Sun Valley Smackdown: Sonja Henie vs. Lynn Bari–Dueling Divas

Sun Valley Serenade is a charming, quasi-holiday picture that exposes some of the deepest, darkest “how to steal a man” secrets ever depicted, by a surprise expert.To a soundtrack of smooth Glenn Miller songs, innocent little Norwegian refugee Karen Benson (Sonja Henie) trounces the sleek, chic, sophisticated songbird Vivian Dawn (Lynn Bari) in a death match for the love of Ted Scott (John Payne). It’s a curiously even fight on paper—both women are attractive and obviously seasoned in feminine wiles (and costumed by Travis Banton!). But Vivian’s string of rookie errors does her in.
sun valley serenade poster

Here’s what flashing-eyed Passionate Beauty Vivian does wrong…and what fluffy-haired Charmingly Natural Karen does right. Take notes now…hunks like John Payne don’t drop down out of the sky every day and when they do, you’ve got to be ready to POUNCE!

(By the way, pardon my dust: This post contains a slew of spoilers and has a fair share of sketchy images, thanks to Sun Valley Serenade only being available in VHS. That means me, taking pictures with an iPhone of the image on my bigscreen TV.)

And in this corner, wearing a tiger skin…

Vivian Dawn is a hot-stuff, dishy brunette bandsinger who is a diva from the word go. She hollers at a band for playing over her, and gets a champion in John Payne, the pianist in Glenn Miller’s not-very-incognito band. He defends her bad behavior because he’s smitten with her, having “dreamed about her for days.” When we meet Vivian, she’s wearing a spiky concoction of a hat which gives her a faintly Medusan air and a fur muff that could kennel a half-dozen mink pups.

Her overstated hat and veil, exaggerated brooch and epic muff all proclaim “Here I am!” When she throatily suggests they rendezvous at the Persian Room at 4, Ted protests they’ll be the only ones there. “What’s wrong with that?” she purrs. He grins, “Nothing.” The trap is set. Score one for the vampy Vivian.

And weighing in at 99 lbs…

Ted and the band have come to Ellis Island to pick up their publicity-stunt war orphan from Norway, only to discover that their “little girl” is the full-grown and lovely Karen. Our first view of “Karen” is her legs…sturdy, strong, undeniably feminine in shape; the camera pans up to show us her schoolgirlish navy coat with white buttons and a simple matching hat.

Under the hat’s brim is adorable blonde Karen, who instantly zeroes in on Ted and thanks him for being her sponsor with a swift kiss, a dimple-revealing smile and a lilting, charmingly halting memorized speech.

As they drive to the hotel, she catechizes him about his marital status and other personal details. Once she’s established that he’s available, she sets her cute little cap for him. When he asks her what she’ll do here in the United States, she declares unblushingly that she will “find a man I like and marry him. Isn’t that what every girl should do?” Ted’s a bit taken aback by this straightforward approach and it knocks him off-balance. Score one for the naïve Norwegian.

Trouble in the Terrace Room

Vivian makes the first of many mistakes when she underestimates her foe. Karen enters the nightclub in a fetching white Travis Banton gown. Colorful folkloric embroidery embellishes the tightly fitted bodice and rims the cuffs of the huge puffed, transparent sleeves. The look is pure innocence and underlines her Nordic heritage.

When Ted asks her how she got into the club unescorted, she blithely explains that she “told the doorman I was living with you and he just let me in…” Ted winces, but he (like Vivian) doesn’t realize that our girl knows exactly what she’s saying. She’s not as innocent as she seems. She cheerfully informs Ted, right upfront, that she’s made up her mind and found the man she intends to marry—“…it’s you!” When Ted admonishes her that she has to be in love, she calmly informs him that she is. When he protests that he has a girl, she doesn’t even blink. “Only one?” she chirps. For Karen, other girls are a speed bump, not a brick wall. No ring? No problem.

Vivian slinks in, wearing a miracle of white crepe and transparent panels banded with sequins. Dripping in white fox, she’s the picture of urban sophistication.

Viv sizes up her competition and starts a campaign of belittling, calculated to reduce Karen to child status in Ted’s eyes.

Vivian condescendingly insists that Ted is being mean to Karen by not letting her stay up to “hear the pretty music.” Ted may not know EXACTLY what’s going on, but he senses the hissing behind the polite chatter. Taking off her metaphysical earrings, Karen bares her teeth at Vivian in a phony smile. Oh, now it’s on.

To best Vivian, Karen knows she somehow needs to get Ted on her turf. Fate steps in, in the form of goofy Milton Berle (“Nifty”). Karen flatters and cajoles Nifty (the band’s manager) into letting her join the band on their Sun Valley gig. She learns to her delight that Ted loves outdoor winter sport and Vivian is strictly the indoor type. So much the better. As she packs for the trip, she powers around the room with a peppy, athletic stride, her neat, 2-piece Nordic-motif dress keeping up with her. There’s not a languid bone in her compact body!

Sun Valley Sneakiness

Vivian arrives in Sun Valley wearing an incredible turbaned toque, the scarf anchored with another of her trademark outlandish brooches (any of which I’d love to own!!).

She trades her travel gear for a strictly ornamental ski ensemble, laughing at Ted when he asks her to ski with him. “I never skied in my life but I can look the part,” she boasts, sure of her charm. Ted, still mesmerized by her beauty, jokingly proposes to her. She warns him to beware, fencing with him by saying “I might surprise you someday and say yes when you least expect it.” (Insert doom music here.) Point, Vivian.

Meanwhile, Karen skates beneath Ted’s window in a darling outfit, hoping to catch his eye and do a little surprising of her own.

Alas for her, Ted excitedly heads for the ski lift without a glance at the rink.

Nothing daunted, Karen dons her hard-working ski gear and hits the slopes, zipping and darting around and past him, taunting him into a chase. He has no idea it’s her, and is angry at her lack of ski etiquette; he’ll show this idiot a thing or two, by golly! The chase is on and Karen’s skillful skiing earns his grudging admiration.

When she finally tumbles off a ski lift chair and he catches up with her, she’s covered in snow, laughing with sheer joy. She tells him he’s a wonderful skier and instantly aligns herself with him: “Didn’t we have a wonderful chase? Let’s do it again!”

She’s got him off-balance again with her wholesome, happy playfulness. Another point for the import.

Rumble at rehearsal

While all this snowy frolicking is going on, Viv (wearing an unflattering outfit of dark wide-legged pants topped by a quasi-folkloric sash and a white blouse under a side-buttoned blouson top) is simmering in the rehearsal hall.

Glenn Miller’s band stalls for time with the irresistible Chattanooga Choo-Choo and the Nicholas Brothers and Dorothy Dandridge emerge from nowhere to perform an eye-popping specialty number. Vivian smokes and snarls. Ted and Karen arrive, hand-in-hand and glowing with vivacity from their vigorous ski run; Ted brags about Karen’s skiing skills and holds her briefly close to his side. Viv responds with another rookie error—she needles Ted with sarcasm and implies he orchestrated Karen’s presence at the lodge. Ted squirms and the girls glare at each other, retreating to their corners until the bell sounds for the next round.

Karen sticks to her strong suit; she gets Ted away from Viv and back to the mountainside with a faked message. When he calls her on it, she flashes that blinding smile and says in her charmingly accented voice, “It is funny, isn’t it?” Ted can’t help being flattered by her blatant worship.

Meanwhile, bathing suit-clad Vivian lazily tries to track down Ted from poolside. She still doesn’t realize she’s got a worthy adversary and she hasn’t learned the 101 of relationships: Do stuff together; no separate vacations quite yet! More points for Karen.

Dodge in the lodge

I wish I could go back in time and eat spatzel at the beerhaus clinging to the side of the Sun Valley ski slopes in this picture! There, sulky Vivian and sunny Karen bracket Ted at the table.

When a spritely polka cranks up, Karen joyfully carols out: “Oh, a polka!!” Ted turns to Viv to ask her to dance; she sneers “Sorry, darling, that’s not my brand of music.” Karen gleefully announces she knows how to polka and they jump up together, Karen grabbing Ted’s hands and bouncing off with him. The dance is the Kiss Polka, a pretzel-armed exercise where the man tries to kiss the girl through the frame of their uplifted, linked arms. Karen playfully draws back again and again, engaging that atavistic male desire to catch and win his prize, all the while laughing and smiling. When she allows a resounding smack at the dance’s finale, they laugh together and embrace. Point to Karen.

The dawn comes up like thunder for Vivian then—this little refugee is not fooling around. Viv rapidly changes course; she orders champagne, and as Ted looks on in shock, announces their engagement. Is it game, set and match?

Not by a long shot! Karen graciously toasts the couple with heartbreak in her eyes, but not defeat. Nifty swiftly insists that he and Karen should get married.

Karen pays no attention; she’s got thinking to do.Viv’s rookie error here: Most men hate public scenes and they hate surprises. Viv quickly compounds her mistake by treating Ted like a son, telling him his after-dark ski down the mountain is too dangerous, implying he’s incompetent.

Karen regains some ground by insisting that only softies would take the ski lift down. Ted rises to the bait and the two set out to ski back down to the lodge by moonlight. As they don their skis, Karen expresses both companionship and confidence in his skill by saying “It’s a beautiful night for skiing, isn’t it?”

Slut in the hut?

Karen is on the ropes…Ted has been shanghaied into an engagement with Vivian. She’s down, but not out. Now, Ted’s on her turf again, the slopes. She first restores his manhood by asking him to help her de-ice her skiis. As she balances (with no apparent effort) on one leg, she spies a handy trailside hut close-by. Serendipity! She falls down, knocking his skis down the slick hill, then convinces him to wait for her in the hut while she contacts the ski patrol. Quick thinking, Karen!

A few moments later, an apparently injured Karen limps into the hut—she claims she hurt her knee.

As in all good situations like this, the man quickly realizes she’s faking and takes her through an elaborate and darned sexy charade (displaying an amazing talent for ripping her pants leg off at exactly the right height for maximum show with minimum censorship issues).

Meanwhile, Vivian furiously realizes she’s been duped somehow. When Nifty worries that his ‘”fiancée” Karen might be “compromised” if she spends an unchaperoned night in the hut with Ted, he moans “Think of my position!” Viv snaps, “I am thinking, and it isn’t of YOUR position!” Wow.

Back at the hut, Karen isn’t wasting any time, she turns on her Nordic charm full bore. She finagles him into a pillowfight which leaves them both laughing. “You wouldn’t have fun like this if you married…someone else…” she says, smiling meaningfully.

Karen then goes to the phonograph and plays Ted’s song, singing it to him until he takes over and takes her in his arms. Sigh.

Just when things are getting interesting, in stomps Vivian, Nifty, Glenn Miller, and a hapless ski patrolman, who is only too happy to scoot when Vivian turns her ballistic gaze on him.

She unleashes a tirade of epic proportions, lambasting Karen (who wisely clings to Ted’s arm throughout): “I’ve seen through your little scheme to involve Ted ever since you followed him here, but I put up with it because I thought Ted would see through it, too! I’ve put up with all I’m going to from that Scandinavian hillbilly!”

Bad move, Vivian. You’ve just sealed your fate by unsheathing your claws in front of Ted. He knows if you can shred Karen that way, it’s only a matter of time before you turn and rend him up one side and down the other.

When the bandleader says that everything is alright as long as Karen isn’t compromised, Karen pipes up cheerfully, “But I am!” Ted blusters, but Karen drowns him out, “If I don’t know what happened, who does?” Vivian pratfalls her way out of the scene, and a smiling Ted escorts a triumphant Karen off-camera, saying he has some “unfinished business with the young lady I’m going to marry…” We just have to imagine the big fat kiss he plants on her, darn it.

How did this tiny, innocent dynamo best a seasoned professional heartbreaker? She made her plan, stayed flexible, took advantage of every possible break that came her way, and kept her eyes on the prize.

sun valley article

Think you have to be a femme fatale or bombshell to snatch a man? This Charmingly Natural gal did it by being herself and knowing the name of the game. That’s Man-Stealing 101, ladies. Watch and learn!


This blog post is proud to be a part of the Dueling Divas Blogathon, sponsored by Backlots blog. Thanks, Lara, for the chance to join in the fun!

30 thoughts on “Sun Valley Smackdown: Sonja Henie vs. Lynn Bari–Dueling Divas

    • I have loved this movie forever and am very excited to share some love for Sonja in wintertime…the movie is set at Christmas, so all the better. Thanks, darling, for your kind words!! Hugs, K

    • Thanks, Lara, I’ve been itching to write about Sonja for a while now and Christmastime is the perfect season. I’m so glad you allowed me to be part of your wonderful blogathon. Thanks!!!! Love, Kay
      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  1. Pingback: The Dueling Divas Entries | Backlots

    • Thanks, Dawn. I loved sharing this film with other film fans…and the Glenn Miller tunes in it are spectacular!! Not to mention the Nicholas Brothers! Thanks for taking the time to comment…that means the world to bloggers like me! Merry Christmas!

    • My pleasure, Georgie! I’m so glad you enjoyed the piece. It’s obviously a favorite of mine and I’m glad others are getting an introduction to Sonja’s fun films. Merry Christmas!

  2. Kay, I confess I’ve never seen a Sonja Henie film in my life, but your contribution to the DUELLING DIVAS Blogathon re SUN VALLEY SERENADE was a delightful post and a wonderful primer on how to keep your charm and sweetness while cleverly and politely besting a bitchy foe! Somehow this reminded me of a scene in, of all things, WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, in which Elsa Lanchester trills about sexy war bride Marlene Dietrich: “Someone should do something about those foreign wives, put out an embargo. How else can we take care of our own surplus?” I say hooray for plucky nice gals like Sonja’s character who prove that nice gals with great skating skills finish first! Marvelous post, as always! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours from Team Bartilucci HQ!

    • Thanks, Dorian, for such lovely kudos…coming from you, that’s really gratifying! Honestly, I learned a lot by studying my gal Sonja in this part! Nice gals CAN finish first in the hearts of good guys! And you’re so right about Elsa trilling…that’s exactly what she does! LOL! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to Team Bartilucci from one of your biggest fans! (Now, don’t you want to rush out and get a fur-trimmed parka??) Love, Kay

  3. This film for sure shows waht NOT to do to get a man. Vivian made several fatal mistakes. Karen seemed to only behave naturally, beeing cheerful and not complaining and being “difficult” to approach.
    It sounds like an entertaining movie, and of course the skiing sequence adds to the fun, right?
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

    • Exactly, Le! Karen was just being her sunny, fun self, not putting on an act or trying to change who she was to “catch” Ted! The skiing and skating definitly add to the fun, as do the wonderful musical numbers by the Glenn Miller Orchestra and those rip-roaring Nicholas Brothers! I’ll certainly check out your contribution, Le! I admire your writing!
      Holiday hugs, Kay

  4. Great post! It’s funny, I’ve never seen a Sonja Henie movie before, but I seem to be hearing her name come up a lot all of a sudden. Your post has definitely made me want to find a copy of Sun Valley Serenade.

    • You won’t regret it, Angela! Another one to catch is Second Fiddle with Tyrone Power–that’s a really cute on, too! Thanks for reading and thanks for taking time to comment! Kay

    • Thanks for such a nice comment!!!! If you get the chance, for sure see the film, it’s so adorable and corny and nice! Thanks for the kudos and for stopping by! Holiday hugs, K

  5. Just remember my other maxims: “Nothing a man says has any real meaning”/ “Your friends are the setting in which you sparkle- don’t let a man take you away from them”/ “If a man really likes you, he’s thinking of marriage or a permanent arrangement within four seasons”/ “Let him sweat a little, it’s good for him”/ “The surest way to get a man is to have a man”/ and….let him be the one to ask YOU if you’re seeing other people, not the other way around. Of course, all this goes out the window when it’s YOU in love, but you can always give these advice to your friends!

    • You’ve got to keep SOME secrets!!! Why don’t you write up a blog post (or a book!) on these maxims to make sure they get shared with other hapless gals! LOVE, Mommo

  6. Thanks for covering this one Kay, which I’ve never seen. I like a film with contrasting characters, even if this is pretty much a staple of Hollywood melodrama. But I might have rooted for the hopeless Vivian, who is set up as the patsy, and I find Sonja Henie way too cute (and cloying).

    • Oh, Christian, you’ll just have to see the catty Viv in action and I think you might root for Sonja’s refugee! LOL! So glad you enjoyed the read, my friend! Have you seen her in Second Fiddle…it’s a nice one, but, alas, no Nicholas Bros! Holiday hugs, Kay

  7. I hope this movie turns up on TCM or Fox Movie Channel one of these days. It looks like so much fun! It doesn’t hurt that I’m feeling swoony over John Payne after my annual viewing of “Miracle on 34th Street.” 😉

    • John Payne is totally swoon-worthy and he’s really comical and adorabs in this one, Melissa! You might be able to find a copy at your local library, which is where I first discovered Sonja’s fun films.

  8. Pingback: From Oz to St. Louis: Judy’s Journey to Glamour | Movie Star Makeover

  9. Hi Kay! Well, I finally got to see this thanks to TCM and I enjoyed it very much. The music is to die for, of course, and the winter ambience is wonderful. It was fun getting to see Sun Valley in the early ’40s – reminded me of all those great photos of Gary Cooper and other stars there during those years. Ski wear from that time period was doubtless much less practical than today’s high tech stuff, but it looked much more glamorous on the slopes.

    I have to be honest, though — I felt like John Payne should’ve run screaming from both ladies! From Lynn Bari for all the reasons you discussed in your post, and from Sonja Henie because her determination to land him and that dementedly perky smile of hers seemed more than a little crazy at times! 😉

    Such a fun movie, though. I’m looking forward to watching it again during future winters.

    • LOL! Well, I’m not a Nordic gal, so maybe that’s normal for them, the daffy smile, that is. I can just see the Vikings cheerfully pillaging and sacking with said perky smile on their faces, can’t you? So glad you enjoyed the film! Love, Kay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *