Even for a 1933 movie musical, Flying Down to Rio is a vaudeville show shamelessly trying to pass for a feature film. Thank goodness, then, that it can get by on sheer showmanship.
The framing device involves the attempts of band leader and playboy (read: womanizer) Roger Bond (a ghostly blond Gene Raymond) to woo Brazilian socialite Belinha De Rezende (Mexican actress Dolores del Rio). This involves, mercifully, dragging his entire band – including Fred Astaire’s Fred Ayres and Ginger Rogers’ Honey Hale – from Miami to Rio de Janeiro, where all sorts of antics ensue.
The best of these involve Astaire and Rogers, which is why they would go on to make numerous starring vehicles together. Trying to impress the locals, who have just demonstrated their own dance, the “Carioca,” Astaire and Rogers take to the stage and offer a tap-dance variation. Alone, Astaire has the lanky features and comic face of a marionette, but as soon as he begins moving with the liquid Rogers, a certain elegance emerges.
Some of the larger dance numbers are frustratingly cramped – director Thornton Freeland’s camera is too close to capture all of the movement – yet Flying Down to Rio finds its own sort of spectacle elsewhere. Orchids are a recurring visual motif, and one lovers’ embrace takes place against rear-projection images of orchids spinning in motion. Astaire and Rogers perform another routine atop a rotating stage that’s constructed of six different pianos. And then there is the finale, in which a number of planes with chorus girls riding on the wings zoom over the skies of Rio (rear projection again). At this point, the movie has left behind any semblance of sense or reality – but hey, you couldn’t do this in a vaudeville show.