Fred Astaire, born Frederick Austerlitz in 1899 in Omaha, had a career in vaudeville and on the Broadway and London West End stage dancing with his sister Adele. She married in 1932, and David Selznick, then RKO studio head, signed him to a film contract. Ginger Rogers, born Virginia McMath in 1911 in Independence, Missouri, also had a vaudeville career. In 1930 she became a star in the Broadway musical Girl Crazy, by the Gershwins. Rogers performed a dance to “Embraceable You” with Allan Kearns in that show. Astaire staged the dance. By 1933 Rogers had performed in twenty films, most significantly in the Busby Berkeley musicals 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, for Warner Bros. RKO, the studio that produced the Astaire-Rogers musicals, was founded in 1928. RCA and General Electric had developed an optical sound system for films. However, the other studios, rapidly introducing the first talking pictures, were using AT&T’s Western Electric system. Aside from the RCA optical sound system, RKO also fell heir to the Keith-Albee-Orpheum chain of vaudeville theatres. RKO only made talkies, and many of their films were musicals.
Astaire and RKO, then headed by Merian Cooper, managed a gradual introduction for him to film audiences, including a cameo dance sequence with Joan Crawford in MGM’s Dancing Lady, followed by this picture, his first for the studio. In his autobiography Astaire wrote, “I had no idea for two days with whom I would be dancing, if anybody. I didn’t look at a script or question anything. All I wanted was to stay in pictures.” He was paired with Rogers in the big production number “The Carioca”. He met Hermes Pan, who was assistant to the dance director Dave Gould. Pan would work with Astaire for years in the development of the dances Astaire would present on film.
Flying Down to Rio was made from August through October, 1933 and was released in December, 1933. Producer Cooper was a director of Pan American Airways, which had routes across Latin America and of course to Brazil. The director was Thornton Freeland. The stars, all credited above Astaire and Rogers, were Dolores Del Rio, Gene Raymond, and Raul Roulien. It was written by Cyril Hume, H.W. Hanemann and Erwin Gelsey from a play by Anne Caldwell. Music was by Vincent Youmans, the cinematography by J. Roy Hunt, costumes by Walter Plunkett and art direction by Carroll Clark and Van Nest Polglase. The technical standards at RKO were considered top-notch. The pictures we will see in this series often exhibit the most noted examples of Art Deco style in the movies. Vincent Youmans, Edward Eliscu and Gus Kahn were nominated for an Oscar for the song “The Carioca”. Linwood Dunn’s special effects used back projection and process photography in the famous final aviation dance sequence.
Astaire was less than impressed with his performance when he saw it in the rushes, and after filming he went to London to perform in The Gay Divorce, which he had already appeared in on Broadway. Variety wrote, “The main point of Flying Down to Rio is the screen promise of Fred Astaire. That should be about as important to (RKO) as the fact that this picture is not destined for big grosses, because the studio may eventually do things with this lad.” It cost $462,000 and it made just over $1.5 million. The RKO producer Pandro Berman wired Astaire – Flying Down to Rio was a hit. Berman came to London to see The Gay Divorce, with an eye on selecting it as the next vehicle for the Astaire-Rogers team. And about that dance on the airplanes, Arlene Croce, in her book on dance in the Astaire-Rogers films, wrote “Although Dave Gould’s girls were only a few feet above the ground, the sequence as it looks on the screen adds one element to Berkeleyan spectacle that Berkeley never thought of: terror.”