The below article was written by Wes Sterling, one of our devoted readers, as his second entry in #CleanMovieMonth2020. Since he has no website, we are proudly publishing it here.
These days it’s easy to be exhausted with 24/7 news coverage of all that is going on in the nation and around the world. Thank goodness we have Code films to turn to. Not just for entertainment and a retreat from the unrest and politicking going on all around us, but for a lifting of and joy for our souls. They can take us back to a more innocent time when goodness, decency, and morality were championed in Hollywood and that translated into a conviction of those values in the everyday lives of people and society. A case in point of such a Code film is “Sun Valley Serenade” (1941) starring John Payne, Sonja Henie, Milton Berle, Lynn Bari, and Glenn Miller. Yes, Glenn Miller the famous big band leader and composer. It was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, produced by Milton Sperling, and released by 20th Century Fox.
I came across this film by accident, actually. If you ever go to the National Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL you’ll see that they have a section of the museum replicating a typical small American town block during World War II called “Home Front USA.” In this exhibit, “Sun Valley Serenade” is the movie being advertised playing at the town’s theatre. At least, it was the last I knew. I’ve always been a fan of Glenn Miller and the music of the 1940’s so when I saw that he and his orchestra were featured along with John Payne in a classic Code film, I was excited to see it. So, since PEPS is having their Clean Movie Month Blogathon, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally watch it and give some thoughts on it as well.
Ted Scott (John Payne) is the lead pianist and arranger of a New York City band whose manager, Jerome “Nifty” Allen (Milton Berle) thinks should adopt a refugee for good publicity. Thinking that would be receiving a child, they, along with members of the band, go to Ellis Island to welcome the new arrival off the boat with balloons and other appropriate welcome gifts for children. However, they quickly discover that the refugee is a young woman in her late twenties from Norway, Karen Benson (Sonja Henie). Karen has left Norway to come to the United States in search of a husband. She is immediately attracted to her new guardian, Ted, but Ted is already involved with a woman from the band named Vivian Dawn (Lynn Bari) who he proposes to early in the film, but she is not ready to give him an answer. Ted, Vivian, and the band have planned a trip to Sun Valley, Idaho for a Christmas concert at a ski lodge and Ted wants to leave Karen behind to stay with Nifty’s aunt, but she is insistent on coming with them and gets Nifty to take her along, unbeknownst to Ted. While Ted is at first upset when he discovers that she came along, he quickly warms up to her as they ski and dance together (neither of which Vivian is interested in doing), and he realizes that they have a lot in common. During the stay at the lodge, Vivian sees the relationship between Ted and Karen blossoming, so she announces that she and Ted are going to get married, presumably to keep from losing him. He is excited about Vivian finally saying yes to his earlier proposal, but as the film unfolds, he begins to realize his love is really for Karen.
This is a great Code film and is just plain fun. I highly recommend it. It keeps you engaged with the characters as they are all immediately likeable. John Payne and Sonja Henie have a very good comedic chemistry on screen. You enjoy being with them and you want to see Ted wake up and realize that Karen was a much better fit for him than Vivian. As you could expect from a good Code film, Ted’s character is always concerned that his conduct with both Karen and Vivian is above board and proper. Mr. Payne was quite a prolific actor during the time the Code was in use, mostly during the Breen era. His most famous role, though, was Fred Gailey in “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947). Sonja Henie was an Olympic champion in figure skating, and we get to see her skill on full display several times. Her character, Karen, is obviously pursuing Ted romantically, but it’s never in a seductive way. It’s always more playful and comedic, which makes for a great Code film. Milton Berle is always good for a laugh and he does a very good job of being the comic relief figure, Nifty, who is trying to win Karen’s affections while she is pursuing Ted.
The music is outstanding. Of course, I can’t help but be a little biased here because of my love for Glenn Miller’s music and music of the forties in general. You get to hear them perform “Moonlight Serenade”, “In the Mood”, “At Last”, and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” among others. The performance of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” is with Tex Beneke and the Modernaires as well as Dorothy Dandrige and an amazing dance sequence by the Nicholas Brothers. Mr. Miller didn’t have much of a speaking part, though. It would have been nice to see more of his acting skills. But for any fan of 1940’s music, this is a real treat.
And I think a treat is what we can all use right now. If it’s been a long day or you’re tired of reading and hearing about Covid-19, riots, political bickering, and whatnot, I suggest treating yourself to “Sun Valley Serenade.” It will truly warm your heart.
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