Mount Rainier is an iconic and familiar symbol of Washington. In 1937, it played a “starring” role in the 20th Century Fox film “Thin Ice,” where it doubled as part of the Swiss Alps. The film was a romantic comedy co-starring Tyrone Power and Norwegian figure skater and actress Sonja Henie.
Sonja (1912-1969) was an Olympic, World and European skating champion who also performed in ice skating shows across the United States. Her American film career began only the year before she visited Mt. Rainier when she starred in the smash hit “One in a Million.”
In “Thin Ice,” Tyrone plays a German prince traveling incognito to a Swiss resort town. There, his character falls in love with an ice skater played by Sonja. Hilarious misunderstandings ensure with an expected happy ending. Sonja leads several ice skating spectacles, and Joan Davis performs two comedic songs: “I’m Olga From the Volga” and “Swiss Hilly Billy.”
Why producers chose Mount Rainier for filming exterior shots is unclear, but those involved told the local press that the sawtooth profile of the Tatoosh Range made a perfect double for the Swiss Alps for skiing scenes. Paradise Valley was a center of skiing at the time, even hosting the Olympic trials in 1935.
An advance guard of the crew, including director David Butler, arrived on March 29. Crowds flocked to see Sonja Henie and her co-star, Tyrone Power (1914-1958), when the cast and crew’s train pulled into Union Station on April 1. An up-and-coming leading male actor at the time, Tyrone was considered one of Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors. An intrusive local reporter wanted to know if he were Sonja’s “real life sweetie.” In a leopard skin coat, graceful Sonja brushed aside the rumors, telling the reporter, “Oh, Mr. Power and I are just good friends.”
Taking buses to Mount Rainier National Park, the crew settled into Paradise Inn. Local newspapers kept reporters at the hotel for daily coverage of the filming — or at least the attempts to film. Assured of good weather, the moviemakers were met by snowstorms.
Snow Stalls Filming
Each day, the cast and crew would get up at 5:30 in the morning or even earlier and eat a big breakfast before beginning the two-hour trek up to Alta Vista. This included carrying up thousands of pounds of equipment. Students from the University of Puget Sound were among the men hired by the national park as packers. But the weather would not cooperate. Somedays, it was snowing too heavily, or clouds obscured the very views the crew had come for.
Packers would go down and back to the inn for firewood and gallons of coffee and hot cocoa, though winds sometimes made it hard for anyone to keep warm. A reporter noted they huddled like “frozen chickens” around Director Butler. The rest of the time, the crew was snowbound in the lodge.
On April 2, the “queen of the silver skates” was presented with flowers from Dorothy Lyons, queen of the 1937 Puyallup Valley Daffodil Festival. The girl invited Henie to the parade the following weekend, and Sonja promised to come if filming allowed. It did not.
To keep up their spirits, the crew played bridge at the lodge. Sonja’s parents, Wilhelm and Selma, accompanied their daughter while filming, and her father kept the crew entertained with his good humor. Sometimes, he would play the lobby’s piano while Sonja sang in Norwegian. Tyrone Power later told Herbert Larson, former News Tribune reporter, “That was some storm; we couldn’t do much shooting, but we had lots of fun skiing.”
Ultimately, the crew could only film one day, April 7, from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with winds sometimes gusting up to 40 mph. Some footage was shot with a dolly of the two stars walking and talking by a shrine to St. Christopher, including their characters’ comedic first meeting.
On April 8, “Papa Henie” hosted a birthday party for Sonja that included a Norwegian dinner and a three-layered cake that read “Happy Birthday, Sonja” in icing on the top. She was 25.
With the weather showing no signs of letting up, the main crew decided to call it quits on April 9, leaving on the 2 o’clock train in Tacoma back to California. Further exterior shots of the leads would have to be filmed on set with fake snow.
A small filming crew was left at the park to continue filming location and distance shots with doubles. Tacoma skiers Gretchen Kunigk Fraser and Carlton Wiegel were selected to double for the two leads. Being competitive amateur skiers, they were unpaid for their role. Struggling against more bad weather, now including rain, the crew stayed for another month, taking hundreds of shots, before leaving May 14.
“Thin Ice” on Tacoma’s Silver Screens
The film debuted in Tacoma on September 28 at the Music Box Theater. It proved an instant hit. “A breathtaking spectacle from the silvery slopes of our own [Mount Rainier]!” claimed an advertisement, “It’s the picture Tacoma is raving about!” Crowds kept the film there for several weeks before it was transferred to the Temple Theater. The movie was screened at other Tacoma theaters until May.
Sonja and Tyrone would co-star again in “Second Fiddle” in 1939. Although 1941’s “Sun Valley Serenade” was set in Idaho, she did not return to the Northwest to film.
“Thin Ice” remains a classic film. Its silent star, however, was Mount Rainier. The mountain’s magic helps give the movie its charm. And that magic keeps the peak a treasured symbol of Washington today.