Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers First Danced Their Way Into Movie Audiences’ Hearts 90 Years Ago in ‘Flying Down to Rio’

black and white photo from the 1933 movie
Courtesy Everett Collection

On Dec. 29, 1933, an RKO production called Flying Down to Rio opened in wide release, a week after its New York City premiere.

The film featured some of the usual elements found in movie musicals of the era that audiences during the Great Depression enjoyed to help give them a few hours respite from the world. There was romance in its story in the form of a love triangle among characters played by the three top-billed stars — Dolores del Río, Gene Raymond and Raul Roulien — in what then would have seemed like an exotic setting (Rio de Janeiro).

poster for the 1933 movie "Flying Down to Rio." The colorful image is dominated by an illustration of one of the film's famous moments, in which several women perform dance numbers on the wings of a biplane in flight over Rio de Janeiro. There are two illustrations of biplanes, one following the other, filled with people on their wings. The plane closest to the front of the poster, amid its group of people, features an especially large illustration of a woman in a dress and heels who is partly sitting on the plane and partly with her feet touching the title treatment for the movie just below her, which is swooshing up in large yellow lettering from the bottom right. In the bottom right is a list of the major actors, with Dolores del Rio given the largest treatment. Below her name, and smaller, are the names of actors Gene Raymond, Raul Roulien, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. At the very top of the poster, in yellow lettering, reads: "A Musical Extravaganza Staged in the Clouds." Just below that, in similar lettering, reads: "Romance That Soars to the Skies on the Wings of Song!"

Courtesy Everett Collection

del Río made a little history in this pre-Code feature, and maybe caused some folks to hit the fainting couch, when she became the first major actress to wear a two-piece women’s bathing suit onscreen:

black and white image from the 1933 movie "Flying Down to Rio." Left to right are stars Walter Walker, Dolores del Rio, Gene Raymond and Fred Astaire. del Rio is wearing a black two-piece women's bathing suit, the first major actress to wear one onscreen (a white wrap is draped over her shoulders).

Courtesy Everett Collection

Of course, there was also plenty of music and song, and dancing. Among the highlights was the delightfully crazy “musical extravaganza staged in the clouds,” as posters like the one above hyped, that is seen in the video below.

Still one of the first things that comes to mind when thinking of Flying Down to Rio, it’s an impressive dance/special effects scene that ranks as the second-best motion picture sequence involving biplanes to have been produced in 1933 (after RKO’s King Kong).

There were other noteworthy musical moments as well, and they, like the scene above, also involved the fourth- and fifth-billed actors on the film’s poster: Ginger Rogers, who had been appearing onscreen since 1930, including in two other notable musicals released earlier in 1933 (42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933) and Fred Astaire, who was making his second film appearance after many years on the stage.

In one sequence, Astaire sang the title song, “Flying Down to Rio,” which was danced by Rogers and the chorus. In another, Rogers sang “Music Makes Me,” accompanied by general dancing. And at one point, Roulien sang “Orchids in Moonlight,” with Astaire and del Río dancing a bit.

But the magic really happened when Rogers and Astaire finally came together and danced. Audiences at the time may not have realized they were watching a historic cinematic moment, but they surely must have felt the chemistry between the two stars, and marveled at their physicality, exuberance and grace, just as new audiences have continued to in the nine decades since.

black and white image from the 1933 movie "Flying Down to Rio." It is the scene where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance together onscreen for the first time, accompanied by the song "Carioca." In this vertical image, Astaire is on the left, wearing a dark tuxedo. Rogers is wearing a dark-colored ballgown, and is dancing very closely to Astaire; so close that their foreheads are touching. They are both smiling and looking into each other's eyes, with Astaire crouching down a little mid-dance and because he is about a head taller. In the background, a bandleader is conducting musicians.

Courtesy Everett Collection

In 1935’s Top Hat, probably their quintessential pairing among the 10 films they appeared in together, Astaire and Rogers would famously dance “Cheek to Cheek.”

In their Flying Down to Rio scene, which serves to introduce a production number centered around the Oscar-nominated song “Carioca,” their characters, Fred Ayres and Honey Hales, are often dancing forehead-to-forehead after they decide to get up and demonstrate their moves, with Honey excitedly exclaiming: “We’ll show ’em a thing or three!”

And show ’em, they did. They showed both the characters in the film watching Fred and Honey, and the real-world audiences in the theaters enjoying Fred and Ginger.

Flying Down to Rio was a hit for RKO, and I’m sure many of the elements also listed above played a part in it. But Astaire and Rogers’ relatively brief, but scene-stealing, dance was undoubtedly a pivotal part of the film’s success — not to mention their own.

They became breakout stars who got top billing the next time they paired up onscreen, which was later the following year in 1934’s The Gay Divorcee (on that film’s poster, they were hyped as “The King and Queen of Carioca”). There, they danced to another Oscar-nominated song, “The Continental,” which beat “Carioca” for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards.

(Incidentally, I can’t hear “Carioca” without thinking of how I first became aware of that song: via a cover version heard during the opening credits of the 1977 comedy The Kentucky Fried Movie.)

It’s interesting that the first of the several famous onscreen pairings between Rogers and Astaire occurred in a film released just before New Year’s, since it seems like they and their films have become linked with New Year’s Eve over the decades. Maybe because it’s a night that has long been associated with dressing up and dancing, and no one did that better than those two.

black and white photo from the 1933 movie "Flying Down to Rio." It is a medium shot of stars Fred Astaire (on left) and Ginger Rogers in character. Astaire is smiling and wearing a dark suit with a white carnation in the pocket, and a lighter colored dress shirt and tie. Rogers is wearing a lighter colored dress and a head covering tied around her neck.

Courtesy Everett Collection

As a kid, when I was trying to stay up late on Dec. 31 and see what was on TV as the old year left and a new one began during the late ’70s/early ’80s, it seemed like I always saw The Gay Divorcee featured on some channel. I would usually tune in, because there often wasn’t much else airing at the time (New Year’s Eve was one of the rare nights when TV stations that normally might have signed off would broadcast a little longer into the night). But I actually enjoyed the dance numbers in what was my first exposure to this iconic duo.

That link with New Year’s Eve hasn’t really changed much. In fact, you can send off 2023 and ring in 2024 with several Astaire/Rogers classics, including Flying Down to Rio, on the MOVIES! network. That lineup begins on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023, at 2pm ET with Top Hat, followed by Carefree (1938) at 4:10pm ET; Flying Down to Rio at 6pm ET; The Gay Divorcee at 8pm ET; Shall We Dance (1937) at 10:15pm ET; and a re-airing of Top Hat at 12:35am ET on Monday, Jan. 1, 2024.

Of course, maybe you won’t be home New Year’s Eve because you’ll be dressed to the nines and going out dancing. In that case, you can try to impress everyone by quickly learning the “Carioca,” courtesy of these simple dance steps:

black and white image collage from the 1933 movie "Flying Down to Rio." There are three vertical images of stars Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (he wearing a tuxedo, she a white ballgown) performing dance steps for the "Carioca" number they perform in the film. Below each image is an illustration of the position of their feet, accompanied by the successive captions: "Cross Step & Toe Beat," "Circular Rock (Fox-trot Step)" and "Heel & Toe Click"

Courtesy Everett Collection

So, there you go. Shouldn’t be too hard to duplicate Astaire and Rogers, should it?