January 27, 2017

Rio Rita (1929)
Grade: 55/100

Director: Luther Reed
Stars: John Boles, Bebe Daniels, Bert Wheeler

What it's about. Based on a Florenz Ziegfeld Broadway musical. Bebe Daniels is a well-to-do young Mexican woman. Her brother, Don Alvardo, is suspected by everyone to be The Kinkajoo, a notorious bank robber. Alvardo goes into hiding, and Daniels is concerned for her brother.

Daniels is romanced by two different men: John Boles, a Texas Ranger; and General Ravinoff (Georges Renavent), the local despot. Daniels' heart soon belongs to the loud-singing Boles, but she becomes engaged to Ravinoff, whom she dislikes, in return for a Ravinoff promise not to shoot Alvardo.

The love triangle is happily resolved (for Daniels, at least) late in the final reel, in predictable yet preposterous fashion. The musical romance of the major storyline makes up two-thirds of the movie.

But there is also a nearly unrelated subplot, involving Yankee comics Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. Wheeler has headed to Mexico to divorce Helen Kaiser in favor of younger and cuter Dorothy Lee. But after his wedding to Lee, Wheeler is confronted by Woolsey, who informs him that the divorce won't stand up in court, making Wheeler a bigamist.

This leads to various odd scenes between Wheeler and Woolsey, and Wheeler and Lee. Finally, Helen Kaiser shows up, and informs Woolsey that she has just inherited three million dollars. This timely albeit unlikely event allows a happy ending for all four concerned.

How others will see it. This movie was initially 140 minutes, a long running time for a musical during the costly first year of talkie production. The lengthy color sequence at the end of the movie must have further buried RKO Radio, then a newcomer among the big Hollywood studios.

But it paid off, since Rio Rita was among the top-grossing movies of that year, ahead of The Cocoanuts and The Love Parade. Unfortunately, 35 minutes were cut from Rio Rita for its 1932 re-release, and surprisingly, no print of the original running time has survived.

Although a well-known movie in its day, Rio Rita has mostly slid into obscurity. It was ignored by the Academy Awards, and is mostly known today as the first talkie for Bebe Daniels, whose best-known film was 42nd Street (1933). It was also the first film for the comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey, who retained the young and game Dorothy Lee for most of their dozen-plus comedies.

Rio Rita has a meager 534 user votes at imdb.com, and its user ratings exhibit a broad gender gap. Men under 30 grade it lowest, 5.2, but women over 45 bestow a vastly higher 9.2 out of 10. For men, then, this movie is a hoary curiosity. But women are pleased that Daniels is the center of attention, and ultimately gets what she wants. As does, for that matter, both Dorothy Lee and Helen Kaiser.

How I felt about it. Rio Rita is a cliché: two films in one. There is a reason for this. Women are supposed to thrill to the romance between lovely Daniels and her broad-chested Texas Ranger, while men can yuck it up with the sarcastic and befuddled comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey.

If forced to choose which of the two films I prefer, I have to go with the guys. Wheeler and Woolsey are not as funny as they try to be, but they are undoubtedly amusing. Especially when Wheeler learns that he cannot consummate his marriage to the comely Dorothy Lee, and when Woolsey realizes that the newly loaded Kaiser will keep saying "No" to everything.

But their humor doesn't always work. Nobody would confuse the dufus Wheeler with The Kinkajoo, and Wheeler and Woolsey have an interminable drunken scene.

As for the costly musical romance, it is difficult to work up an interest in whether the Texas Ranger gets his man and woman, especially when we know both outcomes are inevitable. Yet there is a collective rolling of eyes when it turns out that the Kinkajoo, the infamous robber of American banks, is none other than General Ravinoff, who has a Mexican fiefdom to govern.

Oh, and Daniels' brother actually works for the Mexican secret police. Any contrivance will do, it appears, to imprison the villainous Renavent, and pave the way for Daniels and Boles to spend their days singing to each other as if they are on stage for an Italian opera.