Flying Down to Rio (1933) Directed by Thornton Freeland. Dolores Del Rio, Gene Raymond, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers (89 min)
Fred and Ginger put their heads together for the first time to “Carioca” and create dance history. They are the sparky comedy couple mirroring the conventional romance, between buff blond bandleader Gene Raymond and one of the most exquisitely gorgeous women ever to grace the screen, orchidaceous Dolores Del Rio. There are lots of gratuitous flying scenes (including the finale, where high-kicking, high-heeled chorines are fastened onto airplane wings for the nutty title song) since the producer was a major Pan-American Airlines stockholder.
Flying Down to Rio has many of the loveable qualities of Pre-Code movies. Racy songs (and racier dance numbers) gratuitous dressing scenes (although this time with the hero and not the heroine) and double-entendre dialogue. Franklin Pangbourne gets plenty of screen-time for a lengthy “sissy” portrayal, which he would be forced to tone down when the Code would nix any signs of “sex perversion.” Stereotyped portrayals of blacks and Latinos are satisfying confounded; the Code would insist that the conforming to racist preferences. Dolores del Rio is allowed a romance with an Anglo amour.
Del Rio was typecast in the silent era as a variety of exotic beauties, but once the talkies came in her accent limited her to more strictly Latina roles. In 1943 she returned to her native Mexico, where she was a huge star, in amazing films like La Otra, occasionally travelling to the US for character roles. Here, she plays a Brazilian heiress, her sensual nature at odds with her sheltered upbringing. Her character is ultimately unable to choose her own fate (a man decides for her) but we can hope if the movie was a little longer, she would have reached the same conclusion on her own.
Del Rio’s costumes were designed by Irene, at her request, helping to establish the designer’s career. Her appearance in a two-piece bathing suit was trend setting. Walter Plunkett, alone, was credited in the opening titles.
Gene Raymond started as a child star under his real name, Raymond Guion. He played a series of agreeable leading men in the 1930s; another of his more famous roles was in Red Dust. His primary fame rests in his real-life role as Jeanette MacDonald’s husband from 1937 until her death in 1965.
This film’s primary legacy is its “Fred meets Ginger” moment. Fred Astaire had been dancing professionally with his older sister Adele as his partner since they were small children. Their personalities complimented each other on and off stage; she a lively, carefree beauty and he a serious perfectionist, nicknamed by his sister “Moaning Minnie.” They were great Broadway stars, the toast of two continents, starring in classic 1920s musicals like Funny Face and The Band Wagon. After the curtain fell, they spent the night club-hopping with American millionaires and British nobility, including the Prince of Wales, heir to England’s throne. Fred felt cast adrift when his sister and partner Adele retired from the stage in favor of marriage with Lord Charles Cavendish. He had relied for so long on not just her dancing ability but her companionship. He starred in one play without her, The Gay Divorce, and the reviewers were kind, even as they suspected him of glancing offstage in the hopes of seeing his vivacious sister appear.
Even before Fred Astaire was in the movies, he and his sister Adele advertised Chesterfield cigarettes in the movie magazines.
Nearly every source recounts an official reaction to Astaire’s screen test “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” Richard Barrios says firmly, “Anecdotally irresistible and likely untrue.” Astaire had been contemplating several studio offers, and finally signed with RKO. He was unconvinced there was a movie career in his future after a brief loan out to MGM, as “Fred Astaire,” in Dancing Lady with Joan Crawford (a dancer whose determination outweighed her skill).
RKO had flopped trying to turn bandleader Phil Harris into a musical comedy star in Melody Cruise. Harris would have to wait quite a while for his movie immortality as Baloo the Bear in Disney’s The Jungle Book. The studio planned to start Astaire out modestly, supporting Rio’s star romantic triangle, especially since finding him a partner was tricky. Dorothy Jordan had been Adele’s understudy in Funny Face, but took herself out of the running when she married producer Merian C. Cooper. Brassy Pert Kelton, (best known today as Marian the Librarian’s mother in the movie The Music Man) then a slip of a girl, was considered but probably couldn’t dance well enough.
Rogers was another story. She’d had supporting roles in Warner Brothers two big musicals of the year, 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. Astaire had coached her for a dance on Broadway a couple of years previously, and they had even courted briefly. They were comfortable with each other, but Astaire worried about her limited dance technique. At 33, he was rather mature for a beginning movie star; everybody but him seemed to fret about his unphotogenic looks and receding hairline.
Ginger Rogers show business career was founded on her mother Leila’s ambitions. At 15, Ginger’s first taste of fame was becoming Charleston Champion of Texas, winning a 4-week vaudeville booking at $100 a week. She worked bit parts on stage and in film (in NYC, with some studios still based there you could do both simultaneously) and was just starting to get some decent small parts when she was cast in Flying Down to Rio. Her hopes were for a dramatic career, and she often played such parts in other films while Astaire was rehearsing the dance numbers in the later films they did together. Although he never disparaged her publicly, he was frustrated by her lack of dedication to their joint projects. Rogers admitted, “Fred was a hard taskmaster, a perfectionist. He always got a little cross with me because my concentration was not as dedicated to the projects as his was. So there were times of stress.” (Satchell).
It was dance director Hermes Pan’s inspiration for Astaire and Rogers to press their foreheads together. There are different versions of this publicity shot in many books, but Rogers did not wear this dress in the film.
They manage to make a brilliant impression, separately and together in Flying Down to Rio, in spite of their lack of screen time, and they are more relaxed and funny here than they are in many of their later films. There had been few dancing couples on the screen, but Astaire had been partnering his sister for so long that it was natural for him. “There is one brief moment of ‘Carioca’ when Astaire and Rogers become a team: in the ‘Two heads together are better than one’ section, their eyes meet for perhaps two seconds, and it’s suddenly all there. Two dancers–one great, the other outstanding–have become one unit.” (Barrios). Astaire felt the routines were not up to his exacting standards and hoped (vainly) the studio would cut them and spare him the humiliation. He’d left Hollywood to fulfill an obligation to play The Gay Divorce in London and was surprised to find the movie a smash hit, and a 7 year contract awaiting his return at RKO.
This was Vincent Youmans last score and one of his best, before he was institutionalized by the effects of TB and alcoholism. The lyrics were by Gus Kahn. Astaire and Rogers 4 minute chorus of the “Carioca” took over 100 hours of rehearsal. The creative partnership formed by Astaire and Hermes Pan in this film is equally important and more long lived than his with Ginger Rogers. Pan would be a collaborator with Astaire for the duration of his career. They resembled one another physically, and Pan had danced with his own sister, living the same hand to mouth existence while seeking fame as had the Astaire family. Pan had also worked with Rogers and knew her skills and limitations well. He said, “The great different thing about Fred of course was that he was the first real perfectionist that Hollywood had ever come up against in the dancing world; they couldn’t really believe it. Ginger was hardly ever available. That didn’t please Fred, who always liked a lot of rehearsal. So the way we did it was this: he’d work out the steps with me–the Continental or whatever–then, having played Ginger to Fred, I would then go off, the dance all ready in my mind and then be Fred to Ginger. We’d work two or three weeks on any one dance, showing her what to do after we’d already spent a couple of weeks, Fred and I, working it out.” So, Tim Satchell considers Pan to be Astaire’s “most frequent and most favoured dancing partner” a substitute Ginger at $75 a week. And the taps you hear with Astaire on the soundtrack of the Astaire-Rogers films are Hermes Pan, not Ginger.
The “Carioca” is interesting, and not just because of the frisson when Fred and Ginger decide to get up to dance. The erotic evolution of the dance progresses as the society dancers are replaced by light-skinned Brazilians, and then (after a hot chorus by Etta Moten, who also sang “Remember my Forgotten Man” the same year in the Gold Diggers of 1933) the dark-skinned Brazilians do a chorus so low down that it must have been a major reason the film was banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency. Etta Moten, playing the role of “The Colored Singer” was a remarkable person. She earned a B.A. in music and drama from the University of Kansas in 1931. George Gershwin wrote the role of “Bess” in Porgy and Bess for her, although she did not sing the role until a revival in the 1940s (refusing to sing the “n” word, it was written out of the libretto). After her marriage to Claude Barnett, the head of the Associated Negro Press, she became very active in Chicago philantropical organizations, and her home is a highlight of the tour of that city’s Bronzeville.
Although John Kobal identifies this as a still from the Gold Diggers of 1933, it appears to be Ginger Rogers in the barely there gown she wears when she sings “Music Makes Me.” Walter Plunkett designed Rogers’ costumes in Flying Down to Rio.
The chorus girls on the airplanes (staged by Dave Gould and Hermes Pan) do not have Busbly Berkeley’s genius for mass movement, but are a landmark of musical zaniness. “Absurdity raised to such a height, at the service of a trivial musical comedy plot, becomes its own escapist justification, in a way a culmination of all the silly fun stunts that movie musicals had tried to do up to that point–Madam Satan‘s blimp, Just Imagine‘s Martian ballet, maybe even that idiotic spider web in The Great Gabbo.” (Barrios). Or, as the ads trumpeted, “Sweeps of eye-staggering sensation as the Flying Armada of Beauty soars on wings of giant planes down heaven’s twinkling pathways!”
A promotional novelty from the film
Flying Down to Rio plays extraordinarily well to an audience. The cheerful crowd at the North Carolina Museum of Art not only responded well to all the humor, but applauded after the “Carioca” sequence. Best of all though, was the enthusiast who wolf whistled when Gene Raymond whipped off his towel to get dressed after stepping from the shower!
Astaire was not overly concerned about dancing without an audience; the chance of shooting and reshooting each dance to achieve perfection appealed to him. But, it was a trick to learn that he had to stay within the camera’s focus. This film would be the last time that there would be cutaways from his full figure. And, for those of you who may have dreamed of dancing with Fred Astaire, he disdained social dancing, and could rarely be persuaded to do so. Dancing was work, after all.
(Photos: The Astaires advertise Chesterfield cigarettes in the October 1931 New Movie Magazine, Del Rio portrait from Costume Design in the Movies by Elizabeth Leese, Rogers in black dress from John Kobal’s Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance, Raymond picture from anonymous movie star scrapbook, Fred and Ginger dancing from Hollywood Costume Design: Glitter! Glamour! Romance! by Dale McConathy and Diana Vreeland, cardboard airplane from Hollywood: Legend and Reality edited by Michael Webb, Astaire part of series of star portraits collected by Claire Drazin in the 1930s, autograph from Moviediva’s collection. Sources include A Song in the Dark by Richard Barrios, Astaire and Rogers by Edward Gallafent, Fred Astaire, a Bio-Bibliography by Larry Billman, A Tribute to Fred Astaire by Peter Carrick, Astaire by Tim Satchell, Ginger Rogers a Bio-Bibliography by Jocelyn Faris, Astaire Dancing by John Mueller, Steps in Time by Fred Astaire, review from March, 1934 Photoplay magazine, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etta_Moten_Barnett, Creating the Illusion: A Fashionable of Hollywood Costume Designers by Jay Jorgensen and Donald L. Scoggins, The Power of Glamour by Annette Tapert.