Monday, November 2, 2009

Masterpiece Film Series: Flying Down to Rio

"Flying Down to Rio" **** (out of ****)

"Flying Down to Rio" (1933) is just as good as any example of the kind of pure movie escapism the Hollywood musical was offering during the great depression. Here is a movie which the sole purpose is to entertain. Characters fly off to exotic locations, in this film's case, Brazil, never speak of money, except in a comedic manner, seem terribly carefree, their problems are only concerned with finding love. Meanwhile, outside the movie theatres where this was playing, people were waiting in soup lines and unemployed.

Any film buff worth their spit knows the historical significance of "Flying Down to Rio". It was the first film to pair Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire together. Though they are not the leads. The romantic interest in the film involves Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond. They were the movie stars. Fred and Ginger, get this, were comic relief. The funny best friends. But it was Fred and Ginger, in their brief scenes, which managed to excite audiences. The following year a movie was made for them as leads, "The Gay Divorcee" (1934) an adaptation of a Cole Porter play which Astaire had starred in on Broadway. Though that film would still place a heavy emphasis on comedy. Hollywood wouldn't let the greatest song and dance man do what he does best, sing and dance. They wanted a jack-of-all-trades. Someone to tell jokes, sing and dance. In fact, one story goes, a Hollywood executive didn't even want to sign Astaire to a contract. After Astaire auditioned, the man reportedly said, he was slightly balding, couldn't sing and could dance a little. Imagine how the history of movies would have been different without Fred Astaire.

As I said "Flying Down to Rio" was intended as a vehicle for Dolores del Rio, whose only other film I have seen was her following one, "Wonder Bar" (1934) with Al Jolson. Here she plays Belinha, a wealthy Brazilian caught in the middle of a love triangle, daring to challenge her country's social conventions. You see, she is engaged to Julio (Raul Roulien), but after meeting American bandleader, Roger Bond (Gene Raymond, who had found stardom appearing in "Red Dust" (1932) with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow) has fallen in love with him. To complicate matters further, Roger and Julio are best friends, but neither man knows the other is aware of Belinha.

Roger Bond is presented as a kind of hoofer. He has gained a reputation as a ladies man, often dancing and romancing the various women at the hotels where his band plays. This behavior has gotten him fired from many a places. At the current hotel, run by famous character actor, Frank Pangborn, strict laws are enforced. Roger is given one last chance before being fired. And then he meets Belinha, who playfully flirts with him. His response gets him fired. But luckily his band, which includes Fred Ayres (Fred Astaire) and singer Honey Hale (Ginger Rogers) gets a job in Rio thanks to Julio's connections. They are to open a new hotel. What Roger doesn't know is Belinha is also headed back home to Rio.

For a 1933 RKO musical, the film is pretty suggestive. One joke has an American woman wonder what is so special about Belinha, musing "what do these Latin girls have beneath the equator that we don't." These costumes are pretty raunchy for the times, the ladies dresses are made of see-through material. Revealing a lot of leg and in certain cases their chest. This wasn't something new though for movies. Before the code they tried to get away with sexual innuendos. In Fred & Ginger's next film, after singing and dancing to Porter's "Night & Day" Fred offers Ginger a cigarette. Suggesting the intimacy of their dancing, with all the physical contact, as well as the combination of the moonlight and music was the equivalent of sex. After the code became more strictly enforced in one of the next films, "Top Hat" (1935), my personal favorite, after dancing to a tune, this time they merely shakes hands.

And what about a scene between Roger and Belinha. He has agreed to fly her down to Rio in his personal plane. But they have to make an emergency landing. When Roger has discovered the problem his evil conscience reveals itself and asks what is he doing. Why not use this time and location, they are on a deserted island, to romance her. Meanwhile, Belinha's evil conscience reveals itself and tell her to stop acting so up-tight and allow Roger to make advances at her. Yes the scene is comical but there is a buried message here telling people, loosen your morals. We all act one way in private and another way in public.

And finally, pay attention to Ginger Rogers' song, "Music Makes Me" (Ginger had it in her contract that she would get to sing one solo song in every movie. She was afraid the studio was going to pay more attention to Fred). Lyrics include "my self control was something to brag about/now its the gag about town". What do you think she's referring to when she says "music makes me"?

But this all makes it seem "Flying Down to Rio" is a serious film with a social message. I can assure you it is a good natured film. So lets talk about the songs. They were written by Vincent Youmans, this would be the only Fred & Ginger film with a score by him. The songs include the already mentioned "Music Makes Me" as well as a charming tango, "Orchids in the Moonlight" and the title song, sung by Astaire. The big number however is the "Carioca". It is an extravagant 10 minute plus spectacle. And the first time we get to see Fred & Ginger dance. It turns comical but for a while it was pretty hot and you can see why audiences wanted to see more of them. The song was suppose to be the big smash of the year and did enjoy great popularity. Us old timers still know the song. It was nominated for "Best Song", a first for that year, but, lost to a song Fred & Ginger would sing and dance to in their next picture, "The Continental".

Between the two of them it was Ginger that had more film acting experience. In 1933 alone she had appeared in 10 films (!). Of her earliest work I personally I have seen her in two Joe E. Brown comedies; "The Tenderfoot" (1932) and the much better "You Said A Mouthful" (1932). Prior to this film she was also in "42nd Street" (1933) and "The Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933). Whereas Astaire has appeared in "Dancing Lady" (1933) as himself in a cameo. It starred Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. Astaire had great success on the stage with a musical act with his sister, Adele. It is said the musical "Royal Wedding" (1951) was based on their relationship.

The film was directed by Thornton Freeland, this would be his only effort with the team. Before this film he did direct the musical "Whoopee!" (1930) an Eddie Cantor vehicle, based on a play of the same name which he starred in. This is where Cantor sings one of his signature songs, "Making Whoopee". It too is a very good film. Freedland also directed another comic, Fanny Brice, in "Be Yourself" (also 1930). So I suppose he seemed like a good choice to direct this, having had experience with musicals already.

I've never heard anyone say this is their favorite Fred & Ginger musical, probably because they aren't the stars. Strangely, their next film after "The Gay Divorcee", "Roberta" (1935) would put them back into supporting roles. That film revolved around Randolph Scott (!) and Irene Dunn, who did have a beautiful voice. But, if after watching this you want to see more of Fred & Ginger I'd recommend "Top Hat", "Follow the Feet" (1936) which features the charming song, "Lets Face the Music & Dance". Plus you get to see Astaire plays some good stride piano to the tune "I'm Putting All My Eggs In One Basket", he also plays in "Roberta" ("I Won't Dance"). Plus there is "Shall We Dance" (1937) with the duet "Lets Call the Whole Thing Off" and "Carefree" (1938) which changed the dynamic of their films a bit. This time Ginger chases after Fred!

"Flying Down to Rio" for its joyous nature and ready desire to please makes it one of the masterpieces of cinema. It puts on a great show that we should all take pleasure in enjoying.