Imagine this: after winning gold at the Olympics, an athlete like Michael Phelps or Chloe Kim goes to Hollywood, films a movie for six weeks, and then a few months later that movie is released and they become one of the biggest stars in the world. Seems crazy, right? However, this is precisely what happened to Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie. In Hollywood’s history, there have been plenty of athletes-turned-actors, but few rose to such dazzling heights as ice queen Henie, a woman who carved out her own unique genre and became one of the wealthiest people in the world.
Henie’s determination and talent knew no bounds. She entered her first Olympics in 1924 at the incredible age of 11. When she was 14, she won her first of ten consecutive World Figure Skating Championships (a record that still stands) and she would soon rack up six European championships in a row. What may be most impressive about Henie’s competitive career is that she won the gold medal three consecutive times at the 1928, 1932, and 1936 Olympic Games, a record for ladies’ single skaters that still hasn’t been matched. As if that wasn’t enough, she is also credited with introducing short skirts and white skates to the sport, as well as the ballet and dance influences you see nowadays in the style and choreography of skaters. Sports Illustrated once wrote that Henie’s glamour and innovation transformed her sport and helped legitimize its place at the Olympics. You can see footage of Henie performing at the 1932 games here and after the 1928 games here.
After the 1936 Olympics, 24-year-old Henie made a bold move. She retired from competitions at the top of her game and took her skates to Hollywood, telling The New York Times “I want to do with skates what Fred Astaire is doing with dancing.” Her expectations were simple: $75,000 per film ($1.3 million in 2018 money!) and the films must be built around her (no supporting roles or specialty numbers for this gal!). All of the studios balked and Henie swiftly proved that she was worth it by staging a live ice show that brought in $28,000 in just a few nights.
As you can guess, the studios changed their tune and Henie struck an amazing deal with 20th Century Fox. For her first film, One in a Million, she was paid $60,000; she then signed a five-year contract that gave her $125,000 per film, which is $2.2 million in today’s money. As part of her contract, Henie would only film in the summer, allowing her to work in her live ice show in the winter.
Those ice shows, by the way, were Henie’s brilliant way of staying in the public eye and keeping audiences interested in her movies. Funnily enough, she had to convince promoters to take a chance on her much like she had to with the movie studios. When her price of $10,000 per night was refused by promoters, she rented a rink in Pennsylvania for three nights and demonstrated that she could bring in people.
Henie’s time in Hollywood was brief, lasting only twelve films, her last being 1948’s The Countess of Monte Cristo. During those twelve years, the skater had several lucrative endorsement contracts, with deals to market all sorts of merchandise with her name on it, including skates, jewelry, and dolls. Pretty soon, Henie found herself ridiculously wealthy. Her success was so incredible that it encouraged other studios to try and duplicate the formula. (This is most evident in the stunning career of MGM’s “Million Dollar Mermaid” Esther Williams. You can read more about Williams in this piece I wrote last year.)
Although Henie influenced figure skating immensely, contemporary audiences might be surprised by how much her skating differs from what you’d see pros like Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan, or Dorothy Hamill doing. Henie’s routines don’t consist of complicated combinations, dramatic hand and arm gestures, or elongated glides. Rather than do triple Salchows and toe loops, she sticks with running across the ice on her toes, quick leaps, and absurdly fast spins that abruptly end with pretty poses. It is fascinating to watch, partly because we’ll never see skating like this again.
With her dimpled cheeks, curly blonde hair, and adorable Norwegian accent, Henie’s cinematic persona was one of sweetness and innocence. Her characters were good, honest girls whose skating talent earned them admiration, romantic love, and professional success amidst sleek Art Deco sets. As time went on, Henie tried to prove her acting mettle by starring in slightly more dramatic fare — Everything Happens at Night (1939) and It’s a Pleasure (1945), her only color film — but the skater was at her best when romancing leading men like Tyrone Power and performing on the ice in captivating routines that could sometimes veer into the bizarre, such as this routine from Wintertime (1943). She even demonstrated her lovely dancing skills in scenes like this one with Cesar Romero, which is also from Wintertime.
My favorite film of Henie’s is without a doubt 1941’s Sun Valley Serenade. It combines so many of the things that I love: Henie’s skating, John Payne’s singing, The Nicholas Brothers’ dancing, a charmingly daffy plot, and a tremendous score provided by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra. That score, by the way, includes the songs of Miller’s that I cherish the most: “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Moonlight Serenade,” and “In the Mood.” Sun Valley Serenade is also where the song “At Last” originated from. Written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren specifically for the film, it was actually cut from the final product and saved for Glenn Miller’s second and final movie, Orchestra Wives, but thankfully you can still hear instrumental pieces of the tune in a nightclub scene and in Henie’s spectacular skating finale.
Throughout her life, Henie was a bit of a controversial figure due to her misguided actions before and during WWII. After her popularity in Hollywood dwindled, Henie continued to tour with her live shows, which experienced many ups and downs. In the 1950s, she attempted to get back in the movies with a series of travelogues, but only one entry titled Hello, London was made. Meanwhile, Henie and her third husband, Norwegian shipping magnate Niels Onstad, used their wealth to amass a huge art collection, which became the Henie-Onstad Art Centre in Norway. In 1969, Henie would die from leukemia at the age of 57.
Henie’s films are wholly hers — she is the center of attention; she is the reason why these movies exist. It is easy to scoff at these fluffy confections, but there are few movies today that can replicate the effortless, easygoing charm that these films and their star exuded. I also have to applaud Henie’s confidence in herself and her abilities. She knew what she wanted and she fought for it, regardless of what others said. She created her own unique place in Olympic history, figure skating history, and, improbably, film history, all before the age of 25. I couldn’t appreciate this woman’s originality and fearlessness any more if I tried.
For a more in-depth look at Henie’s personal and professional lives, you can check out a great Vanity Fair article here.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, Michaela has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn.