Tonight: Blame It on Rio, an erotic comedy that stars Michael Caine, Joseph Bologna, Valerie Harper, Michelle Johnson and Demi Moore. Stanley Donen directed it.
When he was nine years old, Donen saw the Busby Berkeley classic Flying Down to Rio in a neighborhood theater.
There and then, he decided he was going to make movies when he grew up.
It was the first Astaire-Rogers musical, and if anyone ever challenged them for creating the best singing and dancing movies of all time, it would be Donen, himself, in the films he made with his longtime directorial partner, Gene Kelly—films such as Singing in the Rain (1952).
Donen also directed such distinguished pictures as the Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn thriller Charade (1963).
Although they didn’t say so officially, the folks behind Blame It on Rio based it on a French bedroom farce titled One Wild Moment, also known as A Summer Affair. Donen changed the setting from St. Tropez to Rio. The entire picture was shot on location there.
The screenplay for Blame It on Rio was co-written by that witty fellow, our friend Larry Gelbart, who also served as executive producer.
In his book Laughing Matters, Gelbart wrote about creating MASH* (1970), Oh, God! (1977) and Tootsie (1982), but he never mentioned Blame It on Rio.
All the pre-release publicity on the film focused on the physical gifts of 17-year-old newcomer, Michelle Johnson.
In 1983, Donen had seen a small photo of her in W, the fashion magazine. Donen promptly signed the stunning teenager to a movie—right out of high school!
She was nearly five-feet, eleven-inches tall. Still is, too.
The real star of the movie was the versatile and popular British star, Michael Caine, born Maurice Micklewhite to humble, Cockney parents in London.
In his memoir, Caine offered some thoughts on the problems presented by the picture. “The story was a bit dangerous,” he explained, “but we all believed we could get away with it.
“Stanley shot a lot of scenes of (Johnson) topless, against my wishes. But Stanley shot on. And what had seemed so innocuous on the topless beaches of St. Tropez, where the French film had been made, now suddenly seemed vulgar and gratuitous in our film. And it did us a lot of harm.
“Unbeknownst to us, there was worse to come.
“Like everybody else, I had heard that Brazil, in general, and Rio in particular, were very liberal places, sexually speaking.
“I’d only been there a couple of days when the English electricians had taken me out to have a couple of beers and see the local striptease. Well, the opening act consisted of three couples in sexual congress…
“The girls on the beaches wore the tiniest of thongs, just to cover their fronts and completely reveal their rather gorgeous behinds.
“But one thing none of us had anticipated until we came to do the scene where I see Michelle on the beach topless, was that topless bathing for women in Rio is illegal and the law is strictly enforced.
“What’s more, when we found a remote beach where it was possible to shoot it, it was very difficult to find any Brazilian women who would appear in the film topless.
“Which is particularly strange when their bottom halves concealed nothing, and when every Brazilian film we had ever seen contained sustained scenes of total nudity.”
Beyond the nudity problems, early on Caine had a scene where he chased Johnson in the dark. He tripped over a rock and broke his toe. Caine was in agony the rest of his long stay in Brazil. So the film is a true test of his acting skill.
Donen complained about the bureaucracy in Brazil that required “endless patience” to navigate.
Torrential rain caused problems, too. “It was hell,” Donen said, “but it doesn’t show on the screen.”
Off-screen, Donen’s fourth marriage, to actress Yvette Mimieux, dissolved during production.
Somehow, the company managed to finish filming three days ahead of schedule on June 14, 1983, having started shooting on March 15.
A succession of working titles often suggest trouble on a picture. Here they included Rio, Only in Rio and I Love Rio. Finally, they blamed Rio.
The film was released by 20th Century Fox on February 17, 1984. So our February 17 play date makes this an anniversary.
An ad line read: “She’s the hottest thing on the beach. She’s also his best friend’s daughter.”
Caine says, anecdotally, that the film “made a lot of money,” but there was controversy.
“The most hysterical reviews came from female writers,” Caine wrote in his book. “I eventually came to the conclusion that we would have fared better with the lady critics if Michelle Johnson’s breasts had been uglier and smaller.”
A bigger problem, according to Caine, was an anti-incest campaign being waged at the time.
“The critics missed the point that I was having an affair with my friend’s daughter,” Caine wrote.
“The cant and hypocrisy that was wheeled out by the American critics was beyond belief. Blame It on Rio never got the same phony moral reception in any other country in the world. Two reviews in particular incensed me, by critics I knew personally. They complained hotly about the disparity in age between the two characters.”
Did any critic like Blame It on Rio? Well, Playboy called it “a winner,” and gave it three Bunnies.
Donen blamed “the feminist movement” for the bad press, said the critics “were wrong” and “part of the trouble is that we don’t have young film critics today.”
The one who suggested we run this film tonight, as a preview to our own trip to Rio, is our own Joyce Nizzari.
God bless her!
So now, from 1983, Blame It on Rio.