Thursday, September 03, 2015

RIO RITA (1942)

This is an odd duck of a film. It's based very loosely on a 1920s stage musical which was filmed at the dawn of the sound era as a vehicle for the comedians Wheeler and Woolsey who also starred in the Broadway production. Here, some of the songs have been retained, but the original plot involving a search by the Texas Rangers for a notorious Mexican bandit has been completely revamped for the slapsticky talents of Abbott and Costello, and for the wartime setting. Bud and Lou are stranded in Texas and hop into the trunk of a car with New York license plates, hoping to make it back to the Big Apple, but instead wind up at a hotel in a small Texas town near the Mexican border. It turns out they've hopped a ride with John Carroll, a singing star who is returning to his hometown for the first time in years and who starts up a flirtation with the lovely Kathryn Grayson, owner of the local hotel, who had a big crush on him in the past. However, Grayson may have cause to be jealous when Patricia Dane, who works for the hotel manager (Tom Conway), starts making a play for Carroll. Unbeknownst to our heroes, the hotel and the local radio station are nests of Nazi spies—led by Conway—who hope to get a coded message out in Carroll's big national broadcast. The best bits along the way to the predictable ending involve boxes of artificial apples that are actually miniature radios, a gigantic industrial washing machine in which Lou gets stuck, and the climactic arrival of singing Texas Rangers.

I loved Abbott and Costello when I was a kid; I have fond memories of seeing them on the local afternoon movie show and at school when they would sometimes show Friday afternoon movies. But they eventually lost their appeal to me, especially when I discovered the Marx Brothers, and I have rarely revisited their films in my adulthood. This was an early one that they did on loan to MGM from Universal, and it has more of the feel of a glossy MGM musical than it does a mid-budget Abbott & Costello romp. In fact, it feels like three different movies: an A&C comedy of bungling, an MGM musical, and a straight-up romance. The fit is a bit awkward at times, but frankly I found it rather fun to be bounced around between genres, especially when the likable John Carroll and the talented Kathryn Grayson (both pictured above) are providing the musical and romantic relief from the comedy. Barry Nelson has a small role as a government agent and Peter Whitney is effective as a Nazi thug. Overall, the few musical interludes are not memorable except for the Rangers song. A likable movie, if not one for the ages. [TCM]

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