17 December 2006

"In Fourteen Massive Reels"

From a syndicated news item dated February 20th, 1932:

"Musical pictures, which became so tiresome a couple of years ago that they almost faded out of notice, are due to stage a comeback this year, studio directors predict."

"One indication of the returning popularity of music was the success of a revived 'Rio Rita' in London. Three years old, the picture was modernized a bit, sent to London and drew capacity houses this winter."

"'When 'Rio Rita,' as a re-issued picture, can break box-office records in London and musical shows can outdraw any of the dramatic plays on Broadway, it's pretty clear that the public wants musical entertainment' remarked Max Steiner, head of the music department of the RKO studio."

"'The screen, in its early vocal days, overplayed the alliance between music and the theater, and abused it. The pendulum swung far away from the musical but now it's coming back to normal.'"

The "modernized" version of "Rio Rita" (RKO-1929) that filled cinema houses in London and was booked into theaters across the United States (and beyond) as late as October of 1933 is, by and large, the version of the film we're familiar with today --- and the same one that frequently airs on the Turner Classic Movies cable station.

Although vintage film titles are often prefaced on TCM with spoken introductions consisting of all manner of trivia, sometimes relevant and accurate and oftentimes neither, presentations of "Rio Rita" have never, to my knowledge, included mention of the fact that a very different version than the one that audiences first saw in 1929 is what's being offered --- a truncated version of "Rio Rita" that has little in common with the film that was such a spectacular critical, popular and financial success that it was held over in many theaters for two and sometimes as many as three weeks --- in a day when, outside of major cities, most films had a run of under one week and sometimes as few as four days.

As originally released, "Rio Rita" played in theaters across the country in a length of either fourteen or fifteen reels (according to period newspaper accounts) which can equate to a running time of anywhere between 130 and 160 minutes in theaters where the presentation included recorded (or live) Overture, Intermission and Exit music, which also indicates that elaborate presentations of this sort were not solely restricted to mammoth theaters in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc. as is frequently cited in various books as having been the case.

Although the extended length of the film posed some scheduling problems for theater owners that included the temporary suspension of accompanying live vaudeville acts or surrounding film material such as newsreels, short subjects and cartoons, the challenge appears to have been met with not only good will and spirit (doubtless aided by the knowledge that the film would perform incredibly well at the box office) but also with a remarkable sense of pride displayed by some theater owners and managers of the sort that, if not frequently seen in 1929 film advertising, then would be deemed decidedly peculiar and suspect in today's near complete absence of showmanship of any sort at the theater level.

One example of an typically accommodating theater owner faced with presentation of "Rio Rita" can be viewed below, which needs no explanation, only admiration. (As with all images in this blog, clicking on them will bring up a large and hopefully easy-to-read view.)

It's been said that the cuts to "Rio Rita" which formed the 1932 re-release version were done by the hand of none other than David O. Selznick, but whether true or not, the fact remains that the film was slashed by somewhere between four and five reels in length, amounting to at least forty minutes of deletions.

Curiously, although an attempt to "modernize" the film would be normally thought as an effort to punch up the pace a bit and to trim overly flowery or dated dialogue sequences, the cuts seem to have entirely been focused on musical material --- an odd decision in light of the fact that it was the musical content of the film that so appealed to audiences in Great Britain and America when the trimmed version premiered! In retrospect, audiences in 1932 and 1933 would have probably been better served if the film had been left intact --- and it's a certainty that we today would have been too.

I've noticed that modern viewers who encounter the film are cleanly divided between those who are confounded and baffled by the film's Ziegfeldian staging and pacing and to whom the film can never be satisfying in any form, and those viewers --- although few in numbers, who detect that something is not quite right with the "Rio Rita" as it exists today. Musical cues slowly rise only to be cut away from, characters are spoken of yet never seen in the context of the moment, dancers are seen exiting scenes that they were never seen to enter, and unintentional jumps in continuity all serve to make what was once a finely tooled, tried and true success seem the work of amateur filmmakers, performers and technicians.

It's difficult to ascertain precisely what content is missing from current circulating prints of "Rio Rita," as my only reference points are a dimly remembered screening of a mostly intact print at New York's Museum of Modern Art a number of years ago where it played to a delighted and appreciative full house of viewers (that included myself and and Ed Watz, who'd eventually author a fine book on the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey) all of whom didn't realize they'd likely never see "Rio Rita" in so complete a form again, and a set of fourteen Vitaphone-type sound discs that accompanied the film for a European engagement.

While not definitive, among the deletions from the early and mid sections of the film are Dorothy Lee's song and dance rendition of "The Kinkajou," two extended dance sequences at the costume ball choreographed by Pearl Eaton (as were all dances for the film,) a duet rendition of "You're Always In My Arms" performed by stars John Boles and Bebe Daniels, and most lamentably, a delightfully risque tune that segues into a pre-code delight of a production number entitled "Are You There?" performed by Bert Wheeler and Dorothy Lee as frustrated honeymooners forced to share separate bedrooms on their first night as man and wife (production still, below right.)

Deletions begin in the film's second half (all Technicolor, with action set aboard a gigantic "pirate barge") straight away. The multi-hued portion of the film begins in a stunningly majestic fashion, with a male singer vocalizing "Over the Boundary Line," while standing before what looks to be a billowing silk curtain (festooned with Ziegfeld-like showgirls on either side.) As the song gets underway, the "curtain" begins to pull upwards and away, as it's revealed to actually be a ship's sail that, once raised, affords full view of the curved and ornate ship railings, fittings, decking and stairways leading upwards on either side to a dining and dancing area while dress extras in tuxedos and gowns casually parade before the camera.

As heard in "Deleted Footage #1," the audio excerpt includes material cut from this sequence, including a brief musical bridge (immediately following the conclusion of the opening vocal) that allowed the camera to glide across the expansive set so as to give audiences a moment to absorb details and gain an all important sense of place and location. This was immediately followed by a Saber Dance (also deleted) performed by chorines clad in the Ziegfeld notion of a female pirate --- red satin shorts, high boots and jaunty hats replete with a skull and crossbones insignia. Following the dance, (and the cut version resumes here) Robert Woolsey advises guests that a wedding may take place and recommends that they suitably "fortify" themselves for the event.

"Rio Rita" (1929) Deleted Footage #1

A bit later on, the plot develops to the point where Rita (Bebe Daniels) learns that she has no choice but to be married, against her will, to the villain of the film, General Ravinoff (George Renavent,) so as to protect her brother. Her heart beats only for Captain Jim Stewart (John Boles) and as she reluctantly dons her wedding gown, she reprises "You're Always In My Arms" in a tearful rendition that has been entirely deleted but which can be heard here in "Deleted Footage #2."

"Rio Rita" (1929) Deleted Footage #2

One of the few new songs written for the 1929 film version that turned out to be one of the loveliest in either the old or new score, was "Sweetheart, We Need Each Other." Performed twice in the film's Technicolor portion --- first as a duet and eccentric dance by Bert Wheeler and Dorothy Lee, the tune's second presentation was reduced to half its length for the 1932 re-issue. Vocalized by Wheeler, Woolsey, Dorothy Lee and Helen Kaiser (seated aboard the ship's rail) it turns into a slapping match between the two comedians and concludes with all four being knocked overboard into the water below. In the original print, following a quick view of the foursome floundering in the water, a raucous musical note returned the viewer to the deck of the pirate barge. A doorway in the middle of the deck was flung open, and out poured the production's entire female dance ensemble, clad in gold and silver costumes with bright crimson accents, for a jazzy dance reprise of the melody that includes some wonderful, tightly choreographed synchronized tap dancing arranged by Pearl Eaton. It can't easily be seen today --- if at all, but it can be heard here via a (sadly!) exceptionally worn sound disc in "Deleted Footage #3."

For the last deleted sequence offered in this post, we turn to John Boles who could be heard singing "Following the Sun Around" to a newly hopeful Bebe Daniels once he makes his appearance aboard the pirate barge.

In the grand scheme of things, I suppose that the deletion or restoration of these forty odd moments of film footage would matter little one way or another in modern appraisal (or condemnation) of the film, for opinions of films and musicals of this vintage are all too often set down or formed without the film even having ever been seen, in any form or length.

Rather, the only truly disagreeable aspect to all this (for, in reality we're lucky to have the film with us in any shape) would center upon the fact that the film can be restored to a length approximating it's original release version, but is apparently so little thought of by the companies that now own it, that they're seemingly even unaware of the film's cut status. I like to think that perhaps one or two people are in place that have a degree of knowledge within the realm of film history, and --- just as important, real fondness for the product they regularly schedule for cable airing, but in cases such as this, one does wonder.

Rounding out this post, a selection of commercial 78rpm recordings associated with the film. First up, a performance of the film's title tune dating from the product's Broadway stage incarnation --- in this case 1927, as recorded by Nathaniel Shilkret & the Victor Orchestra in February of that year. Complete with castanets and swirling violins, it's as evocative as it is effective.

Medley - "Rio Rita" (1927) Shilkret

Lastly, perhaps the best of the many medleys that were recorded during the film's stage and screen periods. Recorded by the Colonial Club Orchestra in October of 1929, this two-sided 78rpm recording offers vocal and instrumental renditions of (again) the title tune, "Rio Rita," along with "If You're In Love You'll Waltz," Sweetheart We Need Each Other," "The Kinkajou," "You're Always in My Arms" and "Following the Sun Around."



Kevin K. said...

That bottom ad gives the first two showtimes as 1:15 and 3:30, which would make the running time no more than two hours -- and, judging by the mention of "So This is College" in the article to the left, this was in 1929. Is it possible some of the original engagements were cut down as well?

Jeff Cohen said...

Hard to say, for if the first and second show-times are accurate, then the third show of the day should have been listed as starting at 5:45PM and not 6:45. Doubtless, some theaters could have (and would have) snipped footage or perhaps entire reels in an effort to increase the number of shows per day --- but I imagine this was a risky move that was largely avoided.

Anonymous said...

Going through some old 16mm reels of film, I found a print of musical numbers from 1929's Rio Rita that had two of the deleted musical numbers in it. The first was the Dorothy Lee number, "The Kinkajou" and the second was the dance number on the pirate ship to the tune of Sweetheart, We Need Each Other. I posted short clips of them to YouTube. I guess you will have to copy and paste if you would like to see them