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According to a Film Daily news item, executive producer Merian C. Cooper hired writer Anne Caldwell to develop a story for a musical from an idea devised by associate producer Louis Brock. Onscreen credits indicate that Caldwell wrote a play based on Brock's screen story. The copyright record states that the film was based on a play by Caldwell and Brock, which was based on Brock's original story. No evidence that the play was ever produced theatrically has been found.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made their debut as an entertainment team in this picture. (Although Rogers had made more than twenty films prior to Flying Down to Rio, Astaire had appeared briefly in only one film, M-G-M's 1933 musical Dancing Lady.) The Variety review said of the film: "The main point of Flying Down to Rio is the screen promise of Fred Astaire. That should be about as important to Radio as the fact that this picture is not destined for big grosses, because the studio May eventually do things with this lad." Contrary to Variety's gloomy predictions about the box office, the film was a hit and helped RKO to avoid bankruptcy and receivership. A news item in Film Daily mentioned that, as a result of the success of Flying Down to Rio, the real mayor of Rio de Janeiro offered to name a city in Brazil after Brock.
Contemporary news items report the following information about the production: Prior to principal photography, cameramen J. Roy Hunt and Dick Deval spent one month in Rio de Janeiro taking footage for scenes in the film. Cyril Hume replaced Erwin Gelsey as the writer of the screen treatment after Gelsey was hospitalized for injuries suffered in an automobile accident. Gene Raymond replaced Joel McCrea in the lead; one news item claimed that the substitution was due to scheduling difficulties, while another cited Raymond's piano playing abilities as the reason. RKO withdrew William Cagney from the cast because his part was "not important enough." Writer H. W. Hanemann, who received a screen credit with Gelsey and Hume, was also assigned to "sit in" as a dialogue director on the production. Mark Sandrich, who later directed many of the Rogers-Astaire pictures, was assigned to direct a second production unit. When a third unit was added, directed by Ben Holmes, Sandrich was quoted as saying, "One more unit and Lou Brock will have it split into molecules." Composer Vincent Youmans wrote two songs for the production that were not included in the final film: "The Guest Is Always Right" and "The Streets of Rio." His song "Carioca" was nominated for an Academy Award. Other actors who were announced as cast members but did not participate in the filming include Arline Judge, Pert Kelton, Helen Broderick and Chick Chandler. Because of a "chorus girl" shortage in Hollywood, producer Brock and a cameraman went to Texas to scout for possible casting additions. Out of 1,500 women who applied, 100 were tested. According to a Film Daily news item, Dorothy Trail was cast in the film after her father, responding to a radio broadcast in which Brock announced that RKO was searching for "brunettes," sent her to Hollywood from Arkansas. Her participation in the final film has not been confirmed. Singer and dancer Mowita Castenada was "discovered" by RKO producer Pandro S. Berman while attending a RKO sales meeting in San Francisco. Alice Gentle and Hazel Hayes were well-known opera singers. Contemporary news items add Margaret Mearing and Enrico Caruso, Jr. to the cast, but their participation in the final film has not been confirmed. According to studio production files, scenes were shot at Malibu Beach and Mountains, Cabrillo near San Diego, the Ambassador Auditorium in Los Angeles and in Miami, FL. Aircraft used in the film included Waco Sport, Fairchild 71, Buhl Pup and Stinson Detroiter, according to production files. Although not seen in the viewed print, color tinting was added to the film for the "Orchids in the Moonlight" sequence, according to Variety.
Modern sources add the following information about the production: Brock convinced Merian Cooper, a member of the board of directors of Pan American Airways and a lover of adventure stories, to undertake the musical by emphasizing its aviation elements and setting it in an exotic location. (Pan American had begun service from Miami to the South American coast in 1932, and its "clipper" aircraft were used in the film.) Financial troubles at RKO ruled out Brock's plan to shoot the musical in three-color Technicolor. Because Dorothy Jordan had understudied Fred Astaire's sister Adele in the stage play Funny Face, she was considered for the role of "Honey." Her marriage to Cooper prior to production curtailed her participation in the film, however. Astaire had met Rogers in 1930 while restaging one of her numbers from the 1930 Gershwin Broadway musical Girl Crazy. (Another source states that the duo met while performing in the 1931 Broadway show Top Speed.) In his autobiography, Astaire claims that the studio cast Rogers, who had just signed a seven-year contract with RKO, only days before rehearsals were scheduled to begin. Rogers, who was trying to start a career in dramatic film acting, was less than thrilled about performing in a musical but told Astaire she thought the project might be fun. Astaire began his long-term collaboration with Hermes Pan on this production. Astaire says in his autobiography: "Dave Gould was assigned as dance director but I did most of my work with his assistant, Hermes Pan." Because Rogers was working on other films while Flying Down to Rio was in pre-production, Pan had to rehearse her dance steps with Astaire and then teach her the routines just before shooting. Pan reportedly came up with the idea for the part of the "Carioco" number in which Astaire and Rogers touch heads and make turns without losing contact. In addition to Pan, Astaire also met and worked with pianist and musical arranger Hal Borne for the first time on this film. Borne appears briefly in the film playing the piano. As part of his role in the 1931 musical The Band Wagon, Astaire learned how to play the accordian and played it during his scenes in Flying Down to Rio.
Dissatisfied with his performance in the film, as well as his screen persona, Astaire left for London immediately after shooting ended and revived his starring role in the stage musical The Gay Divorce. To his surprise, the film's previews were well received, and Pandro S. Berman sent a wire to London assuring the dancer of his success. Astaire and Rogers' dance duet in the film, "The Carioca," dazzled audiences and created a "Carioca" dance craze around the country. To capitalize on the dance craze and Rogers and Astaire's sudden popularity, studio publicists billed the burgeoning team as "The King and Queen of 'The Carioca.'" In addition, Berman went immediately to see Astaire in The Gay Divorce, while RKO signed him to a contract. The film's most notable line, which is spoken by one of Belinha's friends in the Miami hotel, "What have these South Americans got below the equator that we haven't?" was disapproved of by both censors and reviewers. The film's final "aviation" sequence was shot in an airplane hangar and used suspended airplanes and wind machines. Back-projection and process shots were also used in the sequence.
Modern sources add the following actors to the cast list: Ray Cooke (Banjo player), Gino Corrado (Messenger), Harry Semels (Sign poster), Jack Rice (Musician), Martha La Venture (Dancer), Sidney Bracey (Rodriquez, chauffeur), Manuel Paris (Man at Aviators' Club), The Brazilian Turunas (Band), and Howard Wilson, Francisco Moran, Carol Tevis, Eddie Tamblyn, Alice Ardell, Rafael Alvir, Eddie Boland, Julian Rivero and Pedro Regas. Modern source crew credits include Mus rec Murray Spivack, Miniatures Don Jahraus, Researcher Elizabeth McGaffey, Make-up Mel Berns, Still photog John Miehle. According to Variety, RKO withdrew Flying Down to Rio from theatrical circulation in 1980 because of perceived overexposure. For more information on the Astaire-Rogers teaming at RKO, see listing below for Top Hat.