“Hey fella, twirl that old propella”
Hollywood producer Merriam Cooper loved three things: airplanes, the tropics, and giant gorillas.1 In Flying Down to Rio, Cooper’s 1933 airborne musical, he went two for three, whiffing on the giant gorillas but scoring with the dance team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Flying Down to Rio has a permanent niche in film history by virtue of the fact that it’s the film that put Fred and Ginger together on a dance floor. Neither enjoyed the experience much – they never wanted to work together again – but the public, wise for once, loved them, and Hollywood took heed.
Fred and Ginger buffs are generally lukewarm toward Flying Down to Rio, because the dancing isn’t all that great, and because Fred and Ginger aren’t really Fred and Ginger – that is, they don’t play the roles they play in “classic” Fred and Ginger films like The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat.2 And, in fact, Flying Down to Rio isn’t in the same league as the best Astaire/Rogers films, but it does have certain ramshackle charms that its more polished successors lack.3
Most of the fun in Flying Down to Rio lies apart from the plot, which has to do with mutual pursuit of glamour girl Dolores del Río4 and glamour boy Gene Raymond. Del Río plays a Brazilian beauty (not much of a stretch; she was Mexican and gorgeous), while Raymond is a bandleader/pilot whose father owns “the sunny side of Wall Street.” (Fred is Gene’s accordion-playing sidekick.)
Del Río’s wardrobe is one of the delights of the film: when we first see her, she’s wearing a dress with puff sleeves (I think that’s what they are) twice the size of her head. Otherwise, she and Raymond function mostly as walking eye candy.
It’s the supporting characters that really make Flying Down to Rio worth watching. The action starts in the Hotel Hibiscus in Miami, as majordomos and super sissies Eric Blore and Franklin Pangborn inspect the staff.5 The bellboys pass muster with no difficulty, but the maids prove more problematic. Pangborn, a hotel manager brought over from Switzerland to crack the whip, balks at the appearance of one girl, whose bosom is as Alpine as it is unclothed. He’s also horrified by the worn-down condition of another’s heels.6
Pangborn’s in for some more rude shocks when he confronts the hotel band, catching particular grief from Ginger, as nail-filing singer “‘Honey’ Hale.” “Good morning, Popeye,” she says, at his approach. “How dare you speak to me when I have not asked you a question?” he demands. Later, when he warns the band “not to get familiar with the guests,” Ginger hikes her skirt to inspect a comely knee and asks, “But what if the guests get familiar with us?”
A few minutes later, we catch the band on stage and in action at the Date Grove, with Ginger, in a remarkably see-through outfit,7 singing “Music Makes Me.” Del Río is presiding over a table of cuties, all of whom have eyes for bandleader Gene. It’s Delores, of course, who catches his eye, prompting a blonde tootsie to ask “What have these South American girls got below the equator that we haven’t?”
When del Río heads home for Rio (Rio di Janeiro,8 then the capital of Brazil), Raymond heads south in hot pursuit, taking the band with him. The band, sans Raymond, takes in a show at a local nightclub, setting the stage for the “Carioca” production number, which laid the foundation for the legend of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
The Carioca is a “passionate” ballroom dance, one in which the dancers must keep their foreheads touching while they dance.9 “What’s the deal with the foreheads?” asks Ginger. “Mental telepathy,” Fred explains. “I can tell what they’re thinking about from here,” Ginger scoffs. “Let’s try it,” Fred says, and Ginger, in a line no critic can resist quoting, replies, “We’ll show ‘em a thing or three.”
Astaire is on record as saying the performance of the Carioca was under-rehearsed.10 In fact, it’s probably Ginger’s hips, rather than the pair’s footwork, that sold the Carioca. The number, composed of four unconnected set pieces that have little to do with one another, is less than the sum of its parts, but some of the parts aren’t bad.
Fred and Ginger look and learn from the crowded dance floor, and then take a turn on a special dance stage that consists of seven white pianos fused together in a solid mass.11 The choreography, and the execution, here are well below what we expect from Fred and Ginger, based on the great routines from their later pictures.
Fred and Ginger conclude their bit by bopping their foreheads. Then a white chorus takes the floor, while a white singer (“Movita”12) sings the lyrics to the Carioca. This is followed by a “black” section, with a black singer, Etta Moten,13 and black dancers.
“Kinda hot, babe. Let’s try some of that,” Fred says, as the black dancers finish, but he and Ginger don’t try very hard. As they dance on the now-revolving piano stage (which may have slowed them down), the white chorus maneuvers awkwardly around them on a curving staircase. We cut back to the black dancers, and then back to the white dancers, who are now arranged in a revolving pyramid (Fred and Ginger have disappeared). At this point, the number peters out.
A few scenes later we get the one taste of real dancing in Flying Down to Rio, a brief solo from Fred. He’s rehearsing a rag-tag crew of chorus girls he’s brought together when Ginger saunters by in an outrageous “resort” outfit, with a sunhat perched so far on the side of her head that its cartwheel-sized brim is almost vertical. “Where did you get the dog and pony act?” she breathes, surveying the assembled talent. “Meet the McCarthy Sisters,” says Fred, pointing to a rather sulky looking trio. “A bicycle act from Brooklyn,” he explains,sotto voce. He goes on to identify a very sulky looking pair “I found on the American consul’s doorstep,” a seriously prim young thing “left behind on a world tour for schoolteachers,” and the “Yes Girls” from the Carioca cabaret.
Ginger tries to console him, but departs quickly: “Cheer up, Freddie. They teach kangaroos to box. Well, tood-lee-oo. If you need me, just send one of the McCarthy sisters over on her bicycle.”
As Fred talks to the girls, the band starts playing, causing him to fly into an uncontrolled tap number, arms and legs flailing. When the band ceases, he resumes talking without missing a beat. This “wild man” routine, so at odds with Astaire’s legendary obsession with elegance and control,14 may have its roots in America’s attitude toward male dancers that prevailed before World War I, when Astaire was just starting out in show business.15 For the most part, men didn’t dance on stage. Ballet companies appearing in the U.S. used female dancers only, who took all the parts.16 Comic male dancers were marginally acceptable. Here, Astaire is dancing not because he wants to, but because he can’t control himself.17
The number that Fred is rehearsing the girls for turns out to be an airborne floor show. (“Too big for the ground, so they had to take it to the air!”) Naturally, not all the girls are enthusiastic about dancing on the wings of an airplane. Ginger, who was all of 22 when Flying Down to Rio was made, takes on the role of the “mommy,” persuading the kids that the show must go on. Once the planes are airborne, she becomes General Ginger, straddling the lead plane in her flying silks and waving instructions to the rest of the girls. What ensues is some of the most ridiculous choreography ever filmed.18 Feminists will particularly enjoy the sequence where the girls launch miniature parachutes, which then rip their clothes off.
The Fred & Ginger websites can be found all over the web, with pictures, information, and links regarding film’s most famous dance team. There are plenty of individual sites as well.)
- Cooper produced King Kong, Son of Kong, and Mighty Joe Young. For better or for worse, the big guy didn’t make the cut for Flying Down to Rio. [↩]
- Dance critic Arlene Croce, in her Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Dance Book, was particularly offended by the “Herkimer Jerkimer dialogue” assigned to Astaire – lines like “Hold on to your hats, boys, here we go again!” [↩]
- Ginger probably liked it because it’s the one film they did together in which she was billed ahead of Fred. [↩]
- Del Río was a bigger star in the twenties than the thirties. She continued working in Hollywood until the forties, when she switched to making films in Mexico, where she was very successful. Images of del Río can be downloaded from here. She had perhaps her greatest role at age 21 as “Charmaine de la Cognac” in the 1926 mega-hit What Price Glory, which also starred Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglen and is considered by many scholars to be Hollywood’s first buddy film. Originally a stage play, What Price Glory? created a sensation on Broadway in 1924 for debunking the heroic myth of World War I (“What price glory now?”) and for its liberal use of “hell” and “damn” (and even “goddamn”), which had rarely been heard before on an American stage. Author Maxwell Anderson had many stage and screen hits. His 1934 screenplay Death Takes a Holiday was the basis for the 1998 Brad Pitt mega-bomb Meet Joe Black. [↩]
- Blore was Edward Everett Horton’s comic butler in Top Hat, Ginger’s not-so-comic dance studio boss in Swing Time (he fired her when she told Fred he wouldn’t learn to dance in a million years), and the comic hotel manager in Shall We Dance who kept changing the lock on the door connecting Fred and Ginger’s adjoining suites, depending on whether or not he thought they were married. In addition to his work with Fred and Ginger, Blore also did the voice of Mr. Toad in Disney’s animated version of The Wind in the Willows. Pangborn was one of W. C. Fields’s favorite sissies (the other was Grady Sutton), particularly memorable as J. Pinkerton Snoopington, the bank inspector in The Bank Dick. Pangborn appeared in 202 films, playing prissy hotel managers over and over again. [↩]
- Meaning that she is “round-heeled,” i.e., is easily placed in the prone position. [↩]
- Flying Down to Rio is a pre-code film, and is full of see-through dresses, skirts, and blouses, items that all went in the closet after 1934 and stayed there for a good 30 years. [↩]
- In the twenties and thirties, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires (capital of Argentina) were regarded, in the U.S. at least, as among the most glamorous and sophisticated cities in the world. The social, political, and economic turmoil that has afflicted Latin America since World War II has diminished their reputation. [↩]
- This requires a good deal of dexterity when, for example, both partners perform a spin. [↩]
- He probably felt that about all their performances. [↩]
- This remarkable contraption, which also revolves, plays a surprisingly small role in the number. [↩]
- Movita was still working 45 years later in Knots Landing. [↩]
- Moten gives an excellent performance. Unfortunately, she made only one other film, the entertaining “Depression” musical Gold Diggers of 1933, appearing in the “Forgotten Man” number. Gold Diggers of 1933 is the film in which Ginger sings “We’re in the Money” entirely in pig Latin and largely in the nude, with the exception of out-sized coins strategically placed over her breasts and crotch. (When an overzealous cop takes the coins guarding her loins, leaving her in panties, Ginger says “Hey! At least leave me cab fare.”) Pig Latin was a “language” contrived by dropping the first consonant of the first syllable of a word and adding it to the end with the vowel sound “ay” to create a new syllable. Words that don’t begin with consonants simply get an extra “ay” or “hay” syllable added. As Ginger sings it, “We’re in the money” translates as “Ear-way in-hay the oney-may.” Several pig latin words, like “amscray” for “scram” and “ix-nay” for “nix” (meaning “No!” or “Stop it!”) were once common slang, but probably have passed out of the language by now. [↩]
- In Swing Time, the motto of the dance studio where Ginger teaches is “To Learn to Dance Is to Learn to Control Yourself.”Astaire generally refused to dance at parties, supposedly because he was afraid his palms would be sweaty. Doing a dance in public that he hadn’t rehearsed a hundred times probably would make his palms sweat. [↩]
- He was a child prodigy, first appearing on stage with his sister Adele in 1904 at age 5. Adele, who left the act in the twenties, called Fred “Moaning Minnie” for his endless fretting. [↩]
- Dancing remains one of the few activities in which the female sex is the default mode. I was once in a dance class where the instructor was arranging us by sex: “You girl-girls stand over here,” he said, indicating the women, “and you boy-girls stand over there.” [↩]
- In Roberta, Fred’s wonderful “I Won’t Dance” number has similar “out of control” features. [↩]
- Fred, fortunately, is safely on the ground. While all the flying sequences were, of course, faked, Gen Xers may be surprised to know that all the planes shown could actually fly. [↩]