Thursday, March 26, 2009

Flying Down to Rio directed by Thornton Freeland (starring Dolores del Rio, Gene Raymond, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire)

Flying Down to Rio (1933). Screenplay by Cyril Hume, H.W. Hanemann, and Erwin Gelsey from the play by Anne Caldwell based on a story by Lou Brock.

Most viewers are probably going to come to Flying Down to Rio to see the first pairing of one of filmdom's great couple: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But Astaire and Rogers are actually only supporting players to stars Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond in this lighthearted little pre-Code romantic comedy musical. (If you never thought Ginger Rogers was sexy, you have to see her as Honey Hale in this film.)

Raymond plays Roger Bond, a bandleader with a reputation for getting his orchestra barred from gigs due to his dalliances with the paying customers. His accordion player and best friend, Fred Ayres (Astaire), tries to keep him in line, but because of a bet with her girlfriends, Brazilian girl Belinha de Rezende (del Rio, actually born in Mexico) seduces him first. (As one of the friends, Lucile Browne has the best line in the movie. In a wonderful, typically pre-Code jab, she queries the others, "What has that South American got below the equator that we don't?")

Since Bond is also conveniently a pilot, he and Belinha go off to get some alone time and end up stranded on an island. Interestingly both his and hers "devils on the shoulder" appear to make sure they take full advantage of the situation though each originally had nixed the idea. They end up falling for each other, but unfortunately she's already part of an arranged marriage to Julio (Raul Roulien) who also happens to be a friend of Roger's. (Roulien's best scene is during his reaction to Roger's story of his new girl; as it quickly dawns on him that their girls are the same one.)

Fans of character actors will appreciate Flying Down to Rio's fantastic opening scene involving Franklin Pangborn, one of the great pompous asses of cinema, and Eric Blore, best known for his portrayal of elitist butlers. Both are wonderfully cruel, as the hotel manager and his assistant, in their treatment of the band while they wait for the terminally tardy Bond and Ayres to arrive.

Astaire and Rogers first show off their chemistry together during a funny and charming dance to "The Carioca" (which some of my generation may recognize from a comedic version played over the opening and closing credits of The Kentucky Fried Movie). What follows is a lengthy, 15-minute dance of the multitudes, something that would become a feature of some of the couple's early films. For example, "The Continental" runs around 17 minutes in The Gay Divorcee (their first starring vehicle and still my favorite).

(A lot of Astaire and Rogers fans pick Top Hat as their favorite. But I've never understood this since it's simply a retread of the plot — and cast! — of The Gay Divorcee. Perhaps it's simply because it contains a lot of songs that are now standards. In any case, fans wanting all three, and more, need only look as far as the Astaire & Rogers Ultimate Collector's Edition.)

On the whole, Flying Down to Rio is a forgettable trifle, though "The Carioca" is a real earworm — I had it in my head for two weeks after watching — and it's easy to see why Astaire and Rogers became the great screen couple and not del Rio and Raymond. It's all about chemistry, and director Thornton Freeland capitalizes on the fact that one couple has it in spades while the other is merely going through the motions (though each certainly has charms of his and her own, as they would show in other films).

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Heaven Can Wait (1943) directed by Ernst Lubitsch (starring Don Ameche, Gene Tierney, Eugene Pallette, Allyn Joslyn, Marjorie Main)

Heaven Can Wait (1943). Screenplay by Samson Raphaelson based on the play Birthday by Lazlo Bus-Fekete.

Don Ameche arrives at the gates of Hell ready to turn himself in for being so ruthless with women. "His Excellency," however, chooses first to hear his story. He finds that Ameche has not been any worse than anyone else (in fact most of his "crimes" were done in the name of love), and so sends him on his way up.

This is the story of Heaven Can Wait, yet another confection from director Ernst Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson (the duo responsible for the fantastic Trouble in Paradise).

Ameche and Gene Tierney give fine lead performances. However, the film is stolen out from under them by the supporting cast. Allyn Joslyn (The Horn Blows at Midnight) is perfectly pompous as cousin Albert, and Charles Coburn is a delight as always playing Ameche's lovable grandfather, charming and good for a laugh.

But the pair who rule this film are Tierney's parents, played by Eugene Pallette (My Man Godfrey) and Marjorie Main (best known as "Ma Kettle"). Their powerful voices fill the air with intimidating presence when they are together; and their dueling breakfast scene is the highlight of the picture.

Yes, the acting is terrific all around, but somehow it doesn't all fit together right. The ending is obvious from the start and so isn't at all satisfying. I was left thinking, "so what?" But at the same time, the performances were so good, I didn't want Heaven Can Wait to end, so it felt cut short.
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