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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

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.


Anonymous DBenson said...

The Carioca turned up very prominently in "Cock o' the Walk", a 1935 Disney cartoon. If I recall the DVD commentator correctly (it's on the second Silly Symphonies set), RKO was about to become Disney's distributor and permission to use a hot song was part of the courtship. It's unusual since Disney's composers, without access to a big studio's music holdings, generally stuck to public domain classics and original compositions rather than spend money for a recent hit.

In the cartoon -- which has no dialogue or singing -- a showoff fighting rooster comes to town with a personal parade. He lures a cute hen away from her yokel boyfriend, and they dance to the Carioca which becomes a huge Busby Berkeley parody. The yokel butts in, wins back his girl and finishes the dance with her. While we get a lot of fancy dancing from the star chickens, I don't think any of it really looks like a Fred & Ginger parody.

3:55 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

January 29-31, 1934

Salisbury, North Carolina

8:54 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Your headline banner is a no brainer. KING KONG is and always will be number one. I love GORGO and it is neat to see him in the left hand corner of the ad.

Once, at a screening in a theatre of a 16mm print of an Astaire Rogers classic the film was loose around the sound drum. I waited half an hour for the projectionist to fix it.

Finally I went out to the lobby. Management were on the phone to the distributor in a vain effort to find out what to do. With their permission I went to the booth and tightened the loop.

I had found an easy war to correct a jumping frame problem by just flicking the bottom loop as the film ran thru the gate. That set it right without having to stop the show.

A fellow who worked with me got sent to prison for pot. They were screening a movie when the projector lost the loop.

He got up from where he had been siting, ignored the shouts of the guards to go back to his seat, walked up to the projector, flicked it as he had seen me do and went back to his seat. The place erupted with cheers. Even the guards were impressed.

From that moment on he had hero status.

9:38 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Two interesting e-mails with the same question ...

Phil Smoot in Asheboro, NC here

I saw that triple bill of the original King Kong, Mighty Joe Young,
Godzilla in the 1960s
at the Carolina Theater in Asheboro.

What an incredible day! I think admission for a child was something
like 35 cents, but I'm not sure.

Those classic films with good prints on a big screen.

Do you know the year?

And another inquiry from reader "Griff" ...

Dear John:

Reg Hartt's thoughtful post brings up a good question. Since that clearly is Gorgo on the left of the ad, when was this "Mighty Monster Show" at the Wakelon? Did this triple-bill predate the release of KING KONG VS GODZILLA, or was it simply an enterprising exhibitor's way of capitalizing on the Toho/Universal attraction? Mighty monster fans are curious, sir.

-- Griff

Sorry to say I don't have a year for this engagement, but I'd suspect it does predate "King Kong vs. Godzilla," which would put it between 1961's "Gorgo" and 1963 arrival of "K vs. G," but who knows for sure?

1:59 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

The KONG, GODZILLA, JOE YOUNG triple made the rounds in 1960.

The CAPITOL THEATRE in Salisbury, N.C.had it November 11-12, 1960.

4:46 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

No mention here was done about Raúl Roulien. He is the third one in the triangle between Dolores Del Río and Gene Raymond.

Roulien is the one who brings authenticity to the whole show: he was Brazilian.

... and was also starring in films shot in Spanish (not Portuguese) by the old Fox Film Corporation.

5:01 PM  
Blogger ANTONIO NAHUD said...

É um delicioso musical. E a Dolores Del Rio era magnífica.

5:15 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Re Griff's question on the date of today's banner Kong-Godzilla-Joe Young matchup: The only time between 1950 and 1967 when the dates lined up like that (Thur.- Fri. - Sat. Mar. 30 - Apr. 1) was in 1961; so there you are.

6:58 PM  
Anonymous MarcH said...

This was my least favorite of the the RKO Astaire/Rogers films...until I just streamed it on Netflix in HD a few weeks back. It looked so gorgeous...I was really drawn to how impressive the art direction is. I think if you approach it as a "pre code musical" and not as an "astaire-rogers musical", it improves drastically. (Rogers is particularly good...reminds me of her "Anytime Annie" role in 42ND STREET).

7:38 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...


A great banner for today on your daily masthead, from what I assume is an advertisement for Paramount's "White Woman", with Carole Lombard and Kent Taylor, and at-a-glance, what "Pre-Code" was all about.

I LOVE "Flying Down" and very glad to see you doing an in-depth on it. What surprised me most in watching it recently, really for the first-time, was actually how well Raymond and Del Rio worked as the "nominals", and Astaire-Rogers as back-up. Maybe because it's all historical hindsight now, and we know what was to come. This certainly didn't dissuade RKO from basically repeating this a year-later with "Roberta", where Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott did the leads this time.

By the way, my grandfather knew Fred quite well. They had started in vaudeville together around 1912. M.K. told me that he had rehearsed Fred and his sister Adele in an act when they little-more than kids themselves, where they played the couple on the wedding cake. When my grandfather passed away in the late 70's, one of the first messages of condolence to my grandmother came from Mr. Astaire: "He was one of our first friends in show business when we were starting out" it read. I met Astaire once. I've been around working pros all my life, as you know, John, and here and there met a few legends. It took me about two-hours to calm down after meeting him -- I was shaking so badly.


11:37 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

What a great Astaire story, RJ! He was sure enough a legend. Wonder how many would make up such a list, and whose names would be on it?

6:55 AM  

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