She was the youngest athlete in the first Winter Olympics, the first woman to win three Olympic gold medals, and one of Hollywood’s top-grossing stars.
Norwegian athlete turned actress Sonja Henie skated across the silver screen in 12 films, bringing a novelty to movies and helping popularize figure skating in the United States.
“People would go out and buy skates, costumes and take lessons because of her. Ice skating developed in the United States because of her,” Henie’s former skating partner Geary Steffen said in the documentary “Sonja Henie: Queen of the Ice” (1995).
Born in Norway in 1912, Henie’s father, Wilhelm, was the track cycling World Champion of 1894, setting two world records, and he was a speed skater. Because of his athletic interest, Wilhelm encouraged his children Leif and Sonja to become involved with sports, according to the documentary.
At only 11 years old and the youngest athlete at the Olympic games, Sonja competed in the first Winter Olympics in 1924, held in France. She placed sixth place. But at the next three Winter Olympics, Henie brought home the gold medal for women’s figure skating: 1928 in Switzerland, 1932 in the United States and 1936 in Germany.
After winning her third medal, Sonja decided to turn professional, and the Henie family moved to the United States in March of 1936. Sonja’s goal was to go to Hollywood and become an actress.
”I have an all-consuming desire to become a movie star, and nothing will stop me in that effort,” she told American reporters in 1936.
To catch the attention of a Hollywood studio head, Sonja and her father, who was acting as her manager, rented a skating rink in Hollywood, inviting newspapers and Hollywood studio executives. Finally, Darryl F. Zanuck attended and was impressed, agreeing to put her in a film.
“Zanuck wanted her to do a skating scene in a film, and she said no, the whole movie will be skating,” said Michael Kirby, Henie’s former skating partner in the 1995 documentary.
And Sonja got her way. She was signed for a two-picture deal to make “One in a Million” (1936) and “Thin Ice” (1937).
But Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck didn’t sign Henie without skepticism.
In his memos, Zanuck wrote to give Henie as little and as simple dialogue as possible and “give her only questions and answers; questions which are questions, answers which are direct statements.” He picked “One in a Million” script for Henie, because it had very few acting scenes, according to Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century Fox.
“One in a Million” was a success and audiences loved Henie. An ice skater in movies offered something new to moviegoers that they had never seen before and studios saw a new and different act as a novelty.
“Sonja was a great skating star, and this is what they wanted her for: to be a spectacular skating star in motion pictures,” said actor Cesar Romero in the 1995 documentary. “They weren’t particularly interested in her as a great actress. Sonja was never a great actress. As a matter of fact, she wasn’t a particularly good actress, but she had a charming personality.”
In 1939, Henie ranked third in box office attractions behind Clark Gable and Shirley Temple.
Most of the plots have nothing to do with ice skating. For example, “Everything Happens at Night” (1939) focuses on two competing newspaper reporters played by Ray Milland and Robert Cummings. The two reporters are investigating a Nobel Prize winner who was supposedly killed, and they fall in love with his daughter who is Henie.
Somewhere in the plot, a lavish ice skating routine will take place.
“This was something completely new in motion pictures; it had never been done before. She was great novelty in those days,” Romero said.
Years later, when swimming champion Esther Williams signed a film contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, her novelty and elaborate swimming routines were compared to Henie’s films.
“Unbeknownst to me, L.B. Mayer, head of Meto-Goldwyn-Mayer, was determined to find a female athlete and turn her into a big box office, much like 20th Century Fox had done with Sonja Henie,” Esther Williams wrote in her autobiography.
“Melt the ice, get a swimmer, make it pretty,” Williams quoted Mayer as saying.
Henie made 12 films from 1936 until 1948. Her golden skate blades were even pressed into the cement outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, while other stars pressed their feet and hands into the cement.
Sonja Henie’s life wasn’t without controversy.
During her skating routine in 1936, Henie also gave the “heil” sign to Hitler from the ice. In Sonja’s eyes, Hitler was another very important person that the world knew who admired her. After she won her gold medal in 1936, Hitler invited Henie too lunch because he was a fan, and presented her with an autographed picture of himself. Photographs were taken of Henie and Hitler shaking hands at the 1936 Winter Olympics.
In 1940, the Nazis invaded and started occupying Norway, Henie’s home country. When Henie heard this, she telegraphed her maid from the United States and told her to set out Hitler’s autographed photo in a prominent area of her house. When the Nazis entered her home and saw the picture, they left without bothering her possessions or her home was unscathed and unoccupied for the remainder of the war, according to the 1995 documentary,
These incidents did not help her image during World War II, and her Norwegian countrymen felt betrayed and disappointed in Henie when she did not help them. After Germans occupied Norway, the Norwegian military trained in Canada in an area known as “Little Norway.” Sonja Henie was asked to help the Norwegian military and her country financially. She declined and said she was married to an American which made her American, and since America wasn’t (yet) in the war, she didn’t want to choose sides. This act tainted her in the eyes of Norwegians until her death.
Henie’s last film for 20th Century Fox was in 1943.
“After a certain length of time, the novelty of her pictures wore off,” Romero said. “All she could do was skate.”
After leaving films in 1948, Henie toured with ice shows until the mid-1950s. She retired in 1956 when she married her last husband, Niels Onstad.
Henie died in 1969 of leukemia.
Henie’s skating style in films isn’t my favorite. She runs across the ice in her skates on her tip toes and for whatever reason that bothers me. I prefer some of her contemporaries, such as Belita. However, Sonja Henie’s career was an important contribution to figure skating, which is a sport I grew up watching and loving.
While her glittering film career was brief, it helped make ice skating a prominent sport in the United States. Her lavish skating scenes revolutionized how ice skating could be shot on film and later televised.
Other Olympians turned actors:
- Nat Pendleton
- Johnny Weissmuller
- Buster Crabbe
- Bruce Bennett
- Esther Williams
- Harold Sakata
- Olympians who weren’t successful in Hollywood
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There are so many film stars (and studio managers, producers, etc,) whose real life choices make me focus solely on their films.
The studios shielded their fans from the very human truths of their actors, determined to make them as other worldly as stars in the universe. The result was the most beautiful glamour photographs ever made, and classic films that have made the studio system of the 1930s and 40s the stuff of legend. That some of the most crass and self absorbed of persons could make such beauty is a lesson of how a product can be much more than the sum of its parts.
Mark Spitz tried his hand at acting. It was beyond bad. Oh lord, it was bad!