Sunday, July 13, 2008

Rita Rio and Cab Calloway: Two Warners’ Band Shorts

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran us a couple of engaging big-band shorts I’d recorded on tape from TCM’s last big ‘swing night” — one featuring a woman bandleader I’d otherwise never heard of, Rita Rio, a 10-minute short from 1939 in which Our Heroine starts by dancing around her living room to an old Victor record of “When You’re Smiling,” much to the consternation of her mother (a fair-skinned, white-haired woman who was inconceivable as Rita Rio’s biological parent!) and the tall, rather cadaverous-looking white-haired psychiatrist Mrs. Rio brings in, who insists that Rita belongs in the state mental hospital. Of course, she doesn’t go there; instead, aided by a nice young man in her apartment building who offers to manage her, she ends up in a series of Warners nightclub sets representing her continuing success as a bandleader — and trading off her Latina-sounding name, she sings with a faux-Spanish accent on a couple of forgettable songs and mercifully drops it on “I Cried for You,” where she’s not as good as Billie Holiday or Judy Garland but certainly acquits herself well.

The other short they showed was from 1937 and featured Cab Calloway in a surprisingly dark movie, Hi-De-Ho, as far removed from the exuberance of the title (and of Calloway’s earlier shorts for Paramount), in which Calloway, a young Black blade who dreams of music stardom while his more down-to-earth mother works away at the washtub, visits a fortuneteller and sees a whole series of visions of his future in her tea leaves — one of which is set to a song called “Frisco Flo” which is surprisingly moody and dark for Calloway, and is shot by director Roy Mack in proto-noir fashion — only an exuberant number at the very end gives us the Cab Calloway we all know and love!