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By Phil Hall | March 18, 2005

Unless you know too much about movies or you are 100 years old, you probably never heard of the 1929 musical extravaganza “Rio Rita.” In a way, that’s a shame because “Rio Rita” was a very important film in its day and it deserves some attention today.

“Rio Rita” was based on a hugely successful Broadway extravaganza produced by the legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld. It was brought to the screen by RKO Radio Pictures as the studio’s first attempt in making an all-talking film. Unfortunately, production ran over schedule and budget and another film, an all-black production called “Hearts in Dixie,” got that honor.

“Rio Rita” is a fairly simple and rather silly tale about a dashing Texas ranger (John Boles) in search of a bandit known as The Kinkajou, who commits various acts of miscreancy in the Lone Star State before escaping to safety across the Rio Grande. Traveling into Mexico, the ranger follows a tip that suggests The Kinkajou is the brother of Rita Ferguson (Bebe Daniels), the owner of the largest ranch in the region. It is never quite explained how a spicy Latina like Rita wound up with a rather Celtic surname, but there are actually more pressing matters: a Russian aristocrat who commands his own private militia kidnaps Rita’s brother and is holding him for ransom. While trying to rescue her brother, Rita gets the hots for the ranger and he feels the same. These lovebirds affirm their passion by loudly singing operetta tunes to each other.

If this isn’t confusing enough, there is a second and wholly unrelated tale which simultaneously unfolds: an idiot American playboy (Bert Wheeler) and his shyster lawyer (Robert Woolsey) arrived in the Mexican village along with the rich man’s sweetie (Dorothy Lee). The playboy wants to get a Mexican divorce from his estranged wife so he can marry his pert playmate. Unfortunately, the lawyer is a thorough incompetent and not only does he fail to get the divorce, but he inadvertently winds up entertaining the aforementioned estranged wife.

Does that sound fun? For those seeking intellectual stimulation, “Rio Rita” offers the same enriching experience as banging your head into a concrete wall. The film also betrays the deficiencies of the early talking pictures: exaggerated acting, stodgy direction, unimaginative editing, and (for the film’s final act) somewhat blurry two-color Technicolor.

But if one overlooks the silliness of the story (and, trust me, it isn’t easy to do), today’s viewer can enjoy one of the very few filmed records of Broadway productions from the 1920s. Professional and amateur historians can enjoy what previous generations considered entertainment, and admittedly it is a weird mix: lush operetta rubbing up against cheesy chorus girls doing clumsy dance routines, with occasional vaudeville-style ballads shoehorned in between long stretches of anvil comedy.

And speaking of the anvil comedy, “Rio Rita” was the first movie to present the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. Wheeler and Woolsey were actually individual stars before being teamed for the Broadway edition of “Rio Rita,” but RKO brought them to Hollywood with the idea of creating a new double-act. They actually became a triple act with the inclusion of studio contract player Dorothy Lee as Wheeler’s love interest. Lee was only 18 when she made “Rio Rita,” but she gave the impression of style and pizzazz which belied her youth.

Lee fit well into the Wheeler & Woolsey patter and the three of them were launched into a series of comedy features that became quite popular in the early 1930s – but which are viewed today as the cinematic equivalent of running fingernails across a blackboard. In “Rio Rita,” the comics are strictly in supporting roles and spend a good deal of time separate (Wheeler indulges in a wild song and dance number with a brigade of chorus girls). This is probably Wheeler & Woolsey’s best (or least bad) movie.

“Rio Rita” clocked in at a whopping 140 minutes, which was pretty lengthy for a 1929 release. RKO initially shipped it out as a roadshow attraction, but in order to speed up its commercial viability the studio cut about a half-hour from the print and shipped that version into general release. Lost in the chopping were five songs, including a precision dance number featuring an exceptionally large number of hoofers tapping away to “Sweetheart We Need Each Other.”

Although “Rio Rita” was a commercial success, the film was not revived after its initial run. Changes in filmmaking styles and audience tastes dated the production very quickly. In 1942, MGM brought the property as a vehicle for Abbott and Costello, but that duo’s version of “Rio Rita” jettisoned nearly all of the original music and radically rewrote the plotline to include misadventures with Nazi saboteurs.

“Rio Rita” never had a commercial home video release. Turner Classic Movies occasionally runs the shorter version of “Rio Rita” whenever the channel hosts a Wheeler & Woolsey retrospective. This is quite strange, since the original 140 minute print is still extant (New York’s Museum of Modern Art has a fine quality print) and the cable channel always prides itself in showing uncut films. Sadly, the “Rio Rita” bootlegs on the market come solely from the truncated version and not the original print.

“Rio Rita” is not a great film, and it might be charitable to say it is good. But it is an unusual antique, and for historic reasons alone it is one of the more fascinating titles floating around the Bootleg Files. If you are game for something different and diverting, look up this one!


IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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  1. Hal says:

    IMO Wheeler and Woolsey’s best is COCKEYED CAVALIERS. HIPS, HIPS, HOORAY, PEACH O’RENO and DIPLOMANIACS are also well worth watching.

  2. Bill Sprague says:

    God only knows why TCM does not run the complete version of this title.

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