I’ve been making a concerted effort to cut back on my DVD/Blu-ray purchases…but to borrow a line from a classic broadcast of The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: “It ain’t been easy, Clyde…” To illustrate: Kino Lorber has an August 2018 Studio Classics Sale in progress right now (it ends August 28), and when I went over to just browse…well, I ended up throwing three titles into my shopping cart. (In the “adding insult to injury” department—two of them I already own on DVD…I just wanted a Blu-ray upgrade.)
Two titles of particular interest in the Kino sale are the recently released to Blu-ray editions of It’s the Old Army Game (1926) and Running Wild (1927), two of W.C. Fields’ silent comedies. I own Game on a Mom-and-Pop DVD and saw Wild on VHS many, many, many years back during my hard-working CSR days at Ballbuster Blockbuster Video. They’re both available on Blu for $9.99…which disappernts me because I paid $10.99 during KL’s last sale. In my defense, I bought both of these titles to go with three more I was purchasing so that I’d have at least $50 worth of merchandise (and save myself some hefty shipping charges).
One of those titles was 1947’s Road to Rio—the fifth “road trip” taken by stars Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour…and at one time, my second-favorite in the franchise. Sadly, every time I revisit the film I can’t ignore quite a few lulls in the presentation; as a New York Times critic observed: “They are traversing more of a rollercoaster highway than usual this time and so there are some tedious uphill pulls when the huffing and puffing is excessive and the results negligible. However, when they reach the top “Road to Rio” is irresistible.” I think that’s an excellent evaluation; I understand why there are dead spots in Rio (1947)—at 100 minutes, it’s the longest entry in the seven-film series. But I’d probably rank Rio at #3…with Morocco moving up a notch to #2 (Utopia, of course, is still the best “Road” film…hands down).
As is the case with most of the “Road” films, Rio’s plot is fairly straightforward: entertainers Scat Sweeney (Bing) and Hot Lips Barton (Bob) stowaway on the Rio de Janiero-bound Queen of Brazil after setting a Louisiana carnival on fire. On board, the two men save Lucia Maria de Andrade (Dottie) from a watery grave when they interrupt her suicidal attempt to jump overboard.
Why is Lucia so unhappy? She shouldn’t be; Lucia’s betrothed to Sherman Mallory (George Meeker) but she’s not so certain she wants to go through with it. Mallory’s sinister sister—”Aunt” Catherine Vail (Gale Sondergaard)—is determined that the nuptials go as planned by repeatedly hypnotizing her would-be sister-in-law to do her bidding. Lucia retains no knowledge of her in-and-out trances: she can rat out Scat and Hot Lips as stowaways to the ship’s captain (“Old Ranger” Stanley Andrews) one minute and put in a good word for our heroes—she arranges for them to work off their passage by joining the onboard orchestra—the next.
Arriving at their destination, Scat—who has fallen in love with Lucia—sneaks his love off the boat in a bass fiddle case to escape her aunt’s clutches. Scat and Hot Lips persuade a nightclub owner (Nestor Paiva) to hire them and a trio of street musicians (The Wiere Brothers—Harry, Herbert, and Sylvester) and with Lucia as female vocalist, the musical aggregation is a smash. Their success is fleeting, however, when Mrs. Vail hypnotizes Lucia into revealing to the owner their act is a fraud (the street trio was being passed off as bebop jazz cats).
Mrs. Vale steps up her villainy by hypnotizing Scat and Hot Lips into fighting a duel while she spirits Lucia to the wedding three hundred miles away. It looks like our heroes will have their hands full rescuing Lucia, but with the help of a mysterious stranger named Rodrigues (Frank Puglia), Scat and Hot Lips just may be able to stop the wedding and retrieve Rio’s “MacGuffin”—the papers!
According to a 1948 article in The New York Times, stars Crosby and Hope each owned one-third of Road to Rio, having ponied up one-third of the $2,400,000 it cost to make the picture. (The movie performed splendidly at the box office.) Edmund Beloin (one of Jack Benny’s radio writers) and Jack Rose (he wrote for Hope’s radio program) contributed the story and screenplay, continuing a successful collaboration that began with My Favorite Brunette (1947) and continued with The Great Lover in 1949. In the director’s chair was veteran Norman Z. McLeod, whose cinematic resume included comedy classics like the Marx Brothers vehicles Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932) and W.C. Fields’ It’s a Gift (1934). (The on-board barbershop sequence in Rio is similar to one used in Monkey Business, by the way.) McLeod would later go on to helm Bob’s box office behemoth The Paleface the following year, as well as My Favorite Spy (1951) and Casanova’s Big Night (1954).
The success of any “Road” film—and to be honest, the formula for any really great Bob Hope comedy—depends on the placement of the comedy against a background of menace. TDOY favorite Gale Sondergaard is most effective as that menace, something Hope most certainly knew from working with her in three previous pictures—Never Say Die (1939), The Cat and the Canary (1939), and My Favorite Blonde (1942). Gale keeps henchmen Frank Faylen (as Trigger) and Joseph Vitale (as Tony) in her employ, and while the two thugs are pressed into service as foils for Bing and Bob, there’s no questioning their goon bona fides—particularly in the scene where we first meet them as Trigger works over a hapless steward (George Chandler) who’s misplaced two of their suits (Scat and Hot Lips have “liberated” them).
The presence of Sondergaard is the main reason why I’m a huge fan of Road to Rio; the other is that it features one of my favorite musical numbers from any motion picture: The Andrews Sisters—Patty, Maxene, and Laverne—performing You Don’t Have to Know the Language with Bing’s Scat. Crosby and the trio had a long musical history together with chart toppers like Hot Time in the Town of Berlin and Don’t Fence Me In and their rendition of Language (later released as a single) is one that just fills me with joy. (Crosby’s But Beautiful also saw a little chart action as well.)
As always, the biggest chuckles in Rio are those of the in-joke gag variety: Hope’s playing of Thanks for the Memory on trumpet as we encounter his character for the first time and the side of meat in the ship’s galley freezer stamped “Crosby Stables” are two of my favorites, but the one that never fails to send me to the floor is the appearance of Hope’s radio stooge Jerry Colonna leading the cavalry at picture’s end (“Whaddya know? We didn’t quite make it!”). Road to Rio’s Blu-ray presentation isn’t all that different from the DVD copy I already owned but I don’t regret the purchase; it’s the “Road” trio at their wackiest and most wonderful with plenty of laughs and surprises.