Wednesday, January 16, 2019
DVR Diary: RIO RITA (1929)
The legendary Flo Ziegfeld opened the Broadway theater bearing his name with the premiere of Rio Rita in February 1927. It was a massive hit and as such was ripe for adaptation in a Hollywood just learning to talk and sing. Comedy relief actors Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey were brought west from Broadway to recreate their roles as a divorcee and his lawyer, with the slight change that Wheeler's character now was a bootlegger. Bebe Daniels had the title role as Rita, a Mexican beauty in love with a Texas Ranger (John Boles), yet anxious to keep him away from her brother, who is suspected of being that notorious bandit, the Kinkajou. He may sound like a Pokemon, but he actually takes his formidable name from the Central American "honey bear." In the comedy plot, Woolsey tries to arrange a Mexican divorce for Wheeler so he can marry another woman (Dorothy Lee), but some mix-up leaves Wheeler in legal jeopardy as a bigamist. Fortunately, his first wife (Helen Kaiser) appears and promptly falls in love with Woolsey. It's a double score for him since she's also come into an inheritance. Their story has very little to do with the Kinkajou story; the two plots seem merely to occupy the same space in this mostly stagebound production, directed by the undistinguished Luther Reed. Rio Rita's massive success revived Daniels' career and made Reed briefly Radio Pictures' (aka RKO) musical specialist, but the massive flop of Dixiana, which reunited Daniels, Wheeler and Woolsey a year later, put a stop to that. That setback notwithstanding, Rita made Wheeler and Woolsey in Hollywood, and rightly so. The film is alive only when they're on the screen, or during the song and dance number Wheeler and Lee share. Their best moment is their last big scene. While their girlfriends sing their love song at opposite ends of the foursome, Wheeler and Woolsey play pattycake with each other, but the play inexorably escalates into slapping and prodding until the two throw each other into the Rio Grande, with the girls tumbling after. This bit, like the last half hour of the picture, was shot in two-color Technicolor, which adds at least some visual interest to the main story. The loss of color in many early musicals really hurts their reputation as cinema because it flattens out the compositions. Seeing a comparison between a black and white print of such a musical and footage in restored Technicolor is almost like seeing a 3-D movie in its original format for the first time after years watching it on TV. Back in the day, though, color wasn't enough to keep the public interested in musicals, as long as they were feeble operettas like this one. They regrettably left their imprint on many comedy films subsequently burdened with insufferable singing romantic leads in an effort to please those parts of the audience presumably unsatisfied by comedians' antics. It's a testimony to Wheeler and Woolsey's success that they were able to escape that formula, and after seeing them in Rio Rita you can understand why everyone left the doors unlocked.