Thornton Freeland | Flying Down to Rio


dance to the demise of the pansies

by Douglas Messerli


Cyril Hume, H. W. Hanemann, and Erwin Gelsey (screenplay, based on a stage play by Anne Caldwell, based, in turn, on a story by Lou Brock; with Adele Comandini, Joseph Fields, Thomas Lennon, Fred Niblo, Jr., Gilberto Souto, Harvey F. Thew, and H. Reynolds as uncredited contributing writers), Thornton Freeland (director) Flying Down to Rio / 1933


The first film appearance together of the famous dance team Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Flying Down to Rio is almost a case example of too many writers tossing their ideas into the same overboiling stewpot and, far more interestingly, the important role “pansies” play in certain movies.

     Indeed, director Thornton Freeland’s multi-part pot-au-feu begins with two of just such figures, the now well-recognized sissies Franklin Pangborn, as Hammerstein, the Hotel Manager (an uncredited role) and Eric Blore as the Head Waiter. Together they are making sure that the male and female staff of the Date Grove dining room in the Hotel Hibiscus are properly dressed up by dressing down certain of their members. Hammerstein prissily inspects first the boys, who are told “When Mr. Butterball calls you to attention, I want to see every eyelid snap!” Together they then explore the young ladies, but with no intention of checking out what most men might first inspect, but rather how their aprons are tied and if whether or not one can see the seams of their stockings. When Hammerstein discovers one flirtatious woman with seams, he reports to the Head Waiter that it is one thing that he will not tolerate in the hotel. Of course, through Hammsterin’s careful inspection, the heterosexual males of the audience are given the opportunity by the filmmakers and perhaps even their wives to attend to the shapely legs which Hammerstein doesn’t even notice.

      Onto the plot, which begins by their inspection of the band, discovering them all in various forms of undress, some of them drunk, and two of the major members—Roger Bond, the conductor (Gene Raymond) and his buddy (and of course dancer) Fred Ayres (Fred Astaire)—missing.

      So we discover that Roger and Fred are flying in a small prop-plane, one of the major elements of the story, and that Roger, the son of a wealthy business man, is unreliable. Hammerstein’s second statement sets another element of the plot into motion: “I will dismiss, discharge, and disqualify any employee who becomes familiar with the customers.” Singer Honey Hale’s (Ginger Rogers) comeback is also vital to the plot: “But what happens if the guests get familiar with us?”

     That is, soon after, precisely what happens when the celebrated Belinha De Rezende (Dolores Del Rio), flanked by her American girlfriends, takes on the challenge of flirting with band conductor Roger and he becomes immediately intoxicated with her open flirtations. Their actions sets of a volley of semi-clever remarks from Fred’s mouth as he recalls the many other times that Roger has put them out of work on account of his momentary romances; and when the wonderful Eric Blore gradually gets wind of the dance floor romance his facial responses to the unthinkable subject of sex tosses more humor into the pot than almost anything else than follows except when, as one of Belinha’s friend, observing the Brazilian’s immediate success, wonders aloud, “What have these South Americans got below the equator that we haven’t?”

     Too bad that once Hammerstein hears of the unheard of situation where a band leader is dancing with a woman of the Brazilian elite, sending off a chain of increasingly garbled messages to her dour mother Dona Elena De Rezende (Blanche Friderici) in her room upstairs, the musicians and singer have lost their jobs once more, as the entire buoy of comic pansies deflates, sucking the air out of most of the rest of the movie like the flat spare tire we had been counting on to help the bumpy vehicle make its way South.

     Instead, stasis descends, as a half-boiled romance takes the place of comedy with Roger and Belinha ending up marooned on a tropical island filled with orchids in the moonlight which we discover, just like their acting, is all fake, played out actually in the back-set of the Port-au-Prince country club where golfers speak in mock British accents. Besides Belinha can’t marry Roger, having been promised to another man, a long tradition among the Brazilian elite. We have to ask ourselves given Raymond’s performance as the romantic male, whether we really care or not.

     Even when the movie arrives in Rio and begins to post some tourist shots of the place, we’re bored by the fact that the band won’t have the possibility to play since, within the convoluted machinations of the plot, the hotel, owned by Belinha’s father (Walter Walker), doesn’t have yet have a license for performances, and the mayor—the only one who can issue them—is out of town on a visit cooked up, presumably, the three crooked Greeks (Roy’Darcy, Maurice Black, and Armand Kaliz) who apparently want to take over the unpopular property for their own indiscernible motives.

     Even worse, we discover that Roger’s rival for Belinha’s hand in marriage, the one to whom she has long been promised, is Julio Rubeiro, his very best friend. It looks like everyone is disappointed in the longer last two-thirds of this silly motion picture.

      But the Carioca is so memorable that it almost makes up for empty spaces in the rest of the movie after they’ve left Miami. But they still have a problem given the plot. How to get around the prohibition of entertainment without a license, which is oddly enough, the problem the movie has created for itself. To end with a bang, someone or another dreamed up the absurd idea of putting all the women who might be willing on the wings of airplanes and flying them over the hotel, as bandmembers, dressed like guests and sitting at tables on the terrace unwrap their packages, revealing the instruments upon which perform the tricky rhythms of “Flying Down to Rio” as the girls hold on tight, waving with their bodies, as the planes dive in and out of the airspace just above the hotel terrace.

      Critic Fernando F. Croce appropriately asserts, “A pre-Code tour de force of inane illusionism and peekaboo nipples caps this sensualist hodgepodge, grinning showgirls with propellers strapped to dominatrix outfits and paraded on the wings of airplanes about Hollywood’s Brazil.” Evidently, the Hays Office didn’t at all mind images of tortured women, including one of whom seems to fall to her certain death before landing on the wing of airplane just below her.

    Yet we can’t forget the previous lapses, and even the absurdist ending doesn’t quite make up for them, reminding us that something in this film seems to be missing. It’s fascinating that by the time of the very next pairing of Astaire and Rogers in The Gay Divorcee of the following year, the studios had realized, even though the Hays Office and Breen had issued the declaration of no more pansies, that the dancing duo needed just that,  comic figures whose sexual identities would not interfere with the basic romance of the musical comedy around which its central figures twirled.

     While they retained Blore as a waiter, they replaced Pangborn with a slightly less prissy type, Edward Everett Horton, making him in this first movie a lawyer—before in other films promoting him to the position of Astaire’s loyal friend and loaning him a wife who doesn’t seem to mind that he spends all his time in Astaire’s company and traveling about the world. To up the ante, so-to-speak, they added yet a third pansy role, in The Gay Divorcee in the form of a professional co-respondent, Rodolfo Tonetti (Erik Rhodes). This film and most of the following works such as Top Hat were far more openly “gay” in sensibility, allowing the humor to permeate the scenes in between Ginger and Fred’s showcase numbers. But they were coded, both linguistically and through their assigned positions in life (waiter, valet, clothes designer, etc.) with their behavior resisting the most stereotypical gay affectations just enough that they couldn’t be read as simply being sissies. And in that sense, the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals upgraded the positions of gay males. These new figures might make a fuss about the way you wore your tie or how you treated the dresses they designed, but they were also willing to marry the heroine if necessary, and in the case of Eric Blore even save the day. And the central gay friend, Horton, if befuddled and a prude, was, after all, a married man, not an obvious queer.


*Astaire described Pan as his “idea man,” and the two danced out all the numbers together long before and sometimes even after Rogers appeared on the set. When she was busy making other movies, Astaire rehearsed with Pan. Pan, described as a highly closeted homosexual, also worked with other dancers, but none as regularly and as intimately as with Astaire.