Ice Follies of 1939, The (1939): Musical Melodrama, Starring Joan Crawford and Jimmy Stewart

Featuring the International Ice Follies, Reinhold Schunzel’s The Ice Follies of 1939 served as a star vehicle for Crawford, who plays an actress torn by career and personal dilemmas after marrying an ice skater.

Jimmy Stewart plays Larry Hall and Lew Ayres is Eddie Burgess, men who enjoy successful skating acts until Larry falls in love with Mary McKay (Crawford), an inept skater whom Larry wants to include in the act.

Fired from job after job because of Mary’s ineptitude, Larry now dreams of producing an unprecedently striking ice show.  The couple elope, and Mary, guilty for damaging her husband’s career, convinces Douglas Tolliver, Jr. (Lewis Stone), Monarch Studios head, to offer her a screen contract, perceiving herself as “working girl.”

Since the contract forbids Mary to marry without studio’s permission, Larry suggests to keep their marriage a secret. Meanwhile, Eddie is disappointed with Larry and leaves town. After Mary’s first picture catapults her to stardom, Larry is relegated to a house husband, leaving for New York hoping to produce his dream ice extravaganza.

In New York, Larry is reunited with Eddie, and producer Mort Hodges raises the funds needed for Larry’s project.  Ice Follies is a smash hit, and husband and wife now are equal in stature.  But still separated by their careers, Mary announces retirement from career for the sake of domesticity. Their conflicts are finally resolved when Tolliver hires Larry to produce an ice musical starring his wife.

MGM fake press releases emphasized that Crawford herself was performing six songs, but when the musical was released, her songs were reduced to two, and they were dubbed; Crawford later claimed that it was due to Jeannette MacDonald, MGM’s singing queen, who interfered, fearing of competition.

The movie was both an artistic and commercial flop. When Ice Follies of 1939 opened, the N.Y. Times critic Frank Nugent wrote that the glitter of Rapf’s production “does not extend to the dialogue, the incidents, the characters (for whom “fictitious” is an understatement) or the story, which is the one about the matrimonial clashing of two careers.”

Though Stewart had already impressed in the 1938 Oscar winner, Capra’s You Can Not Take It With You, he was still not a bona fide star, and thus listed below Joan Crawford who got top billing.  The year of 1939 was crucial for both actors: Stewart also appeared in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Crawford showed her comedic skills in Cukor’s The Women.