Saturday, April 7, 2012

Rio Rita (RKO, 1929)

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

Rio Rita turned out to be a pretty mixed movie — a film I’ve always been rather confused about because the original 1970 edition of Leonard Maltin’s book Movie Comedy Teams listed it as being in color all the way through, whereas all the other sources said the first half was in black-and-white and the second half in color (two-strip Technicolor). Also, there’s some uncertainty about the running time; Leslie Halliwell lists it as being 135 minutes long, Maltin as 127 minutes, and the version Turner Classic Movies showed was 102 minutes with the same proportions of black-and-white to color footage as the 1930 follow-up, Dixiana (also starring Bebe Daniels in the title role, comedians Bert Wheeler and Bob Woolsey for the comic relief and featuring a score by composer Harry Tierney, whose art definitely falls on the operetta end of the American musical spectrum, almost entirely devoid of syncopation or jazz influence) — the first 70 minutes (seven reels) in black-and-white, the last half-hour (three reels) in color. It’s also one of the best preserved samples of two-strip Technicolor I’ve ever seen; despite the absence of blue (and even there a lot of the women’s dresses are in the kind of bluish off-green that two-strip costume designers and art directors used to come as close to representing blue as the process could sustain), the colors are warm and rich, with little of the fading to brown characteristic of Technicolor prints in general; the flesh tones are appealing and the overall look of the two-strip scenes is subtle and harmonious, quite a different effect from the garishness and neon brightness associated with the later three-strip process (the look that usually comes to mind when you utter the word “Technicolor”).

So how is Rio Rita as a movie? I’m sorry you asked. It was the biggest-budget film of the first year of RKO’s existence as a studio (1929), yet director Luther Reed shot it in 24 days and for a major-studio release with major stars and a large budget it’s oddly sloppy at times. During one scene in which Bert Wheeler is doing a tap routine (and surprisingly well, too) with a group of chorus girls, the camera pans down to frame him and thereby cuts the girls’ heads off at the neck. Other sequences feature odd little twitches of the camera — it doesn’t really move, actually; it just jerks back and forth, as if the cameraman (locked in a soundproof booth, as was the general practice of the period) was trying his damnedest to follow the action and wasn’t all that sure he could. Reed’s direction is visually capable in the opening scene — in the Fremont Club night spot in a border town in Texas (the fact that a town in Texas, which fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, would hardly likely to be named after the legendary California abolitionist, wartime governor of occupied Missouri and first Republican Party Presidential nominee John C. Frémont didn’t seem to occur to anybody associated with this film) — in which he pans around the club and discovers two striking-looking people (striking because they’re both wearing Mexican serapés and look almost alike in their costumes), one of whom is the film’s hero, John Boles, and the other is supposed to be the heroine’s brother. The brother and the heroine — the title character, played by Bebe Daniels — live together at the Rio Rita Ranch across the border into Mexico, and the heroine (who for some strange reason bears the full name Rita Ferguson even though she’s represented as a Mexican and speaks all her lines with a thick — and patently fake — Spanish accent) is being amorously chased by an exiled Russian general who owns a gambling ship anchored on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande (where it’s perfectly legal).

It turns out Our Hero is actually a Texas Ranger working undercover to find the whereabouts of a mysterious bandit called “El Kinkajou,” and both he and Our Heroine suspect the brother of being “El Kinkajou,” but in the end it turns out that the nasty Russian general (Georges Renevant), who has the brother kidnapped midway through the story for reasons that never become quite clear, is the real “El Kinkajou” (well, he had to do something to support himself in the style to which he had become accustomed once he was driven out of Russia by the Revolution) and the brother is a secret agent of the Mexican police. Rio Rita was produced on the stage by Florenz Ziegfeld, and it shows in the elaborate pageantry and the rather static tableaux (particularly at the end, when all the cast members — Daniels and Boles, Wheeler and Dorothy Lee, and Woolsey with whoever the actress was who was playing Wheeler’s ex-wife — are appropriately paired off and everyone in the screen turns their back to the camera so their costumes can billow out picturesquely), though co-scenarists Reed and Russell Mack do deserve credit for “opening out” the piece. Much of the Western action takes place outdoors, and though the locations are familiar from thousands of RKO “oaters” at least they get us out of the stuffy interiors into which most musical films in the early days were kept well locked — and most, if not all, of the musical numbers were clearly pre-recorded and post-synchronized in the technique that would become the standard way of making musicals but was still unusual in 1929. (Interestingly, it’s not at all clear when this story is supposed to be taking place; the Fremont Club in the opening scene has a neon-lit sign and the streets of the town have streetlights, but there are no automobiles or telephones. When MGM remade Rio Rita in 1942 — with Kathryn Grayson and John Carroll in the leads and Abbott and Costello in the Wheeler and Woolsey roles — they made it definitely a story of the World War II present and made the Kinkajou a leader of a gang of saboteurs.) And Tierney’s score, though very much of its time, at least has a lovely title song to carry it and decent, if not spectacular (and not always that well-recorded), voices to carry it. Mood-wise, Rio Rita is not all that different from Whoopee (another Ziegfeld stage success filmed a year later), though with the comedy a relief from an excruciatingly dull plot (instead of, as in Whoopee, the dull plot only marking time between Eddie Cantor’s dazzling comedy routines), and with far less experimentation in staging the dances (though dance director Pearl Eaton did include one overhead shot, in which the chorus girls in Wheeler’s tap number lie on the floor as he does a runaround and jumps over them). — 1/14/98


I finally got to Charles’ place at 2:30 or so and we watched the rest of the 1929 Rio Rita (which we’d stopped watching the night before at the point where it shifts from black-and-white to two-strip Technicolor) and all of the 1942 version of Rio Rita with Abbott and Costello (top-billed this time, not supporting players as Wheeler and Woolsey had been in the 1929 version) and Kathryn Grayson and John Carroll in the romantic leads. Charles found the two-strip in the 1929 version disappointing — it was mostly greens and oranges (the costume designer apparently favored these colors since the two-strip process handled them especially well) — though the film itself holds up fairly well as entertainment, even though Wheeler and Woolsey steal it right out from under the romantic leads. At least John Boles has a pleasant personality and a nice tenor voice — and since he’s playing a gringo (the head of the local company of Texas Rangers, who are chasing after the notorious bandit “The Kinkajou”), he doesn’t have to affect a Mexican accent. The rest of the cast members seemed to have differing notions of what constituted an appropriate Mexican accent — Bebe Daniels loses hers completely when she has her biggest emotional scene in the film (when she has to react to the — false, fortunately — report that John Boles has been killed) — though aside from her silly catch-as-catch-can accent (how a Mexican girl got the last name “Ferguson” is never quite explained in this film), her acting is actually quite good. (She proved in the next few years — notably in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon and the 1932 film Silver Dollar — that she actually could act very well, especially in parts that allowed her to be both sexy and dramatic.) But Wheeler and Woolsey have the most marvelous parts of the film to themselves, particularly an audacious scene in which they’re ostensibly courting women (Wheeler is courting Dorothy Lee, their frequent vis-a-vis who had an annoyingly squeaky speaking voice but a less offensive, if still childish, singing voice — after all, she was only 17 when she made this film! — and Woolsey is courting the wife Wheeler is trying to get rid of to marry Dorothy Lee) but actually give each other love-slaps and end up in each other’s arms! — 4/12/98


Last night, after we’d just seen the 1942 version of Rio Rita, I dug out the 1929 version and ran it for comparison. The best thing I can think of about this rather stilted musical is that it was based on a 1927 mega-hit produced on Broadway by Florenz Ziegfeld, and while the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Bob Woolsey were the only members of the stage cast who carried over to the film, watching this movie is as close as anyone who was born after Ziegfeld’s death in 1932 is going to get to the experience of watching a Ziegfeld musical on stage. The film was planned as the first release of the newly formed RKO studio (the result of a merger negotiated between RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, and its founder and CEO David Sarnoff; and a tiny studio called Film Booking Office, or FBO, headed by Joseph P. Kennedy — yes, the father of those Kennedys), and though production delays meant that a much simpler and cheaper film, Syncopation, was actually RKO’s first release, Rio Rita was the studio’s first blockbuster hit. In its original release it actually ran 140 minutes, though only a shortened 105-minute version survives, and the first seven reels we have are in black-and-white while the last three are in two-strip Technicolor. (We’ve seen better examples of the two-strip process but this film is quite well preserved, and the salmon-and-turquoise color scheme of two-strip is absolutely lovely, painterly and elegant, a far cry from the shrieking hues of the three-strip process that replaced it in the early 1930’s.)

John Kobal’s history of movie musicals, Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance!, has a charming account of the making of Rio Rita from Bebe Daniels, who played the title role — Rita Ferguson, a Mexican (named Ferguson? Were we supposed to believe she was the mixed-race daughter of an Anglo father and a Mexican mother?) who runs an inn on the Texas-Mexico border and is smitten by the Texas Ranger, Jimmy Stewart (John Boles), who’s there to catch the notorious bandit “El Kinkajou” — who had been under contract to Paramount in the silent era and had been let go by them because they just assumed, without bothering to give her a sound test, that she wouldn’t have a voice suitable for sound films. “When the film was such a smash, [Paramount chairman] Adolph Zukor, who had always been a friend, wanted to find out why I had been let go by Paramount, and Ben Schulberg [Paramount’s production chief and father of author Budd Schulberg] said it was because I couldn’t talk,” Daniels told Kobal. “So Zukor wanted to see the test they told him I had made, but he never saw it, because there wasn’t one. They had never bothered to test my voice. They just panicked and let a lot of us go. Richard Dix also came to RKO, where he made Cimarron [another blockbuster hit and the only Academy Award Best Picture RKO ever produced]. There’s a nice ending to the story. Some time later I ran into Ben Schulberg, and he said, ‘You didn’t tell me you could sing.’ And I said, ‘My mother always told us to wait until we were asked.’”

 Rio Rita is a pretty good example of the sort of “number” musical that was the staple of Broadway in the 1920’s, in which a scene that gives us exposition to follow the plot (such as it is) is followed by a romantic scene between the leads, which is followed by a song, which is followed by a comedy scene (and sometimes a comedy song), and so on until the various plot threads are wrapped up and the film is ready to end — which it does in one of those classic tableaux Ziegfeld was famous for in which, after all the leads are paired off appropriately (Daniels with Boles, Wheeler with his usual vis-à-vis Dorothy Lee — who had a nastily chirping speaking voice but wasn’t half-bad as a singer — and Woolsey, who plays the lawyer who arranged Wheeler’s divorce from his first wife so he could marry Lee, with Helen Kaiser, Wheeler’s ex-wife), everybody in the frame turns their back to the camera so we can see their costumes billow out spectacularly as the film fades out and RKO’s end title comes up. The plot of the film isn’t much: Rita is worried that her brother Roberto Ferguson (Don Alvarado) is the Kinkajou, and she gets upset with Jimmy when she decides that the only reason he’s been romancing her is to get close enough to her so he can arrest her brother. So she accepts the marriage proposal of General Ravenoff (Georges Renavent), a Russian expat who fled the Revolution and established himself as the political boss of that part of Mexico, who wants to marry her on the “pirate boat” he’s converted to a floating nightclub on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. To absolutely no one’s surprise (no one in the audience, anyway), General Ravenoff is himself the Kinkajou, and Jimmy cuts the moorings of the “pirate boat” so it drifts off to the U.S. side of the river — only Rita’s brother Roberto (ya remember Roberto?) turns out to be an agent of the Mexican police and demands custody of the prisoner for the crimes he’s committed in Mexico.

But Harry Tierney’s songs are gorgeous if you can accept the rather stiff operetta style in which they’re written, Bebe Daniels’ voice is acceptable but not great (though her speaking voice, with her inept attempt at a Mexican accent, is almost as risible as John Carroll’s in the remake), and John Boles’ rather stentorian tenor is great and absolutely right for the songs (with two other singers to compare him to — J. Harold Murray, who created the part on stage and recorded “Rio Rita” and “Song of the Rangers” as part of a Victor Records medley of the score; and John Carroll, singing those two Tierney songs in the 1942 remake — Boles soars above both of them). Daniels had a quirky career afterwards; RKO gave her another film very much like Rio Rita — Dixiana, set in ante-bellum New Orleans, also with a Harry Tierney score, also with Wheeler and Woolsey and also with a finale in two-strip Technicolor (featuring the great African-American dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in his first film, and only film in color) — but the leading man wasn’t of John Boles’ caliber and the audiences weren’t interested in it the second time around. She suggested reteaming her and Boles in a film of Carmen, RKO said no, and Daniels left for Warner Bros. — where she made her two best (non-musical) sound films, the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon and the 1932 film Silver Dollar — before she married actor Ben Lyon and returned with him to his native country, Great Britain. The 1929 Rio Rita is a pretty stiff film, and it’s slow going at times (while the cuts that were made to produce the shorter version that’s the only one that survives are jarringly obvious in places), but it’s entertaining enough that one can see how this sort of spectacle wowed ’em on stage in the 1920’s. — 4/7/12