Saturday, April 7, 2012

Rio Rita (MGM, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 1942 Rio Rita, produced by a different studio (MGM instead of RKO), actually had precious little to do with the original one. About the only elements carried over were the title, the setting (a Texas bordertown on the Rio Grande), three of Harry Tierney’s songs (“Rio Rita,” “Beside the River Rio Grande” and “Song of the Rangers”) and a nice gag scene involving a bottle of such ferociously strong liquor that it dissolves the glass into which it’s poured and knocks the hat off anyone daring and/or foolhardy enough to drink it. In this incarnation the heroine is not the Mexican Rita Ferguson but the American Rita Winslow, whose girlhood boyfriend has become a famous Mexican singer (John Carroll’s attempts at a Mexican accent are at least as grimly amusing as those of anyone in the first version!). And this time, the baddies — led by the magnificent Tom Conway at his most unctuous — aren’t doing such piddling little crimes as robbing banks and operating a gambling boat on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.

As befits the era in which this film was made (both the trailer and the film itself end with titles exhorting the audience to buy War Bonds), they’re a gang of Nazi saboteurs who are going to distribute instructions to their entire Fifth Column in America by giving them all tiny radios made to look like apples. (I couldn’t help but get the impression that these were made for the Nazis by their Japanese allies.) Unfortunately — or fortunately for our side — Abbott and Costello, playing tramps who’ve stowed away to the Vista Rio Rita resort by hiding in Carroll’s car, steal the apple radios (thinking, of course, that they’re real apples) and thereby blow the plot completely. Kathryn Grayson gets to do an obbligato to John Carroll’s rendition of a song called “Long Before You Came Along” (by Harold Arlen, though not on one of his better days) and her own version of the “Shadow Song” from Meyerbeer’s Dinorah (either her voice was artificially sped up or she could hit high “C”’s just fine at this stage of her career — only three years later her high “C” in “There’s Beauty Everywhere” in Ziegfeld Follies had to be patched in by another singer!). John Carroll gets to stand around looking attractive and sing in an O.K. Nelson Eddy-esque voice. Abbott and Costello dominate the film and get to do some of their best verbal routines (their favorite writer, John Grant, got a special screen credit) as well as some good physical slapstick. — 4/12/98


Two nights ago Charles and I had watched the 1942 version of Rio Rita, something of an outlier in our current survey of the Abbott and Costello movies since it was made at MGM and therefore wasn’t in the complete boxed set of all their films for Universal — which includes 28 of their total of 36 feature films. It’s been described as a loan-out but it really wasn’t; Abbott and Costello’s contract with Universal allowed them to do one film a year for another studio, and in 1942 MGM gave them a three-film contract to cover that one outside film per year they were allowed to make elsewhere than at Universal. At the time they signed the contract Abbott and Costello were at the peak of their popularity; Buck Privates was the highest-grossing movie made in 1941 (the year that also saw the releases of Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon and How Green Was My Valley) and their subsequent films, especially the “service comedies” In the Navy and Keep ’Em Flying, had also been blockbuster hits. The Abbott and Costello films offered anxious wartime audiences a way to show their patriotism and also laugh at the routines of military service without offering anything so subversive as to get in the way of the fervor Hollywood was seeking to build up for the war effort — though, ironically, Universal seemed to have run out of armed services for Abbott and Costello to muck around in just when the U.S. actually did get into the war in December 1941. Universal shuffled the releases of Abbott and Costello’s movies so the service comedies, presumably more topical, came out first — In the Navy was shot after (most of) Hold That Ghost but released earlier, and Keep ’Em Flying was shot after Ride ’Em, Cowboy but released first (and the back-to-back nature of the productions is indicated by the use of the same actor, Dick Foran, as the romantic lead in both).

Abbott and Costello’s first date with MGM came right after the release of Ride ’Em, Cowboy, and MGM assigned writers Richard Connell and Gladys Lehman to update an old musical plot by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson that had originally been a stage show on Broadway in 1927, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld and one of the legendary four hits he had running at once (the others were Whoopee, Rosalie and The Three Musketeers) and then an RKO movie in 1929 starring Bebe Daniels and John Boles and the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Bob Woolsey. Wheeler and Woolsey had never worked together before the stage version of Rio Rita — the script by Bolton and Thompson had simply created two comic-relief characters into which Ziegfeld cast them separately — but they were an immediate hit as a team, and when RKO filmed Rio Rita they not only had Wheeler and Woolsey repeat their stage roles (the only members of Ziegfeld’s original cast who repeated their roles in the movie) but they put the comedy team under contract, and they were steady, reliable moneymakers for RKO until Woolsey got kidney disease in 1937 and died the following year. MGM bought the remake rights to Rio Rita from RKO, put Abbott and Costello into the old Wheeler and Woolsey roles and cast Kathryn Grayson and John Carroll in the romantic leads — only instead of making Rita a Mexican running an inn on the Mexican side of the border, she’s running one on the American side in Texas; and instead of the male lead being Texas Ranger Jimmy Stewart, he’s Mexican singer Ricardo Montera. The other major change, and the one that brought it in line with Abbott and Costello’s patriotic films back at their home base at Universal, is instead of making the principal villain a Mexican bandido using the name “El Kinkajou,” he’s now a Fifth Columnist, Maurice Craindall (Tom Conway, who turned in a low-keyed and bored-looking performance a far cry from his intense work in Val Lewton’s Cat People at RKO the same year), and his gang aren’t outlaw ruffians but Nazi spies, one of whom falls into respectful attention when a speech of Hitler’s (the real one, as far as I could tell) is broadcast on the radio in their hideout.

The two films track reasonably closely without being carbon copies of each other, though Abbott and Costello only get to do one of the original Wheeler and Woolsey gag scenes: one with a bottle of liqueur whose contents seem to have the combined effects of absinthe and jet fuel. Otherwise, writers Connell, Lehman and John Grant (the author of “Who’s on First?” and many of the other double-talk routines through which Abbott and Costello became radio stars before they ever made a film) assigned, so said the credits, to come up with “special Abbott and Costello material.” Grant did a great job in that department, starting the film with a great routine in a pet store in which Abbott assigns Costello to dog-sit a Pekinese owned by a woman named Mrs. Pike — “Go take care of Pike’s Peke!” he tells Costello — and punctuating it with both dialogue and slapstick scenes, including a great one in which Abbott and Costello have stowed away in the trunk of Ricardo’s car and when they emerge the car has been lifted by a hydraulic elevator — the sort of thing they have in gas stations so they can raise a car to allow mechanics to work under it to repair it — only for some reason this garage has put its lifter outdoors on a patio, and when Costello emerges from the trunk he finds himself suspended over a cliff, with only his arms holding him from a plunge into eternity (or at least the best MGM’s scene-painting and process-screen departments could come to depicting eternity).

 Rio Rita is a charming entertainment, though Leonard Maltin in his book Movie Comedy Teams called it “definitely one of their lesser efforts,” and instead of allowing Harry Tierney’s operetta-ish score to sound throughout the film, producer Pandro S. Berman (who as head of RKO before he jumped to MGM had produced most of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films and thereby proven he could make better musicals than this) used only two of Tierney’s songs — “Rio Rita” and “Song of the Rangers” — and gave “Rio Rita” (the song) an updated Latin rhythm (a rhumba instead of the tango of the original) that paradoxically only made the song sound more dated. He also commissioned a new song by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, “Long Before You Came Along,” which is rather creatively staged: Kathryn Grayson is shown listening to a record by John Carroll being broadcast on a local radio station, she starts singing along and then the “real” John Carroll happens along and joins in with her instead. Also, like a lot of Grayson’s other early vehicles, they gave her an operatic aria to sing — in this case the “Shadow Song” from a Meyerbeer opera variously referred to as Dinorah and Le Pardon de Ploërmel — which comes about two-thirds of the way through this 91-minute movie. Grayson’s voice is appealing, as always (though she was a mezzo and when they gave her soprano material, as here, they usually had to transpose it down — in the 1946 film Ziegfeld Follies Grayson was supposed to hit a high B at the end of the song “There’s Beauty Everywhere,” and she couldn’t do it, so another singer was brought in to dub just that one high note), but it doesn’t help that her Dinorah aria comes about two-thirds through this 91-minute movie, or that just when she begins her aria is the time that director S. Sylvan Simon, who until then has shot the movie pretty plainly and cleanly but with no attempt at visual distinction, decides to go all Sternberg on us and shoot Grayson’s number from a moving camera, with pillars, vines and whatnot all getting in her way. Marlene Dietrich could survive and even prosper from this sort of visual treatment, but poor little Kathryn Grayson, with little more than a well-scrubbed, wholesome appearance and a technically superb but not especially charismatic voice, gets swamped by the visual fanciness.

The 1942 Rio Rita is an entertaining movie, funny as all hell when Abbott and Costello are front and center (which doesn’t happen nearly often enough), and with a nice performance by Patricia Dane as a vamp who, for some reason the writing committee really doesn’t explain, is sent by the baddies to try to seduce Costello, but Tom Conway isn’t used to his full potential and John Carroll, saddled with one of the worst fake Mexican accents in screen history, is his usual oppressive self — so much so that when the film inevitably pairs off him and Grayson at the end, she just looks ill. — 4/7/12