RKO's Flight Down To Rio --- Part One
There was an exhibitor around here who'd been in the business some fifty years when I interviewed him for a Winston-Salem Journal piece in 1985. Garland Morrison and wife Virgie knew exhibition cold and handled seemingly every pic released for most of the talking era and maybe a few silents besides. He'd gotten a start pushing peanut wagons down aisles before concessions began selling out front. Garland wanted in on management and was given chance to prove himself getting county-wide word out on Flying Down To Rio, this to be accomplished largely on foot and whatever conveyance he found with pedals. 1934 were hard times everywhere, but never so much as backwood this aspiring showman ventured to with heralds and promise of good times for a dime. What did NC foothill dwellers know from Rio or flying there? Garland remembered climbing fences into pig yards to convey joys of RKO's extravaganza set in the clouds. I kept waiting for his anecdote's pay-off of being scatter-gunned or done ways dramatized in Deliverance. Instead, there was success at the Amuzu's ticket window and young Morrison got the job. For that reason if not others merited, Flying Down To Rio would be one of his favorite movies from then on.
I guess the foregoing is to say how regions, patrons ... reactions ... could differ for a single show fanned out across early 30's America. Flying Down To Rio looked foreign indeed to ones who'd barely traveled off the farm, a musical set amidst Latin high-life resembling import from another planet for similarity it had with lives rural folk led. Well, exotic this time was what RKO was selling. How many patrons anywhere had flown on passenger planes, let alone piloted their own like Gene Raymond here, a procedure made to look so simple any of us might do as much given a private craft. Even a forced landing is cake for Raymond, smooth beaches at the ready when engines misbehave. Moneymen and ones who governed were together on bright future air travel promised. From evidence here, you'd figure planes never to crash. In fact, there was clipper service from Miami to South America's coast by 1932, and goal among providers was to make a public feel safe boarding them. Harnessing movies toward an end of popularizing air travel was investment beyond whatever Flying Down To Rio brought back from theatres. Merian C. Cooper was production chief at RKO when the project went aloft and not incidentally on the Board Of Directors for Pan-American Airways, so he profited on every trip down and back (plus got percentage of $480K profit Rio realized). The man's genius clearly extended past Kong creation.
Flying Down To Rio is the one to get out for guests wanting a dose of Hollywood silly, confirmation of what old movies amount to in modern eyes. You could argue it's Fred Astaire's best just for being his first as featured player (there was Dancing Lady before, but that was for a single number and no participation otherwise). Broadway success in partnership with his sister, recently retired to marry, would go little toward recognition by moviegoers, for most he'd be a fresh and untried face. RKO placed Astaire first and in largest type among cast members announced in the company's 1933-34 product manual sent to exhibitors (above). Was Fred Astaire initially slated to headline Flying Down To Rio rather than eventual Gene Raymond? Helen Broderick was listed also ... she's not in the finished show at all. What emerged for late December 1933 release was Fred as sidekick, a prominent one, and kibitzer to romance Raymond shares with Dolores Del Rio, those two forevermore characterized as "nominal" Rio leads. Astaire was so good as to foreclose anyone else being noticed, other than Ginger Rogers, his to-be partner introduced as such here. Everyman Fred who also happened to be, from this moment, the most accomplished dancer in movies, nails his screen persona with first close-up and warning of dog food diet to come for the band. He's loose, funny, and utterly un-self-conscious of amazing skills on the floor. We're well used to magic he and Ginger conjured, but imagine how patrons flipped when it was all done the first time. No wonder a dancing public went Carioca-crazy for Christmas '33 and afterward!
Yes, the dance was essential, for it catching on would be key to word-of-mouth and hopeful repeat trade. After all, Rio was where you had to go to see it done. RKO pushed newness and naughtiness of the closest-up fad since Rudy's tango, the first of many moves two could do that sold near every Astaire-Rogers teaming to come (including The Gay Divorcee's "The Continental" and Top Hat's "Piccolino") Trade ads preceding Rio's release called the Carioca tantalizing and mesmerizing, standing Fred/Ginger tallest among images shown ... Raymond and Del Rio might well have been casting insurance for unlikely event Astaire wouldn't click. Fred was a different sort for sure, far afield of a conventional leading man, so tentative use of him in Flying Down To Rio was at least understandable, even as first glimpse of he and Rogers dancing settled question of who customers would go home talking about. The two as sardonic Greek Chorus seemed also to point toward a new flavor in musicals they'd soon be serving. RKO, maybe knowing this, devoted ads to Astaire singly (above), promising in its Rio pressbook, You are going to see more of this Broadway star. He makes the hit of your life.