RIO RITA (MGM 1942) Warner Archive Collection
For once MGM, the studio with 'more stars than there are in heaven', looked outside its own embarrassment of riches to borrow Bud Abbott and Lou Costello from Universal to star in one of their best comedies in years. Director S. Sylvan Simon's Rio Rita (1942) may not be a direct descendent of Florenz Ziegfeld's 1927 smash stage musical or even a kissing cousin to the 1929 film made at RKO, but it is still one humdinger of a good show.
In revamping the Broadway original to fit tried and true comedic material from A&C, screenwriters Richard Connell and Gladys Lehman kept only the threadbare overview of the stage hit; involving a young ingénue who is hoping to turn her struggling hotel around by hosting a lavish fiesta. This being 1942 however, the writers interjected an incongruous bit of espionage nonsense perpetrated by the Nazis.
The story opens at the Hotel Vista Del Rio; a property belonging to Rita Winslow (Kathryn Grayson in her second movie) but managed by her late father's trusted advisor Maurice Craindall (Tom Conway). Unbeknownst to Rita, Maurice is a Nazi saboteur whose latest diabolical plot involves smuggling a shipment of wax apples that house radio communicators that his spying cohorts will use to keep in constant contact with one another.
Rita has great expectations for the hotel, particularly when her school girl’s crush/turned singing sensation, Ricardo Montera (John Carroll) arrives to partake in the festivities. Rita hopes to rekindle their childhood romance. But she quickly disillusioned, realizing that Ricardo has become a Latin Lothario in her absence. In fact, Ricardo doesn't even remember her name.
In the meantime, Wishy (Lou Costello) and Doc (Bud Abbott) have been fired from their job at the pet store. With nowhere to go and no money to get there, they stowaway in the trunk of Ricardo's car and find themselves at the hotel too. Hungry, they mistake the radio-transmitting apples for the real McCoy, are angry when the apples prove fakes and toss the entire consignment to a bunch of mules and one precocious German Shepherd who devour them with gusto.
A rivalry for Ricardo's affections begins to grow between vixen Lucette Brunswick (Patricia Dane) and Rita. The fiesta's master of ceremonies, Harry Gantley (Barry Nelson) informs Wishy and Doc, who have been hired by Rita as house detectives that he is an FBI agent who has come to the Hotel Vista Del Rio to bust the spy ring. Harry is murdered, leaving Wishy and Doc holding the bag. The fiesta kicks into high gear and Lucette attempts to explain to Ricardo that she is also working for the FBI in the hopes that he will lead her to the radio transmitters. Actually, Lucette is a double agent working for Maurice and the Nazis.
After exposing the spy ring over live radio, Doc and Wishy make chase after Maurice and his cronies. But at the last possible moment Wishy lets them get away. The spies pile into a car and speed off toward the U.S./Mexican border. Asked by Ricardo why he has allowed the spies to escape Wishy simply plugs his ears just as a bomb goes off inside the Nazis getaway car. This explosive device was earlier planted by one of the Nazis, Jake (Peter Whitney) on Wishy's person. However, in their tussle Wishy managed to slip the bomb back into Jake's coat pocket at the last possible moment.
Rio Rita is a potpourri for A&C's time-honored comedic routines. There's a hilarious skit in which Doc informs Wishy that if he does not get something to eat soon he will start to see things. The two men close their eyes near the hotel and attempt to sleep while a pair of waiters set up a buffet nearby. Wishy smells the food including roast chicken, thinks it's a mirage but eats it anyway, prompting Doc to bet him for the chicken.
"I'll bet you're not here," says Doc. "You're not in Boston. You're not in Philadelphia and you're not in Washington. And if you're not in Philadelphia, Boston or Washington then you must be someplace else. And if you're someplace else then you can't be here." But Wishy has the last laugh. "If I'm not in Boston, Philadelphia or Washington I must be someplace else and if I'm someplace else than I can't be here. So if I'm not here then I obviously can't steal your chicken!"
Kathryn Grayson and John Carroll are passable as the star-crossed lovers but they are given precious little to do. This is Bud and Lou's show all the way. Still, Carroll croons the title track during the fiesta, oozing charm while Grayson has her moment warbling the deliciously operatic, The Shadow Song. The two also join the MGM male chorus for the rousing 'Ranger's Song'. This tune becomes a pivotal plot point later on. Seemingly trapped and at the mercy of the Nazis, Wishy drives the pack of mules who devoured the radio transmitter apples through the fiesta concourse. The radios are all playing the 'Ranger's Song'. Assuming that the rangers have come to arrest him Maurice evacuates the hotel with his cronies, heading for the car with the bomb already inside it.
The Connell/Lehman screenplay is a threadbare patchwork at best, with John Grant contributing specialty skits for Bud and Lou. Their star power alone carries this version of Rio Rita to its rousing conclusion. MGM's lavish production values augment the prestige of these comic titans with sets and backdrops that Universal's art department could only dream about. The success of Rio Rita prompted MGM’s L.B. Mayer to offer a buy out of Bud and Lou’s studio contract. But Universal knew a good thing when they saw it. Apart from a few loan outs later on, the bulk of Abbott and Costello’s film career would be blissfully spent on their own back lot, churning out one comedy hit after the next. By the end of the 1940s, Bud and Lou were among the top 10 box office draws in the nation.
Rio Rita is a Warner Archive MOD DVD. The results are better than one might expect. Sourced from restored and remastered elements, the B&W image is actually quite solid, exhibits superb gradation and tonality in its gray scale and is virtually free of any digital anomalies. Occasionally age related artifacts crop up but these do not distract from this presentation. Fine details are evident throughout and the overall image is razor sharp without being artificially enhanced. The audio is mono as originally recorded but remarkably clear and free of hiss and pop. Like all Archive titles this one only comes with a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Rio Rita is good fun and a must own for A&C fans.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)