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One of the most important films in the history of RKO Studios was a lightweight musical called Flying Down to Rio (1933). Not only did it save RKO from bankruptcy, it introduced the movies' greatest dance team. Only the most dedicated film buffs remember who the stars were (Dolores Del Rio, Gene Raymond, and Raul Roulien), but every fan of movie musicals knows that Flying Down to Rio was the first pairing of fourth-billed Ginger Rogers and fifth-billed Fred Astaire.
In the early '30s, "All-talking! All-singing! All-dancing!" was the kind of ad that drew big crowds. Busby Berkeley at Warner Brothers led the way, into wildly improbable musical extravaganzas, and all the other studios followed. RKO, just five years old and struggling, wanted to get in on the musical action, so studio chief David O. Selznick signed Broadway musical star Fred Astaire to make his film debut in Flying Down to Rio.
Astaire and his sister and dancing partner Adele had been Broadway's top musical stars, until Adele decided to retire from the stage and marry a British nobleman in 1931. Fred was looking for new worlds to conquer, and film offered that opportunity. But by the time he arrived in Hollywood, Selznick had left RKO for MGM. He had been succeeded as RKO studio head by Merian C. Cooper, the producer of King Kong (1933), formerly a journalist, explorer, and aviator. Cooper wasn't particularly interested in musicals, but producer Lou Brock managed to convince him to go ahead with Flying Down to Rio by describing a spectacular finale involving an aerial circus.
While the film was being prepared, Selznick knew that Astaire was at loose ends for a couple of weeks, so he asked Astaire to play himself, dancing with Joan Crawford in the lavish MGM musical Dancing Lady (1933). That film became Astaire's movie debut, but Flying Down to Rio actually gave him his first role of consequence...if, indeed, the wisp of a plot can be said to have any consequence. Gene Raymond plays a bandleader and aviator who falls for Brazilian beauty Del Rio. Astaire is Raymond's sidekick and member of his band, and Rogers is the band vocalist. The band ends up in Rio de Janeiro, and Del Rio is torn between Raymond and her fiance, Roulien.
Dorothy Jordan was supposed to play the vocalist, but she decided to marry Merian Cooper and go on a honeymoon instead. Unlike Astaire, Ginger Rogers was already a movie veteran, having appeared in 19 films. Only two of them were musicals, including the film that started the whole musicals craze, 42nd Street (1933), and Gold Diggers of 1933, in which she famously sang "We're in the Money" in pig latin. Astaire and Rogers had known each other in New York, and had even dated before she went to Hollywood. They were happy to be working together, but never imagined that this would be the beginning of a great movie partnership. After all, they weren't romantically teamed in Flying Down to Rio, and they danced together only once, and briefly. Those mistakes would be more than rectified in their nine subsequent films together.
Astaire also formed another relationship on Flying Down to Rio that would become enormously important to his career. The assistant to choreographer Dave Gould was a young dancer and choreographer named Hermes Pan. He and Astaire quickly realized they had similar ideas about dance on film, and they would work on 17 films together. It was Pan who came up with the idea for Astaire and Rogers to dance with their foreheads pressed together in "The Carioca" number in Flying Down to Rio.
In spite of the fact that RKO was in financial trouble, it spared no expense on Flying Down to Rio: music by Vincent Youmans (his final score before retiring due to health problems); dozens of dancers; second-unit photography in Brazil, which provided authentic backgrounds; enormous, dazzlingly white Art Deco sets representing hotels, ballrooms and nightclubs in Miami and Rio de Janeiro; and -- as promised -- the title number, with chorus girls dancing precariously on the wings of airplanes. The number was actually a combination of wide shots done in Malibu, and process shots in a hangar, with the planes suspended by wires only a few feet off the ground.
The stunning Deco sets were possible thanks to improvements in film stock and lighting, which allowed the use of white. Cinematographers experimented with this new stock, and art directors created sparkling fantasies for them to photograph. RKO art directors Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark became the acknowledged masters of the style, which came to be known as "Big White Sets." Most Astaire-Rogers films contained a Big White Set -- in Flying Down to Rio, they danced on seven white pianos in the "Carioca Casino," surrounded by hordes of dancers. The only disappointment of the Astaire-Rogers Carioca is that there's not more of it. The number goes on and on, but their participation is minimal. But even in those few minutes, it was clear to audiences that the couple had an irresistible chemistry. Flying Down to Rio was a big hit, Astaire and Rogers were a bigger one, and "the Carioca" became a dance craze. RKO emerged from receivership, and became a leader in musical films in the 1930s -- mainly on the strength of the Astaire-Rogers films.
Producer: Lou Brock
Director: Thornton Freedland
Screenplay: Cyril Hume, H.W. Hanemann, Erwin Gelsey (based on a play by Anne Caldwell, from an original story by Lou Brock)
Editor: Jack Kitchin
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Costume Design: Walter Plunkett
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Carroll Clark
Music: Vincent Youmans, lyrics by Edward Eliscu, Gus Kahn
Principal Cast: Dolores del Rio (Belinha de Rezende), Gene Raymond (Roger Bond), Raul Roulien (Julio Rubeiro), Ginger Rogers (Honey Hale), Fred Astaire (Fred Ayres), Blanche Frederici (Dona Elena), Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Hammerstein), Eric Blore (Assistant Hotel Manager).
BW-90m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri