When it comes to ice skating in films, we all mainly think of Norwegian Olympian turned actress Sonja Henie. With her doll-like features, Henie starred in musical comedy films from 1936 to 1948.
But there is another ice skater who graced the screen on skates: Belita Jepson-Turner. Known simply as Belita, she skated, ballet danced and also acted in dramatic roles from 1944 until 1968.
Similar to Henie, Belita competed for United Kingdom in the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Belita, who was 12 years old, placed 16th in the women’s singles figure skating competition. Henie won her third Olympic gold medal.
Belita said later that she was so “overcome by the close proximity” of Sonja Henie, that she fell three times during her Olympic performance, according to a Dec. 1945 column by Shelia Graham.
Belita started out as a ballet dancer at the age of 2, trained in classical Russian ballet. She transitioned into ice skating, which her mother thought would make her more graceful as a ballet dancer, according to a Sept. 1936 newspaper article.
“You see, I never intended to become a skater, but when I had a change to compete at the Olympic Games and I won a silver and gold medal (in the National Skating Association Competition), I devoted my time to perfecting my skating figures, although I still study ballet,” Belita is quoted in a March 1943 Louella Parson’s column.
In her 2005 obituary, Belita is quoted as remembering that the skaters were required to give “Heil Hitler” salutes four times whenever they were on the ice at the 1936 Olympic Games.
After the Olympics, Belita placed fourth place in the British figure skating championships. Belita did not compete in any more Olympic game.
By 1938, Belita, now 15, and her mother went to the United States and stayed there throughout World War II. When the war began, she and her mother were unable to get back to England. Her two brothers served in the British Army—one lost his arm and the other was injured, according to the Louella Parsons article.
In the United States, Belita toured for two years with the Ice Capades before heading to Hollywood. Belita’s first film was as an uncredited ice skater in the Republic Pictures musical comedy “Ice-Capades” (1941). This was followed by two credited roles in musicals, “Silver Skates” (1943) and “Lady, Let’s Dance” (1944).
But though she was an ice skater, Belita wasn’t trapped into only skating or performing in musicals, like Sonja Henie. Belita then acted in several film-noirs including “Suspense” (1946) and “The Ganger” (1947)—both co-starring Barry Sullivan—and “The Man on the Eiffel Tower” (1950) with Franchot Tone. She also ballet danced with Gene Tierney in the drama “Never Let Me Go” (1953).
Belita is also credited as being one of the first to perform underwater ballet.
But by 1957, Belita retired from skating and film.
Belita later said that her mother forced her into show business, according to her 2005 obituary. Her mother was also a dancer and figure skater but was prevented from becoming a professional entertainer because her father, Dr. Bertram Lyne-Stivens, was the consulting physician to the royal family, according to Louella Parson’s 1943 column.
Belita also apparently said that she hated ice skating, the cold and the smell of ice, but that it made more money than ballet dancing.
After her retirement from show business, Belita seldom performed. She made an appearance in November 1981 for the annual Superskates benefit at Madison Square Garden. Belita skated to “Solitude” by Duke Ellington.
Belita passed away in 2005 in the south of France, where she retired.
While many of us know Sonja Henie best, I prefer Belita. Belita’s films weren’t as high of a quality and were low budget, compared to Henie’s 20th Century Fox extravaganza’s. But Belita’s figure skating is more impressive. Many ice skaters from the 1920s to the 1950s didn’t do the jumps and axel jumps that we have come to know in contemporary ice skating. But Belita does. She possessed a grace and poise on the ice that I don’t feel Henie had. It’s not that it’s a competition between the two, but it’s interesting to compare their work.
I only wish that Belita was given the opportunity to be in higher quality films with a better studio than she was. Perhaps she would be better known today if she was.
Other Olympians turned actors:
- Nat Pendleton
- Johnny Weissmuller
- Buster Crabbe
- Bruce Bennett
- Esther Williams
- Harold Sakata
- Olympians who weren’t successful in Hollywood/