Review: S. Sylvan Simon’s “Rio Rita,” Starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in "Rio Rita"

After six films in a row at Universal, comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made Rio Rita in 1942, the first of three films for MGM. What should have been a step up for the duo, as Universal couldn’t compare to the big budgets and salaries of MGM, instead resulted in an unwatchable film full of painful musical numbers and a tedious assortment of predictable gags.

An extremely loose adaptation of a twenties musical, Rio Rita follows Abbott and Costello ending up at a Mexican border hotel run by Rita (Kathryn Grayson). To help them out, Rita gives them jobs as house detectives, and with that title they uncover a ring of Nazi spies at the hotel. The spies want to transmit coded messages over the radio, planning to somehow use famous broadcaster and hotel guest, Ricardo Montera (John Carroll), to do so. Montera, unaware of the spies, gets caught up in a love triangle between Rita and Lucette (Patricia Dane), which is where the film’s several musical numbers fit in. Most are between Carroll and Grayson, whose singing voices are unpleasant individually and intolerable together.

Ultimately, Rio Rita has the exact same problem as the Universal films. The filmmakers, concerned Abbott and Costello can’t hold a movie on their own, insert a secondary plot—in this case, the love triangle—but only as filler, without any merits of its own. While the comedians’ routines here are particularly weak, returning to them is nevertheless a relief when put up against nonsensical scenes with other characters.

For the most part, the routines are either variations on the famous “Who’s on first?” routine—miscommunication based on words that sound the same—or more effects-driven gags, including one large-scale sequence early on that involves a car and a garage lift.

Neither routine works, however. What they needed, it seems, was a stronger director to help them find what material worked best for the screen. S. Sylvan Simon took a very hands-off approach, telling the press, “You don’t have rules with them. You just have two cameras shooting from different angles . . . It’s always impossible to guess what they’ll do next. Sometimes they follow the script, but they’re just as likely to throw in their own stuff.”1

Despite a sizeable budget, the whole production feels just as cheap as the Universal films, with small sets and especially phony backdrops—when characters yell loudly enough, you can practically hear their voices echo off the studio walls. Few Abbott and Costello films work well, but Rio Rita makes Buck Privates or Ride ‘Em Cowboy look like high art.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

Rent it on Google Play

For More on Rio Rita

Read the review in The New York Times

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Bob Furmanek and Ron Palumbo, Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (New York: Perigee Trade, 1991), 79