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Monday, April 5, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 weeks, #9: Rio Rita, 1929

"Ziegfeld's colossal girl-music spectacle" (see film poster below) ushered me into the talkie era, and quite an experience this was!

Rio Rita, 1929

Director: Luther Reed
Writers: Luther Reed, adapted from the book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson
Cinematographer: Robert Kurrle
Produced by Florenz Ziegfeld and William LeBaron for RKO Radio Pictures
Starring: John Boles, Bebe Daniels, Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey

Why I chose it
The title 'Rio Rita' reminded me of 'Rita Rio', the stage name of singer/actress/orchestra leader Dona Drake (see her 'soundie' with Alan Ladd here). When this film popped up as an option for 1929, I immediately put it on my shortlist, and then it won my Twitter poll. It also had the advantage of being my first 'musical' of this film project.

'No-spoiler' plot overview
James Stewart (John Boles) is a Captain of the Texas Rangers assigned to the Mexican border to track down a mysterious bandit named "Kinkajou." Across the Rio Grande he meets the vivacious Rita (Bebe Daniels) and the two instantly hit it off. Complications ensue when the local Governor, General Ravinoff (Georges Renavent), who has designs on Rita, sows distrust between Rita and James with the suggestion that Rita's brother Roberto may actually be the "Kinkajou" that the Captain is pursuing. Meanwhile, another, comic, love triangle develops between honeymooning Chick Bean (Wheeler), his new wife Dolly (Dorothy Lee), and his former wife Katie (Helen Kaiser). It doesn't help that Chick's lawyer and sidekick Ned Lovett (Woolsey) gives very questionable legal advice.

Production Background and 1929 in Film History
Rio Rita originated as a hit Broadway musical in 1927, with lyrics by Joseph McCarthy and music by Harry Tierney.  Produced by the famed Florenz Ziegfeld of the Ziegfeld Follies fame, the musical brought together Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey and set them on their decade-long career as a comic team. The film version gave Wheeler and Woolsey their break in Hollywood, and it became the biggest-grossing film for RKO in 1929. The film was re-released in 1932 and shorted by 1/3 (15 reels to 10 reels). Today, the five reels that were cut are believed to be lost, although some audio exists of the missing parts. It was remade in 1942 with Abbott and Costello in the Wheeler and Woolsey roles. I've not seen that one, but I've read that it's quite a different script. Finally, according to Steven C. Smith in his biography of famed film composer Max Steiner, Music by Max Steiner, Rio Rita composer Harry Tierney was responsible for getting RKO to hire Steiner, who later went on to write fantastic scores for them, including King Kong (1932).

Some other notable film-related events in 1929*:

  • The Marx Brothers first film The Cocoanuts, was released by Paramount.
  • With its launch in 1929, The University of Southern California became the first university in the country to offer a Bachelor of Arts degree in film. The school's founding faculty included Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, William C. DeMille, Ernst Lubitsch, Irving Thalberg, and Darryl Zanuck, among others.
  • Taking full advantage of the advent and popularization of sound films, studios released many notable musicals: Hallelujah, the Academy Award-winning The Broadway Melody, the aforementioned The Cocoanuts, and of course this film, Rio Rita.
  • Silent superstar John Gilbert released his first talking film, His Glorious Night. His lack of success at the box office and lukewarm reaction by fans started his precipitous career decline.
  • Walt Disney Productions was formed.

*Thanks to

My Random Observations
  • Wow! This movie had it all - Singing! Dancing! Laughter! Romance! Mistaken Identity! Cowboys! Bandits! Border shenanigans! Color! Black and white! 
  • Seriously, as I watched this film I was reminded of other very early "talkie" film musicals that were more 'revues', or at the very least, light on coherent plot. Released the same year was the Oscar-winning The Broadway Melody, and the following year was 'King of Jazz', both of which I saw within the last 2-3 years. Rio Rita shares with these films very mannered and stage-like acting, and certainly a 'theater-like' production design. I doubt very few films could be considered more 'dated' than these. 
  • Nothing says "dated" more than the garish reds and greens of two-color technicolor. Yet despite and maybe because of the extreme 'datedness' of the film, I felt truly transported to another era and was entertained by spending time there. 
  • In some ways, the film is made by Wheeler and Woolsey. These vaudeville performers were natural screen comedians and displayed charisma and exceptional comic timing during their scenes, full of both slapstick and wisecracks. While I'm not normally a big fan of "low comedy", I appreciate what these two could do, and found myself more than a little amused watching them. They had an extended sequence where they rhythmically traded face slaps that both made me wince (ouch!) and gasp at the brilliant choreography displayed.
  • While Bebe Daniels was fine as the titular character, I didn't find much in her performance that signaled the star status that had accompanied her in her early years in film.
Chick (Wheeler) and his bride Dolly
(Dorothy Lee) make a grand entrance.

Ned (Woolsey)breaks the news to Chick that he may
not be legally married after all, ruining his honeymoon plans.

Chick and Dolly 

The current and future wives of Chick at a standoff with
Ned as referee.

Jim (Boles) serenades his love (Daniels) with the song 'Rio Rita'

Jim eyes Rita's brother suspiciously.

Where to Watch
It's available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Further Reading
Don't miss NY Times film critic Mordaunt Hall's original review of the film here. In his summary, he quips "it is an evening of good music, enjoyable fun and constant screen-fulls of striking scenes that cause one to wonder how much such a production cost."


  1. I agree that many early musicals are dated, and I also agree that two-strip Technicolor transports us for another era, that's why I love it. Rio Rita sounds like a very enjoyable curiosity.

    1. Lê, thanks for stopping by. 'Enjoyable curiosity' is the perfect label for this film. I hope you can see it some time!

  2. Girl Crazy is another whirlwind show with Wheeler and Woolsey that had its roots on Broadway. The more I see of the boys, the more I enjoy them. I am loving your journey.

    1. I'll have to check Girl Crazy out. Since W&W only made movies during the 1930s, it's possible to do a binge of them all in a reasonable time frame, assuming I can find them. I'll need to look into that.

      I'm glad you're enjoying following along on this journey - thanks for the encouragement. So far it's been more fun and eductational than I had dared imagine.

  3. Alan Ladd in a music video. My mind is blown.