This post is my contribution to Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage blogathon, hosted by the wondrous Movie Star Makeover and Once Upon A Screen. There’s some great entries examining some oft-overlooked gems – check out all the entries here.
It’s stating the obvious to say that musicals are often lightweight, gay (in the original sense of the word) feel-good affairs. But Flying Down to Rio, Thornton Freeland’s 1933 offering, really takes the (entertainment) cake. The plot, a loose love-story that’s inevitable before it’s begun and practically avoids conflict, is a let-down, but Rio is a fun film that swings along nicely, led by Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers bringing up the rear.
Flying Down to Rio actually marked the first on-screen pairing of the dynamic dancing duo. Rogers’ name even appears before Astaire’s in the billing as she was better known at the time, having appeared in 19 films to Astaire’s one. A last-minute cast addition, Rogers was actually drafted in to replace Dorothy Jordan, who dropped out to marry Merian C. Cooper, the film’s producer. Watching Rio, it’s obvious why the pairing delighted audiences and why they clamoured for more, despite Astaire’s misgivings about the film’s success and the need for a dancing partnership. The famous dance sequence is ‘The Carioca’; the film initiated a ‘Carioca’ craze that swept across the US, with studio bosses cashing in on this unexpected publicity and billing Astaire and Rogers as ‘The King and Queen of ‘The Carioca’’.
Astaire and Rogers’ presence might be the reason why the film retains popularity today, but that’s selling the rest of the movie short. Built to cash in on the success of Busby Berkley’s early musicals, it features elaborate, synchronised routines, Art Deco sets, lavish costumes (designed by Irene and Walter Plunkett) and exotic on-location footage: a bold statement from RKO, who were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. David Selznick got Astaire on board but after he defected to MGM, it was left up to Merian Cooper to see the project through. In fact, it was the perfect fit. Although not a fan of musicals, Cooper was a former explorer and an aviation enthusiast; producer Lou Brock captured his attention with the aerial finale and promises of a spectacular film that would capture the glamour of flight.
Choosing to set part of the action in Rio de Janeiro also upped the glamour stakes. In the 1930s, it was regarded as one of the most sophisticated cities in the world, a perception reinforced by smouldering screen goddess Delores del Rio (who was actually from Mexico). Although she plays the lead, her role is very much ‘window dressing’; it’s her beauty that seals her personality – although much is also made of her natural confidence and flirting skills early in the movie. Latin America had a certain exotic appeal within the musical genre, which regularly played to stereotypes and character tropes. The passionate Carioca induces impure thoughts (clearly this was a Pre-Code musical) and is exuberant and free. The scene culminates with a vocal performance by Etta Moten – whose silk turban and fruit-basket headpiece recall the extravagance of Carmen Miranda – encouraging the dancers ‘be a Carioca’ against an ‘Afro-Cuban rumba’ – an interesting notion given that the action takes place in Brazil. That melting pot exemplifies how Hollywood felt about, and indeed represented, Hispanics during the era. No matter your actual culture, as long as you bought exotic flare to proceedings.
Early in the movie, Belinha boasts that she can have any man she desires; when she attracts bandleader Roger (Gene Raymond) with little more than the flutter of her eyelashes one friend wonders, “What do these South Americans have below the equator that we haven’t?” Whilst it’s undoubtedly one of the best lines of the film it also underscores the natural wonder that surrounds an exotic beauty such as Belinha. She’s from the Brazilian elite, but she doesn’t play to type, her very unpredictability is exciting and refreshing. She is modern and cosmopolitan, just like the city she calls home. Although Belinha doesn’t participate in ‘The Carioca’ (and is curiously absent from all of the musical numbers) it represents her and the group of well-dressed Brazilians in attendance at the hotel and show how divergent they are from the white Americans. Even Roger’s band underestimates the musical talents of the locals, who are admittedly caught sleeping on the job.
Of course, no musical is complete without the costumes, and Irene (Plunkett, the credited designer, was responsible for Rogers’ and chorus attire) pushed the boat out for del Rio. What’s noticeable is the amount of sheer fabrics – and pre-Code flesh – on display; these garments would be placed back in the closet for at least 30 years after the production code was enforced. As befits her leading-lady status, del Rio’s costumes are show-stopping affairs that exaggerate her exoticism. In the opening scene she wears a dress finished with enormous polka-dot puff sleeves. Light yet structured and voluminous, del Rio appears to be floating on a cloud of her own creation. Tapping into the perceived glamour of aviation, she’s suitably attired for her flight to Rio in a tailored skirt suit topped with a large fur stole that ties with a bow. In keeping with the sleeve theme, she removes the jacket to reveal a semi-sheer voile shirt with a piped placket and (again!) oversized sleeves.
In contrast, Rogers’ costumes are much more restrained – apart from one slinky, sequinned affair she wears during a performance. Her dresses are more tailored, not exactly everyday as this is a musical, but significantly more restrained and less romantic than del Rio’s. Perhaps in an attempt to emphasise del Rio’s ‘exoticism’ many of her garments are white or light coloured whilst Rogers’ are in darker shades. Rogers does have one scene-stealing look: a wide-legged pant suit with contrast taping, worn with a tropical print jacket and a coordinating wide-brimmed hat that sits precariously on the side of her head.
But really, the gowns pale into insignificance in comparison with the spectacular finale that features some well-choreographed aerial acrobatics. Exciting and elaborate, it took Busby Berkley-inspired set pieces off the stage and into the air. Chorus girls, strapped to aeroplane wings ‘danced’ to Vincent Youmans’ award-winning score, their hair blowing in the breeze. In one particularly ambitious move, a trapeze swings underneath the plane. The watching audience – both on and off screen – could surely fail to be seduced by the newness of air travel, combining the promise of adventure with fun, romance and a feel-good musical. The release date coincided with Roosevelt’s pledge to offer transportation and tourism (instead of free trade) to Latin American delegates at Montevideo. It seems that audiences bought into the myth of the Latin beauty and, whilst perhaps were no closer to really understanding it, they certainly wanted to try.