Figure Skater Sonja Henie, Global Phenomenon Part 3: Hollywood Super Star

Sonja Henie_TIME Magazine Cover_July 17, 1939
Sonja Henie on the cover of TIME Magazine, July 17, 1939

A skate, according to Mr. Webster, is a contrivance for the foot, consisting of a keel-like runner attached to a plate or frame, enabling the wearer to glide rapidly over the ice. This definition, good enough so far as it goes, is, in the light of recent developments, plainly deficient. It is evidence that the times move faster than the dictionary, and that the dictionary is not yet aware of Sonja Henie.

For this blood daughter of the Norse has during recent months demonstrated unmistakably that a skate is something more than what Mr. Webster’ says it is. To her it has proved the means to fame, fortune, movie stardom and the plaudits of kings. With it she has glided swiftly not merely over the ice, but also into one of the most extraordinary of all motion picture careers.

J.D. Shapiro of Arkansas Gazette, January 23, 1938 had an opportunity to interview Sonja Henie, a retired figure skater whose three straight Olympic gold medals and ten straight world championships in individual figure skating propelled her to the heights of Hollywood. Henie would leverage her sporting accomplishments and become one of the most famous people on the planet in the 1930s and 1940s, a movie and professional skating star, who earned millions of dollars in the process.

At the time of the interview, Henie’s third feature film – “Happy Landing” – was about to debut, and she was about to leave with 80 other skaters on a lucrative national tour of her own ice skating show, called the “Hollywood Ice Revues.” Thanks to her first two films, Henie had already earned hundreds of thousands of dollars. Her first film “One in a Million,” had already made 20th Century Fox more money than any of its other films released in 1936, while her second film, “Thin Ice,” was the fifth biggest box office hit of 1937.

Sonja Henie_One in a Millions
Sonja Henie in One in a Million

According to the Shapiro interview, skating stardom and Hollywood famedom was the goal all along.

“I said to myself,” she explains, “I’ll win 10 skating championships, then I will go into the movies,” She won the championships. Now she is in the movies. So what is strange about it? Sonja it seems has always been like that. She usually knew what she wanted. She usually go it. At seven years old, she told us recently, she wanted a pair of skates for Christmas. Her parents didn’t want to give them to her because they thought she was too young, but in the end she got them. Soon she wanted to win a Norwegian championship. She did, at 11. Next she fastened her eye on a world championships, and she got it, at 14. After that she decided to triumph in the Olympics, and nothing could stop her.

And when it came to the world of film, she targeted 20th Century Fox, led by Darryl F. Zanuck, who according to this Vanity Fair article, had a nose for talent outside the acting world and was willing to take a chance on non-conventional ideas and people. Henie’s business partner, Arthur Wirtz, who created the ice revue business for Henie in New York, would help Henie bring an ice show to Hollywood with the hopes of getting the studio heads’ attention.

Sonja’s father, Wilhelm, then went to see media mogul, William Randolph Hearst with an offer – the Henie’s would donate $5,000 to a charity of Hearst’s choice if his mistress and actress, Marion Davies, would sponsor Sonja’s ice shows. They agreed, and two shows were produced, and the stars came out to the spectacle: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy – Hollywood royalty of the time.

Sonja Henie and Tyrone Power in The Second Fiddle
Sonja Henie and Tyrone Power in The Second Fiddle

And at the second show, Zanuck showed up. According to Shapiro, Zanuck signed Henie to a five-year contract, instantly making her one of the highest paid actresses of her time.

At the release of her first picture, “One in a Million”, Sonja Henie, walked arm in arm with Hollywood leading man, Tyrone Power at the film’s premier at the Roxy Theater in New York City. The one-and-a-half meter tall woman from Oslo, Norway was a giant of giants.

Here is Sonya Henie in Fly on Ice, her last theatrical film in 1958.