Monday, November 8, 2010

'Flying' High

“Flying Down to Rio” is best known as the first film that paired Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but it’s also a daffy musical romp that has lots of fun despite the predictable plotting.

In fact, this is one of those rare films where plot really doesn’t matter. The film flies by in just under 90 minutes, was released in December 1933 and turned a profit for RKO.

In the film, Bandleader Roger Bond (Gene Raymond) sees the exotic Belinha (Dolores Del Rio) across the dance floor. It’s lust at first sight, so he charges over to meet her, much to the chagrin of his band, who knows what trouble this can create. Belinha clearly likes Roger, but they can’t fall in love in the first reel, so she toys with him while her matronly escort whisks her out of the ballroom and demands that she return home to Rio.

Roger announces to the band that he got them a gig in Rio. He manages to fly Belinha to Rio in cognito, which he reveals before plane trouble forces a landing on a deserted beach, which doesn’t lead to the romance he wants. He loses her yet is unaware that his gig is at a new hotel that her father owns.

Finally, Roger figures it all out, but there’s a catch: his friend Julio (Raul Roulien) is engaged to Belinha through an arranged marriage. Then there’s the syndicate that wants to buy the hotel and plots to keep it from opening early, which leads to one of the craziest musical numbers put on film during the 1930s.

“Flying Down to Rio” is a film where the leads need be nothing more than impossibly beautiful (above). Raymond at one point is shirtless and is amazingly buff even by today’s standards, although his blond hairline sometimes gets lost on his forehead, creating an odd sense at times that he only has hair on the back of his head. Del Rio is so breathtakingly gorgeous that it nearly makes you forget she’s a so-so actress. Her wardrobe consists of many outfits with large sleeves – so much so that I wondered how many closets she needed to hold dresses where the sleeves seem big enough to engulf a sea of small children.

As for Astaire and Rogers, I love them and cherish their films. This was only his second movie and his first substantial role on film as Fred Ayres, the secondary male lead. Rogers plays Honey, the wisecracking lead singer in the band, a role she got only because the actress originally cast, Dorothy Jordan, married executive producer Merian C. Cooper and decided to go on her honeymoon!

Honey opens the movie by singing “Music Makes Me” in a stunning see-through dress that somehow made it past censors (the wrath of the Hays Office would finally hit Hollywood full-force in 1934). Then Fred and Ginger engage in their only dance during the film – and not for long – in “The Carioca” number. They are fun, as is the song, but the musical number itself lumbers along with three different singers and way too much group dancing. Fred gets a brief solo number in the later half of the film, and an Astaire solo would become a staple of his films.

I read one book on RKO that claimed audiences were clamoring for more Astaire and Rogers after this film. That’s not true, considering their brief time together. It’s more likely that the often cash-strapped RKO was willing to give them a chance because of his talent, their chemistry together and that they were cheap! In fact, Astaire was once considered for the lead before it became a Dolores Del Rio vehicle, and Rogers nearly wasn’t cast at all. But the pairing worked. Although she wasn’t a star, she had been working her way up, and her wisecracking demeanor ended up giving her an advantage. She wasn’t just a blonde trying to make it. She had street smarts, intelligence and eventually the elegance to balance it out into a complete package – a perfect foil for the debonair Astaire. She brought movie experience and he brought musical and Broadway experience.

Anyway, back to the movie and that crazy finale. It’s a jaw-dropper – involving chorus girls and airplanes – that’s totally unrealistic, completely crazy and marvelous to watch. Whoever came up with that one must have been drunk. Regardless, it’s a fitting capper to the film, keeping in line with the film’s love of airplanes and incorporating the exotic locale.

Airplanes, by the way, held a special fascination during the 1920s that culminated with the frenzy surrounding Charles Lindbergh’s history solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1927 – right when sound was being introduced into films. This temporarily grounded films while filmmakers scrambled to improve the technology that would address such issues as limited mic placement options that kept films stagy. Lindbergh’s popularity was still high six years later, and adding planes to sound film would intrigue audiences.

Also, in the wake of Lindbergh’s success was his promotion of air travel. Executive producer Cooper was on the board of Pan Am, which began its first service from Miami to South America in 1932, which is why the film is set in Miami and Rio.

I also like how the film tries to have visual fun, from the crazy cutaways between scenes to the alter egos of Roger and Belinha plotting to get them together to the changing backgrounds during the “Orchids in the Moonlight” number (which originally had a color tint to it) to the band in a balloon basket floating over a dance floor. The filmmakers also heavily use back-projection shots, which work well by helping to bring the viewer to South America.

“Flying Down to Rio” was one of the films ushering in a second wave of musicals led by Busby Berkley at Warner Brothers. RKO promoted this film heavily, hiring Thornton Freeland to direct – he already had directed a few successful musicals like “Whoopee.”

It did pay off for RKO – in unexpected ways. It may be fun, but it’s odd that the film ended with a shot of Astaire and Rogers, not the stars. It’s an unplanned hint at the delights that they would produce throughout the 1930s.


  1. Really interesting article! I only saw this film after I had become a huge Astaire/Rogers fan, so I don't think I gave it much of a chance. I wanted to see more of them. But you are quite right -- Dolores Del Rio was one of the most gorgeous women ever. Those huge sleeves show up a lot in 1930's films, some of them looking absolutely hilarious. I remember a dance number with Eleanor Powell, can't remember the movie, but she wore a typical one-piece bathing suit type dancing costume with these giant short puffy sleeves that practically obscured her face. You never know with fashion!

  2. As you infer towards the end of your review, I always thought this was RKO's attempt to do a Busby Berkeley type film without the talents of Mr. Berkeley. How ironic that just a year or two later Fred and Ginger would revolutionize the musical genre as much as Berkeley did.

    The film also contains one of my favorite lines of pre-code dialogue. I forget the exact wording, but its when one of girls from North America (is it Ginger, I can't remember) looks at her Latin competition and says something like "What do those girls have below the equator that we haven't got?" Certainly a line that would not have permitted a year later.

  3. Hi ClassicBecky, I love those sleeves -- so unrealistic, so Hollywood. Anyway, give the film another try. I had seen it twice years ago but dismissed it in comparison to other Fred/Ginger films. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it -- not great but entertaining.

  4. Hi Kevin, I have one book that said RKO was promoting this film months before filming even began and before a cast was finalized. I think it was Berkeley that made them go musical and PanAm's new flight path that dictated the content. And I do love that line of dialogue.