Flying Down to Rio

  • Title:  Flying Down to Rio
  • Director:  Thornton Freeland
  • Music:  Vincent Youmans
  • Lyrics:  Edward Eliscu & Gus Kahn
  • Date:  1933
  • Studio:  RKO Radio Pictures
  • Genre:  Musical, Comedy, Romance
  • Cast:  Dolores del Rio, Gene Raymond, Raul Roulien, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Eric Blore
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Crazy nothing, that guy writes songs.”  — Maintenance Worker 1
“Well, that’s screwy, ain’t it?”  Maintenance Worker 2
“It’s so screwy he can afford to buy a plane just like this.” — Maintenance Worker 1

“What do these South Americans got below the equator that we haven’t?” — female friend of Belinha

“We’ll show them a thing or three!” — Holly Hale

Flying Down to Rio is best known for being the first film where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced together. I must admit the first time I saw it – I was a bit disappointed because they only dance one dance together. However, this was my second time watching the film, and I must say, though a typical romantic comedy musical, it actually holds up fairly well for what it is. And a romantic comedy is a romantic comedy – they have basically the same plot whether it’s It Happened One Night or Sleepless in Seattle.

This film really isn’t so different than any other romantic comedy past or present. Roger Bond (Gene Raymond), a band leader at a hotel in Miami, meets Belinha (Dolores del Rio) at the hotel where he works. The hotel has just hired a new Swiss Maitre d’hotel to shape up the staff and rule number one is:  “No fraternization between the staff and the guests.” But rule number one goes straight out the window, when Roger meets Belinha. Their dance is reported through the hotel grapevine to Belinha’s aunt, who mistakes Roger for a gigolo. Roger, however, arranges to fly Belinha to Rio, where his band has also gotten a gig (they hope). While traveling their plane is forced down, Belinha and Roger start to fall for each other, again, but Belinha pushes him away because she’s already engaged through an arranged marriage. In Rio, Roger finds out her fiance is none other than an old friend of his, Julio.

Meanwhile — Honey Hale (Ginger Rogers) is the professional singer in Roger’s band. She’s friends with Fred Ayers (Fred Astaire). It’s interesting that in their first film together, Fred and Ginger have an almost brother and sisterly relationship rather than a romantic one. The two, tease and squabble, and they say things to each other like they’ve known each other for years. The chemistry is great, but very platonic. Fred Ayers plays accordion in Roger’s band and is also an old friend. Both Roger and Honey are peripheral to the main plot (which is the romantic triangle between Belinha, Roger, and Julio) but still provide humor and support to the main characters.

The one and only dance Fred and Ginger perform together is the Latin-influenced “The Carioca”.  Watch Fred’s fancy footwork, it’s extremely impressive. Ginger also gets to show off some fancy steps of her own, which Fred mirrors. I think Ginger may have been the only one of Fred’s film dance partners where he would mirror the woman, usually in partner tap. Though this particular dance is a bit more elaborate than the typical American partner tap Fred and Ginger are known for. But it is a very impressive, though short number. And though it is filmed full frame (Fred and Ginger are seen head to toe) there are two cutaways to audience reactions.

The rest of  “The Carioca” is a Busby Berkley-styled dance number, with patterns, and elaborate costumes, and changes in the rhythm and style of the dance, including changes in costume and lead singers. It’s definitely the showpiece of the film, though the Avatrix show at the end is also impressive.

Ginger and Fred each get a song to sing, however, and Fred gets to perform some elaborate tap as he’s attempting to instruct the new girls hired to perform in the new hotel’s opening week show. When Fred is nearly arrested for performing without an entertainment license, he and Roger come up with a different plan to prevent the hotel from closing before it even opens — a surprise Avatrix show. An Avatrix is a woman who performs acrobatics on the wings of a plane. Roger, Fred, and Honey get every show girl they can find, including those from other hotels, to perform on Biplanes over the hotel, thus saving the hotel and the band’s jobs. And Roger ends up with Belinha, as Julio realizes they are meant to be together and literally jumps out of a plane (with parachute) to give them a chance to get married by the plane’s captain.

Musical Numbers

  • Music Makes Me — vocals by Honey Hale (Ginger Rogers)
  • The Carioca (Instrumental)
  • The Carioca — Dance by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
  • The Carioca — Dance by Ensemble
  • The Carioca — Etta Moten (and reprise by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, dance)
  • Orchids in the Moonlight — Dance
  • Orchids in the Moonlight — Song
  • Flying Down to Rio — vocals by Fred Ayers (Fred Astaire)

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  3 of 5 Stars
Next film:  Follow the Fleet

Carefree

  • Title: Carefree
  • Director: Mark Sandrich
  • Date: 1938
  • Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
  • Genre: Musical, Romantic Comedy
  • Music and Lyrics: Irving Berlin
  • Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Ralph Bellamy
  • Format: Black & White, Standard
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

“We all try to escape reality. We all want to be something entirely different than we really are.” – Dr. Tony Flagg

Carefree is one of the less well-known Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. It is somewhat unusual in that it’s one of the few, if not the only one, where Fred and Ginger are not playing professional dancers – thus the film is more like a romantic comedy (especially a screwball comedy) than a musical. In this film, Fred is Dr. Tony Flagg, a Freudian psychiatrist, and hypnotherapist. Ginger is his patient, Amanda Cooper, brought to see Tony by his friend Steven (Ralph Bellamy) because she’s afraid of matrimony. Also, whereas in most of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, Fred meets Ginger and falls for her, in Carefree, it’s Amanda (Rogers) who falls for Dr. Flagg (Astaire) almost as soon as she meets him. It takes Dr. Flagg a while to realize his true feeling for Amanda.

Also, Carefree is a very dreamy, effects-laden film, well, for 1938, that is. Dr. Flagg, as an expert in psycho-analysis, asks Amanda to tell him her dreams. Told that she doesn’t dream, he takes her to dinner with friends and has her eat a variety of strange foods – to induce dreams. And dream she does, but not of Steven, instead, she dreams of Tony. And the dance in her dream includes a slow-motion sequence that’s a joy to watch.

Later, at the country club, Amanda sings “The Yam”, bringing Tony into the dance with her. The dance is interesting because, in the first part of the dance, she’s actually the one leading. Though that changes to Fred leading as the dance becomes more elaborate. As a whole, “The Yam” is elaborate partner tap dance, with ballroom moves, and swing, that’s also light and humorous. The dance also moves through several rooms of the country club, and at the conclusion, Fred flips Ginger over his leg several times (bracing the leg against a table, flipping her over it like a gymnast’s bar, dancing to the next table, bracing his leg, flipping her over it, going to the next table, etc, in a complete circle around the room). It’s impressive in the pure strength and athleticism it took to do that – as well as Astaire’s natural grace, and Ginger’s balance. Astaire often manages to look like he’s floating on air. It’s amazing.

Finally, in desperation, after Amanda admits she’s fallen in love with him; Tony hypnotizes her into thinking she loves Steven and that Tony’s “terrible, and should be shot down like a dog”. Poor choice of words on Tony’s part. Because, yet again, he leaves her alone – this time having a conversation with himself in the mirror, in which he realizes he’s fallen for his patient. He returns, only to discover, yet again, she’s escaped while under the influence. This time – she goes to a skeet-shooting contest and starts shooting up the place with a rifle. Tony must figure out how to undo what he did …  when Steven, and his pal the judge, are determined to not let Tony see Amanda again.

Carefree also has the ballroom number, “Change Partners, and Dance”, with Dr. Tony attempting to hypnotize Amanda during their dance, which is also quite a nice number.  (She’s in a black dress, he’s in full black tux with tails).

As always the dances are shot full-frame (Fred and Ginger are shown from head to toe), and the dance is filmed in a single shot, without a lot of edits and cuts. This method of filming makes it easier to follow the dance, but also means the dancer’s pure talent can shine through.

Eventually, everything works out. Tony gets in to see Amanda at her wedding, Steven accidentally knocks out Amanda, Tony reverses his negative post-hypnotic suggestions, and Tony and Amanda marry. Ralph Bellamy, of course, is left alone and single as always. Carefree is also a short film, only 82 minutes, but still very fun, light, and funny.

This film is fun, and the novelty of Ginger chasing Fred instead of the normal Fred chasing Ginger makes it a bit unusual. It’s a screwball comedy classic, but with singing and dancing.

List of  Musical Numbers

Since They Turned Loch Lamond into Swing – Fred (tap)
I Used to Be Color Blind – (Fred, vocals), Fred and Ginger (Ballroom dance)
The Yam – Ginger (vocals), Fred and Ginger (Partner tap)
Change Partners and Dance – Fred (Vocals)
Change Partners and Dance – Fred and Ginger (Ballroom)

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4
Next film:  Casablanca

The Barkleys of Broadway

  • Title: The Barkleys of Broadway
  • Director: Charles Walters
  • Date: 1949
  • Studio: MGM
  • Genre: Musical
  • Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Oscar Levant, Billie Burke
  • Format: Standard, Technicolor
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

The Barkleys of Broadway is the last Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical, the only one in color, and the only one made by MGM rather than RKO. This time Fred is Josh Barkley and Ginger is his wife, Dinah (only the second time they played a married couple – the other being the biopic The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.) However, all is not well between Josh and Dinah — she thinks he’s too critical and feels he’s holding her back from a chance to prove herself on the legitimate stage as a serious dramatic actress. For his part, Josh sees nothing wrong with musical comedy and can’t understand why his wife isn’t happy doing the same thing she’s always been good at. Needless to say, their marriage is falling apart.

When a French director pursues Dinah, offering her the lead in his new play “The Young Sarah (Bernhart)”. Dinah was set to refuse – but after a fight with Josh, she accepts. She walks out, and joins the cast of “The Young Sarah“. Meanwhile, Josh is miserable without his wife – not that he’d let anyone know it. He sneaks into the theatre to watch his wife and seeing how poorly the French director treats her actually feels bad. Later drowning his sorrows at a bar with his buddy, Irza (Oscar Levant), he gets a bright idea and calls his wife, and, imitating the director he gives her just the direction she needs. Over the next few weeks, Josh literally phones in performance cues for Dinah. Meanwhile, Irza knows the two are miserable, and gets them both to a benefit for a hospital by claiming the other won’t be there — the two dance to “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” (From Swing Time) but do not re-unite. After Dinah’s triumphant dramatic debut, Josh decides he has to find out, once and for all, who Dinah loves – him or her new director. She’s about to say… when the director walks into the dressing room during the phone call. And it’s Dinah’s turn to have some fun. She then goes to their apartment to meet Josh and confess her little joke. Josh comes in, announcing he won’t contest her divorce, but over the course of their argument, they realize they are in love again. Fred sings “You’d Be Hard to Replace” again in their apartment, and the number fades into a big show-stopping number on stage “Manhattan Downbeat”, as the two return together to musical comedy.

List of Musical Numbers

  • The Swing Trot
  • Sabre Dance (played by Oscar Levant on piano)
  • You’d Be Hard to Replace
  • Bouncin’ The Blues
  • My One and Only Highland Fling
  • A Weekend in the Country
  • Shoes with Wings On
  • Tchaikovsky Concerto #1 (played by Oscar Levant on piano)
  • They Can’t Take That Away from Me
  • You’d Be Hard to Replace (Reprise)
  • Manhattan Downbeat

Although not my favorite Astaire/Rogers musical – The Barkleys of Broadway has its moments. Ginger really gets to sink her teeth into this plot – from comic moments such as her first argument with Fred in their apt at the beginning of the film – to her dramatic turn, first, playing a “dying” scene at a friend’s country house, then her audition for the French Conservatory in the finale of “The Young Sarah”. Fred, never a slouch in the acting department either, also gives a typically wonderful low-key performance as Josh – we never for one moment doubt he truly loves his wife, even when the two are fighting. In their opening fight scene in their apartment, for example, Dinah gets mad enough to throw something at Josh – but she panics when he points out he’s bleeding. When she insists he hit her back – he instead kisses her – passionately. Though the idea of spousal battery being used for comic purposes is pretty awful by today’s standards, it was apparently OK in the 1940s. And the dance numbers are pure magic – especially Fred and Ginger’s tap number “Bouncin’ the Blues” and their ballroom number (a reprise from Swing Time) “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”. The expressions, the acting, and, of course, the dancing – it’s pure magic. And unlike many other musicals – since Fred and Ginger are playing professional dancers – it makes sense they would dance, especially with each other. There is a story here as well as dance, without the artificiality of a “show within a show”, another hallmark of Fred and Ginger musicals, which often have more in common with the romantic comedy than the MGM musical.

Fred and Ginger’s dances are also shot full frame (that is, they can be seen from head to toe) and often in a single shot. When Fred sings “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”, he’s singing to Dinah, and his sense of loss is felt in the lyrics as well as in their dance (as is Dinah’s own sense of loss). The song is about having memories, and only memories left of someone one cares about. Similarly, when he sings “You’d Be Hard to Replace” – he’s singing it to Dinah as they re-unite. Often in other MGM musicals, the musical numbers are addressed to the audience rather than to the other characters in the film.

Recommendation: See It
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
Next Film: Batman Begins

42nd Street

  • Title: 42nd Street
  • Director: Lloyd Bacon
  • Choreographer: Busby Berkeley
  • Date: 1933
  • Studio: Warner Brothers / Vitaphone
  • Actors: Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Warner Baxter
  • Genre: Musical
  • Format: Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format: Region 1, NTSC

You’re going out there a youngster – but you’re coming back a star.

The plot of 42nd Street, such as it is, is rather thin. A producer (Warner Baxter), somewhat recovered from a “nervous breakdown” has decided to bring his new show to Broadway – a comeback of sorts, he’s depending on the success of the show to restore his reputation after his breakdown, and to restore his bank account after the stock market crash (this is a Depression-era film). Meanwhile, because no one involved in the artistic side of the show has any money, they are depending on a used-car salesman from Cleveland to bankroll the show to the tune of $70, 000 (which sounds impressive now – must have been a fortune back in 1933). To keep the investor happy, they’ve set the star of the show, Dorothy, on the investor – keeping him happy and occupied. She, however, is secretly meeting up with an old boyfriend – a failed Vaudeville star that she’s been supporting. The first half of the film, predictably, follows the chorus as they get ready for the show – with occasional forays into what attempts to be a plot. Other characters include — Ginger Rogers as the sassy, knows everything, world-weary Ann (or “Anytime Annie” as the backstage boys call her), and Peggy (Ruby Keeler) – the new kid in her first role in a chorus.

As the rehearsals wrap up, the production company moves to Philadelphia for the out-of-town test run opening. There, during a pre-opening party, Dorothy gets drunk, throws out the “Angel”/used car salesman, and basically pitches a fit. In desperation, she calls up the old boyfriend, who she had previously dumped, causing him to move to, guess where? Yep – Philadelphia. He shows up, but so does Peggy – who had also been seeing him. The resulting catfight results in an unconvincing fall for Dorothy, and the stereotypical broken ankle. And thus, it’s Peggy who will take the stage for opening night. She and the producer literally cram all day to get her ready, but she does, predictably, take the stage by storm and become a star. Dorothy, meanwhile, is free to have the one thing she now knows she always wanted – to be with her old boyfriend.

So — why bother, you might ask? Well, the last half-hour of the film, the “show-within-a-show” that Warner Brothers excelled at for years, is a Bugsy Berkeley masterpiece. Featuring three production numbers: “Shuffle off to Buffalo”, “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me”, and “42nd Street” — it’s very fun to watch, and especially “42nd Street” shows a mastery of both black and white photography and Art Deco set design (and costume design). Back in the 30s — directors knew how to film in black and white, and sets and costumes were designed for it. Berkeley excelled at using the contrast of glossy jet black and crisp white to add to the image. He also filmed from a variety of angles, not just the “audience” pov at the stage but from directly above looking down at the dancers as they form patterns and even from stage level looking at the line of chorus girl legs. 42nd Street features a rotating stage with dancers in concentric rings (moving in opposite directions), a bi-level train that opens up, and even a model of (old) New York with taxis, fruit carts, a murder (guess New York hasn’t changed that much!) and even a police officer on horseback. The street scene, in fact, in the “42nd Street” number is chaotic and impressive, even though it (probably intentionally) looks like it’s on a stage.

The last half hour definitely makes the film worth seeing once, though I would admit — not the best of the 1930s black-and-white musicals I’ve seen. One major pity of this film is that Ginger Rogers is terribly under-used as Annie – a bit more than a cameo, but not by much. Though, I did have to smile at her criticism of marriage in the “Shuffle off to Buffalo” number. The film would have been much better if Rogers had played the part of Peggy and Keeler the part of Annie (even if both actresses had – had to change hair colors). I will say this, though, like most musicals, it’s still a fun escape. It’s only half in jest that one of my personal sayings is, “The best cure for depression is a box of really good gourmet chocolates and a black-and-white musical.)

Recommendation: See it only if interested in the history of the American musical.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Next Film: 9 to 5