BOOTLEG FILES 610: “Hello London” (1958 British feature starring Sonja Henie).
LAST SEEN: A copy can be found on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Never released in the United States.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.
During the late 1930 and early 1940s, the Norwegian ice skating champion Sonja Henie became an unlikely star in Hollywood movies. While she was no rival to Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck in terms of acting ability, she had a pert and bouncy personality that appealed to audiences, and her elaborate ice skating numbers helped to inspire the sport’s popularity among Americans. Her films, most notably “Second Fiddle” (1939) and “Sun Valley Serenade” (1941), were usually packed with musical and comedy co-stars that helped distract the audience from the stretches when Henie was not on the ice.
Henie’s film popularity waned in the mid-1940s, yet she continued to attract attention through touring ice shows. In the 1950s, she made occasional television appearances that were well received, and Henie was convinced that she could make a film comeback. But rather than make a return to Hollywood, Henie opted to focus on an ambitious strategy: she would produce and star in a series of travelogue-style features where she visited major European capitals and mixed with local celebrities in between her ice skating routines. The first and only film in Henie’s comeback plot was “Hello London,” a rickety 1958 production made in the widescreen CinemaScope process.
“Hello London” finds Henie and her touring company arriving by airplane in the British capital. Henie is accompanied by her manager, played by American comic actor Ronny Graham, who was best known for starring in the Broadway and film versions of the revue “New Faces.” Henie is greeted in London by British actors, Michael Wilding and Eunice Gayson, who are eager to have the Norwegian skater as a special guest at a charity benefit they are hosting. But the benefit is scheduled the day that Henie and her company are slated to arrive in Paris, and her manager nixes the idea.
But Wilding and Gayson are adamant about Henie’s participation in their show. They take Henie and her manager out to a nightclub where comic-singer Roy Castle is performing, and an audience singalong sequence enables Henie to dance without wearing skates. Wilding and Gayson scheme to have the manager sidetracked through the amorous attention of actress of Lisa Gastoni and then detoured into a British tailor shop to be sartorially remade with a proper suit. Henie and her skating company get a tour of London’s most colorful sights, including an open-air market where Stanley Holloway performs an extended song and dance number with a group of buskers. Henie also winds up in a pub where madcap comedy star Dora Bryan works as a barmaid, and she gets her own lengthy musical number. Henie meets several of the children for whom the benefit is being staged, and she immediately adores them, thus securing her participation in the benefit. After another time-stretching musical number featuring vocalist Joan Regan, the film ends with Henie and her skaters doing their show for the audience at the charity event.
“Hello London” only runs 78 minutes, but the film feels much, much longer. The corny choreography for the ice skating segments is badly magnified by the CinemaScope lens, and director Sidney Smith and cinematographer Otto Heller never take any creative advantage of the elongated CinemaScope dimensions. Their approach to capturing Henie is strictly a standard-issue aim-and-shoot approach to camerawork, which turns her ice wizardry into visual monotony.
The film also gets hijacked with its too-long musical interludes by the British variety performers, which feel like padding designed solely to extend the wispy film into an acceptable feature length running time. Another number, with Ronny Graham in the tailor shop, is painfully unfunny and hits on every awful American and British stereotype possible.
In looking back, “Hello London” might have been acceptable as a one-hour television special, where the scraggly revue structure would have been acceptable. But even by the lax standards of the late 1950s British cinema, this brand of happily careless entertainment was a mess. And for any international commercial value, it didn’t help that the majority of the film’s British cast were either unknown outside of their country or, in the case of Michael Wilding and Stanley Holloway, had mild name recognition but not enough to drum up an audience based on their star power. (One British actor who would become a major international star, Oliver Reed, had his film debut here in a blink-and-you-miss-him bit as a photographer.)
Twentieth Century Fox, which produced most of Henie’s Hollywood movies, picked up “Hello London” for release in British theaters, but chose not to import it in the U.S. market. Its box office failure in Britain ended Henie’s film career, and no American film distributor would bring it across the Atlantic.
There is no evidence that “Hello London” ever played on U.S. television release, and there was never a U.S. home entertainment release. A dreadful, much-duped copy can be found on YouTube, albeit not in the CinemaScope ratio. Obviously, that’s not the ideal way to watch “Hello London.” But unless you’re a Sonja Henie addict, there is no ideal reason to watch “Hello London.”
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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