Sun Valley Serenade

A few years ago the Austin Film Society showed the 1941 film Sun Valley Serenade as part of an anniversary series. Usually the programming director introduces the films, but this time it was one of the founders of AFS, Richard Linklater. This was a side of Mr. Linklater that I had not previously seen: the film buff who wants to tell you some interesting things about an obscure romantic comedy that isn't available on DVD. For the most part, this is a goofy featherweight movie about a big band that decides to adopt a little WWII orphan for publicity purposes ... who turns out to be Sonja Henie. They all end up in the Sun Valley resort in Idaho and hilarity ensues. The Glenn Miller Orchestra is the big band in question, which adds a bit of swing to the proceedings.

But Linklater told us that the most fascinating part of the film was one that didn't get shown in every theater when it was released. At the end of the big band performance of "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," the camera pans over to the left and suddenly a whole other version of the song is performed by Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers. At the time, I had never seen the Nicholas Brothers before, except perhaps as part of one of those That's Entertainment collections of singing and dancing. And it was amazing -- that one musical number with Fayard and Harold Nicholas dancing up a storm is the best part of the movie, and really the only compelling reason to watch Sun Valley Serenade, unless you like Sonja Henie's skating or Glenn Miller's music. (Even Milton Berle is not very funny.)
According to Linklater, that one scene with the Nicholas Brothers was meant to give the movie a wider appeal -- African-American audiences who otherwise might not be interested in this very white movie would come out to see Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers. In addition, the scene was inserted into the film in such a way that it could actually be cut out if theaters chose not to show it. Sun Valley Serenade would be a total snoozefest without it. Every time I see this scene, I wish I could see another film that focused on those characters, and had more musical numbers with them. I spent a good half hour after finding this video on YouTube, looking for other Nicholas Brothers dance numbers online and having a great time.

But you can judge for yourself. Here's the whole "Chattanooga Choo Choo" number, starting with the Glenn Miller Band and finishing with the Nicholas Brothers. I wish it were higher quality. Sun Valley Serenade isn't available on DVD, and I can't imagine that enough people would want to watch it to make a DVD worthwhile. But I'd love to see it again someday on Video on Demand or Netflix Watch Instantly, hint hint. Apparently if you go to the Sun Valley resort you can see it on their own TV channel, but that seems like a slightly extreme measure to watch this film.