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Original Issue


He is not a movie star. He is fat and graceless. He looks as if he stumbled across the set by accident and stayed to watch. In real life, he owns a small fishing-tackle shop at Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire, doing a brisk business in worms. But before this winter is over Babe Sargent could well be known as the new Jackie Gleason. Babe Sargent is a gem. As Louella Parsons used to say, you read it here first.

Sargent is the unlikely hero of Henry Phipps Goes Skiing, a surprise entry in the fifth annual International Ski Film Festival. The event was held in New York City last week to preview and judge 34 new movies that will be playing the resort, club and ski-show circuit this season. And because ski movies tend to be predictable, right down to the syrupy background music that plays while folks are busting up fields of powder snow, the surprise element was particularly important. Henry Phipps is, at last, a genre film that admits the sport can be pretty goofy.

The festival divides its entries into five categories, and before Babe Sargent floundered onto the screen, there were the familiar ski films we have all come to treasure, perhaps because we know them all by heart. In the resort and travel section, first prize went to HeliSkiing, a technically flawless film by Dick Barrymore, master of the slow-motion camera. Hanson ski boots sailing through the sky like spaceships took honors in the equipment class, but ski boots just don't have the stuff to become movie stars. Winner of the ski instruction and technique division was Cross Country Ski Racing, a matter-of-fact treatise on training produced by Oak Creek Films and featuring U.S. racers Bill Koch, Tim Caldwell, Allison Spencer and former Coach Marty Hall. For all those who missed the alpine world championship last winter, there was Garmisch '78, winner of the racing and competition category.

All of which brought the judges to special films, the biggies of ski movies, full-dress features that run as long as 50 minutes. There were some dandies. Harvey Edwards' Skiing Across the French Alps offered a high-touring adventure from Nice to Geneva. Willy Bogner's fast-paced Skivision '79 showed, among other things, how he shot the chase sequence in the recent James Bond thriller The Spy Who Loved Me. And then, bumbling along, came Henry Phipps.

Bruce Cronin, the producer, director, writer, chief grip and what-all, had made a 20-minute drama in 1974 but never a ski film. As his wife Roni tells it, Cronin was waxing his skis in his basement one day when he almost set the house on fire with his blowtorch. "Maybe you ought to make a funny movie about skiing," she said. Cronin called Babe Sargent, who had never been on skis and, as they say, a star was born.

Cronin's script could have been written on the inside of a matchbook cover. Hero Henry Phipps rubber-stamps boxes at a shoe factory, the dreariest job in the world. He wins an all-expenses-paid weekend at Snowflake Ski Lodge. And the rest of the story is as familiar as Laurel meets Hardy. There is the stock ski instructor, Germanic, handsome and arrogant. There are the obligatory snow bunnies. Announcements boom through the lodge intercom, German-accented, naturally. There are pratfalls, of course. And off to one side, looking droll, is a Great Pyrenees dog named Ellsworth. Keep your eye on Ellsworth.

The tricky thing about Henry Phipps is that director Cronin uses a basic story line to subtly destroy every clichè about skiing. What is even trickier is that Babe Sargent plays the entire movie without uttering a word of dialogue, à la Jacques Tati in Mr. Hulot's Holiday. Joy, despair, lust—Sargent does it all with a face that will be his fortune, if Hollywood has any sense at all. And at one high point in the comedy, Sargent does the impossible: he plays a scene against Ellsworth, who does a doggie double take that would steal anybody's show, and Sargent still wins. Try that, Gleason!

The festival was sponsored by Samsonite, and the luggage people are clearly on to a good thing. Top prize is called the Silver Ski Award, sort of like the Golden Palm at Cannes. When all the votes were counted, Cross Country Ski Racing won it, confirmation that the judges weren't ready for surprises—and certainly not a surprise that pokes fun at skiing.

Somebody should tell Babe Sargent that skiing is serious business.