. Regrettably, the musicals they put her in were always second rate drivel (Torch Song 1954), or lavish spectacles (Dancing Lady 1932) that all but eclipsed Crawford's innate ability to hoof around. Tragically, Reinhold Schunzel's The Ice Follies of 1939 (1939) is a little of both, a lavishly distorted claptrap of jaw-dropping spectacle grafted onto a thimble's worth of plot, supplied by screenwriters, Leonard Praskins, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allen Woolf.
The story, such as it is, involves Larry Hall (James Stewart) and Eddie Burgess (Lew Ayres); an ice skating duo who used to rock the rinks with their talent before Larry met Mary McKay (Joan Crawford). Now, Mary's an integral part of the act. Despite having talent, she proves to be just enough of a dead weight to sink the boy's partnership. Mary is desperately in love with Larry and he with her. On the fly they marry, then break the news to Eddie, who couldn't be happier...only he decides that there's just no room for a third wheel in this partnership.
So, Eddie bows out to do a solo. But before he does, he gets into a fender bender with movie mogul, Douglas Tolliver (Lewis Stone). An imminent brawl with Tolliver's chauffeur, Henry (Joe Manz) is averted when Tolliver graciously offers to pay for all damages. The next day, Mary arrives at the studio to collect the check. But this time she has more than just money on her mind. Faking distaste for the business of movie making, Mary convinces Tolliver to give her a screen test. It's a hit, and Mary is immediately placed under a bit player's contract at the studio. She makes good on her first small part and graduates - seemingly overnight - to superstardom. That's all well and good for Mary, but it leaves Larry's own failure to procure sponsorship for his ice follies feeling deflated, and rather like a sponge.
Mary and Larry separate. Larry convinces his buddy, producer Mort Hodges (Lionel Stander) to raise funding for his first ice follies, and what do you know? It's a hit too. Now that success is assured on both sides of the marital bond you would think Larry and Mary would get back together. And, of course, you would be right. Mary, who has somehow garnered an impressive amount of clout at the studio (she practically controls her own career), recommends to Tolliver that he produce Larry's ice follies for the big screen. Naturally, he does, and the result is...no, wait for it...a colossal smash hit.
If only the results on screen mirrored what we, the audience are being sold as art, the film might have fared far better than it actually does. L.B. Mayer wasn't often known for producing glossy duds, but MGM certainly lays a gigantic egg with The Ice Follies of 1939. The screenplay is workmanlike serviceable at best. The acting, about the same. The overproduced Cinderella ice follies finale - shot in sparkling Technicolor no less - is a gargantuan mishmash of missed opportunities and hopelessly obvious reasons to show off the then newly improved 3 strip color process.
Crawford arrives in a storm blue ball gown that would make Norma Shearer's Marie Antoinette blush, complete with several yards of flowing feather and veil train dragging behind her. She doesn't skate, sing or dance, but perches herself elegantly next to a rather effeminate 'Prince Charming'. From this queenly vantage, Cinderella beholds a rather dizzying array of truncated skating routines performed by members of The International Ice Follies.
First, there's the human candlestick, bedecked in red and white candy-striped spandex. Then, a foursome of Old Bailey judges in flowing wigs and regal red robes perform a bit of swing time, before a pie filled with female blackbirds (from the old nursery rhyme, 'Sing a Song of Six Pence') comes to life. What any of this has to do with Charles Perrault's perennial tale of the scullery maid and her glass slipper is anybody's guess. Certainly, the film offers no explanation (and no apology, either) for throwing together such a bedazzling spectacle of missteps into the audience's lap. Even George Bassman and Earl K. Brent's music transitions from one sequence to the next are clumsily strung together.
A running gag in this sequence is Crawford's Mary constantly whispering into Larry's ear from the audience that she ought to have skated in the film. I'll second that suggestion. Perhaps then, there would have been some narrative cohesiveness to the film! As it stands, Crawford and James Stewart have little on screen chemistry, and even less of an opportunity to explore their characters as the film's plot spirals out of control. Lew Ayres is generally wasted, and nearly forgotten, as the loyal friend who miraculously crops up in the final reel, seated next to Lewis Stone. Though why a movie mogul as 'all powerful' as Douglas Tolliver would be caught dead with someone as unimportant as Eddie Burgess is frankly, yet another puzzlement in a film riddled with more questions than answers.
In a year as rich and ripe with treasures aplenty from MGM and all of the other studios in Hollywood combine, The Ice Follies of 1939 is, quite frankly, an embarrassment. It's so second rate, yet in such a gargantuan, big n' splashy way, that one wonders how a studio known for its chic good taste, could launch a gawd-awful disaster like this! I watched the film only once, but that's 82 minutes of my life I'll never be able to get back!
Warner's Archive Collection release is about what you'd expect. The B&W sequences have ample grain (occasionally excessive), while the Technicolor finale looks fairly smooth with mostly vibrant colours. There are very minor hints of mis-registration here and there, but otherwise, the print is in okay shape. The B&W portions occasionally suffer from age related artefacts, but not to a point so as to distract from the film - arguably, a pity! The audio is mono and adequately represented. Like everything else about this film and its transfer, the audio won't be winning any awards. The only extra is a theatrical trailer. Not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)