Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Astaire/Rogers #1: Flying Down to Rio (1933)

The following is the first in a ten part series on the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  Enjoy.

Fred Astaire began dancing on the stage when he was just five years old, partnering with big sister Adele.  Comparatively a late bloomer, Ginger Rogers entered Vaudeville at sixteen, as a spur of the moment addition to Eddie Foy's traveling show.  In 1933, these two hoofing talents came together for the first of what would eventually be ten films as dancing partners - all but the final one, at RKO.  This inaugural film was called Flying Down to Rio, but unlike their successive nine celluloid partnerships, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were not the stars of the film.  The film was actually a starring vehicle for the beautiful Mexican actress, Dolores Del Rio.  Fred and Ginger were merely supporting players for her and male lead, Gene Raymond.  Nothing but a goofy musician and a smart-mouthed singer, respectively, to Raymond's suave, womanizing band leader, and Del Rio's Brazilian debutante.  But that didn't stop director Thornton Freeland from putting them out there on the dance floor together - and, as they, whomever they may be, are prone to say, a legend was born.  Well, that and the fact that they pretty much steal the film out from under Del Rio and Raymond.

Though Astaire was a well known and well renowned star of the stage in 1933, this was only his second film - the first being a small part as himself in the Joan Crawford/Clark Gable vehicle, Dancing Lady, earlier the same year - while Rogers was already an established comedic and musical actress, albeit as a second banana type - such precoders as A Shriek in the Night, Hat Check Girl, and most notably, 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, were already under her tight belt.  Not so incidentally, this not only marks the first pairing of Astaire and Rogers, but also the first, and only, time where Ginger actually got billing above Fred.  But it is not the billing we are looking for in an Astaire/Rogers musical, it is, of course, the dancing, and even though we have to wait a good third of the way into the film before we finally get that dancing, get it we finally do.  Granted, we have to sit through the silly antics of love child Raymond, trying to put the moves on spitfire Del Rio, before this happens, but happen it finally does.  And please don't get me wrong, for I can watch Dolores Del Rio do just about anything, at anytime, but the film doesn't exactly have a strong script or a very powerful director.  But I digress.  We are here to talk about the dancing of Fred and Ginger.  The many and multifaceted Latin charms of Dolores Del Rio are another story for another day.

For cinematic history's sake, the first time any of us ever get to see Astaire and Rogers dancing together, it is a Brazilian number (we are in Rio after all) called the Carioca.  The number was written, specifically for the film, by Vincent Youmans (music), and Gus Kahn & Edward Eliscu (lyrics), and is choreographed by Dave Gould and Hermes Pan, the latter of whom became Astaire's long time regular choreographer.  The number is a blend of the Samba, Maxixe, Foxtrot and Rumba, and is danced with the dancers foreheads together.  A rather strange dance, and certainly not one of Astaire and Rogers' best moments, but still fun to see these two great hoofers getting to play at meet cute.  The highlight of the film though, is the final, titular number.  Sung by Fred Astaire on the ground and danced by Rogers and a slew of chorus girls, while all tied to planes flying over the Rio de Janeiro nightclub that most of the action takes places.  Why the number is set up like this, is a somewhat convoluted scenario involving a mostly unseen trio of Greek gangsters, who have gotten the club's owner to seemingly lapse on entertainment permits.  How exactly it solves this problem by having the dancers in the air, while the band and singer are still performing outside the club, I have no idea, but it is a fun set-up to see Rogers and all her girls high-kicking it over the streets of Rio.  Of course, all these air acrobatics are done on the ground, using rear projection - and trust me, it shows, quite hilariously at times, most notably when one chorus girls plummets to what at first appears to be her death, only to be caught by an apparently lower flying plane of chorus girls.  Even with the obvious fakery abounding, it is a rather spectacular number - even if Fred and Ginger are several thousand feet apart through the duration.

And in the end, even though it is Del Rio's film, it is a final shot of Astaire and Rogers, who close the film out - a pair of slightly known second bananas, who steal the film out from under its stars, and cause enough of a commotion to warrant them doing another nine films together, this time as the bonafide stars of the screen.  Eventually the pair would split up (rather amicably, as opposed to tabloidish rumours to the contrary), and Rogers would go on to more dramatic fare, winning an Oscar in 1940 for the title role in Kitty Foyle, while Astaire would partner up with many more leading ladies, such as Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland and Cyd Charisse, eventually receiving his one and only Oscar nomination, at the tender age of seventy-five, for The Towering Inferno.  But all of this came well after these two great hoofing legends first made history - or perhaps, prehistory - in Flying Down to Rio.  Next up for the duo would be The Gay Divorcee, the following year.  That film would co-star the great comic character actor, Edward Everett Horton, who would go on to co-star in several more Astaire/Rogers musicals.  But that is a story best left for the second installment of our Fred and Ginger story.

1 comment:

Chip Lary said...

Yes, the plane number was quite over the top, wasn't it? I remember being surprised when I watched this only to discover that Astaire and Rogers were not the focus of the film. The pre-Code naughtiness shows through, too - "What have these girls got below the equator that we don't got?"