Back in the mists of time, when this blog was young and film commentary was more of a palate cleanser than its raison d'être, I once spent a week reviewing my way through the first Warner Bros. five-film box set of Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers vehicles (they're here, if you insist). Having recently been given the second volume (ahh, birthday and Christmas at the same time!), and officially having no reason to go to a movie theater for the immediate future - I know everyone enjoys watching my kill myself by inches with films like Freedom Writers and Code Name: The Cleaner, but it's a luxury I can only indulge in times of greater economic stability - I've decided to subject treat everyone to a week with my inner 1930s musical buff.

In 1933, Fred Astaire was a vaudevillian, Ginger Rogers was a character actress, and Warner Bros. was establishing itself as the studio for high-concept movie musicals, thanks to their employment of choreographer Busby Berkeley.

Which is not to say that the other majors didn't crank out musicals; hell, this was the decade where (by some estimates) a full third of all Hollywood productions were musicals. It's just that Warner's contributions to the genre were the most successful and most laureled, and the brings us to Flying Down to Rio.

Let us not overstate the importance of this film: there's not a lot of imagination in it, plotwise. Roger Bond (bisexual RKO leading man Gene Raymond) (which isn't to say he played bisexual romantic leads. It was the '30s. C'mon) (although, when he stepped onscreen, my first thought - knowing nothing about him - was, "Wow. So gay. Wow") is a band leader who falls in love with a Brazilian vamp (Delores del Rio, the "star" of the film), and flies down to Rio de Janeiro to seduce her away from her stolid but uninteresting businessman fiancé (Raul Roulien). A couple of massively forgettable romantic ballads are tossed in. There's a spac-tack-you-lar climax involving beauties strapped to planes waving their arms about to music (okay, it's pretty awesome, but not anything close to the standards of Berkeley's earthbound "42nd Street," "Shanghai Lil," and "Remember My Forgotten Man" from the same year).

It is worth pointing out that there is some rather innovative directing by the extraordinarily-named Thornton Freeland: he uses rear-projection in highly experimental ways throughout the film (there's one particularly nice scene involving Raymond and del Rio's consciences), and the editing is much more kinetic than I have ever seen in an American film of the early sound period. During one number, "La Carioca," the edit becomes frenzied and disorienting to a point where it very nearly prefigures Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge. Freeland would never rise out of the obscurity of RKO unit pictures, but from this film at least, it seems that he was operating on a rather different level than just about everyone else in this country in the early 1930s.

Of course, that's not why we're here. The only reason this film has any modern audience at all is because it birthed one of the most successful and perfect of all actor teamings in cinema history: Fred and Ginger.

I am not certain whether this was meant to be the case. The two only dance together once, in "La Carioca," and according to multiple sources, it was wild audience enthusiasm for this number that led to the pair reteaming. This sounds suspiciously like studio propaganda for me, and it's worth pointing out that the last image in the film before that famous RKO end card is of Astaire and Rogers watching the leads depart. It's not very easy to avoid the sensation that the studio/producer/whomever wants to hint that a void has just been created, and look! We have two fantastic dancers right here! Call it the 1933 version of "James Bond Will Return," I just feel certain that somebody had been grooming Fred and Ginger to become Fred and Ginger.

It's interesting to see that play out in the film. Ginger (billed fourth) had until that very year been a contract player at Warners, and could be seen that very year in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. Her specialty was in playing guttermouthed smartasses, and that's basically what she does here, in the character of Honey Hale, whose role in Roger Bond's band is kind of vague. Of course, she would continue to be the cynical foil to Fred in all of their pairings, but there's a lot more cruelty here. After all, she doesn't have to be a romantic figure. She gets all of the film's best lines, naturally; and the first song in the film, "Music Makes Me," is a brassy little number that she belts out with the unmistakable subtext that music makes her screw around. The forthright sexuality of her persona would be lessened over the course of the decade (damn you, Hays Office), and it's a treat to see it one last time, when she gets to bounce it off of the typically asexual Astaire.

For his part, Fred (billed fifth), was making his film debut - excepting a brief performance for MGM in Dancing Lady - as Fred Ayres, and it shows. Not because he's bad at all. But everything about the role screams, "we're giving this man a feature-length screen-test!" To begin with, his character is even vaguer than Honey, apparently serving as Roger's aide-de-camp. Not to mention his character name, which has been diguised in the shallowest way possible (Astaire -> Ayres? It's like Kal-El putting glasses on).

The simple fact is that Flying Down to Rio would be precisely the same story without Fred Ayres, and yet he has numerous plot-killing dance routines, all showcasing a different style (he also sings the final, eponymous song). The effect couldn't be clearer: "THIS IS FRED ASTAIRE. SEE WHAT HE DOES? YOU WILL BE SEEING MORE OF IT. WE JUST CONTRACTED HIM." Bear in mind that in 1933, Astaire wasn't a newbie to anything. Insofar as the vaudeville circuit created superstars, he was one of them. This would have been comparable to the Marx Bros. debuting in The Cocoanuts. It's all good dancing, of course; not as inhuman as he would be capable of just a few years down the road, but better than anything else in Hollywood at the time, and more than enough that one becomes very angry that the bulk of the film is taken up with the non-dancing, non-singing, non-balding Raymond.

Besides some banter (fine banter; even at the start, they had unnaturally good chemistry), there's really only one Fred & Ginger moment. It's when they first hear the Hott Latin Dance called "Carioca," watch the natives do their thing, and decide to show off. Or, as Ginger says in a line that will reverberate for 6 years and 8 movies, "Let's show them a thing or three!" And so, they dance onscreen for the first time, foreheads touching, in what is meant to be the sexiest thing you ever did see. It's not, although it's much racier than they'd be able to achieve in the Code Era. But it is impressive as a dance, and what's surprising is that there's no learning curve. Astaire and Rogers were, to all appearances, meant to be partners.

Much like Berkeley number, "La Carioca" drifts away from the main pair to show a long (10+ minutes) sequence of dancers, lines of dancers, circles of dancers, tiers of dancers. Indeed, it's the most desperate Berkeley rip-off I've ever seen in an RKO musical. This precise sort of momentum-killing sequence (song named after the dance style, Fred & Ginger for a couple minutes, followed by several minutes of boring people doing a Berkeleyan version of the same) would reappear in their first few movies - Top Hat would be the last - but at least in this case, the film knows what really matters. Fred and Ginger are shown multiple times in the long second portion of the dance, and at the end it's them, not the teaming mass, that stand to receive the enthusiastic applause of the audience. Amen to that.

(Of historical interest: this first Astaire & Rogers film would also be the first time they worked with comic character actor Eric Blore, who gets two non-gag lines in one scene. I do believe this complete waste of his talents might have been the most frustrating thing about the entire picture).

My self control was something to brag about,
Now it's a gag about town.
The things I do are never forgiven,
For just when I'm livin' 'em down,
I hear music, then I'm through,
For music makes me do the things I never should do.