- Flying Down to Rio: Hollywood, Tourists, and Yankee Clippers
The ninth volume in the Centennial of Flight Series, Flying Down to Rio unpacks the romance of early international flight by examining the popular motivations, business structures, and international relations that created tourist travel by air between the United States and Latin America in the 1930s. Rosalie Schwartz uses the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio, which doubles as her title, as an "interpretive key" to understand the relationship between popular film, tourism, and the beginnings of international flight. She demonstrates how the musical extravaganza—featuring an enticing mix of exoticism, romance, and dancers tiptoeing on the wings of a Pan American Yankee Clipper—planted thoughts of international flight in Americans' imaginations. Schwartz argues that tourist films that glamorized flying to the Southern Hemisphere made commercial flight seem both like a safe means of transportation and a potential instrument of international diplomacy. With a focus on the relationship between Hollywood and Pan American Airlines, Schwartz's work adds to existing literature on popular culture and flight such as Joe Corn's Winged Gospel and Bayla Singer's Like Sex with Gods.
Flying Down to Rio is organized around "a collage of episodes, experiences, [End Page 438] and ideas" that reveal the "connections among technology, art, and twentieth-century cultural change" (p. 9). However, the seven chapters often seem like separate discussions of the history of world's fairs, aviation, and film, respectively. Where this background might serve a popular audience interested in the broad outlines of public culture in the early twentieth century, scholars in the fields of cultural history and the history of flight might not find new ideas in the early chapters, which recount classic work on world's fairs, the history of filmmaking, and the growth of Hollywood. These sections might have been shortened to better showcase the important arguments that appear in later chapters.
Schwartz's final chapters shine. It is here that she articulates the complex and fascinating relationship among Pan American Airways, RKO Pictures (producers of the title film), and the Roosevelt administration's New Deal, all stakeholders in creating international commercial flight to Central and South America. Schwartz focuses on several key players who came together in the 1930s to make regular commercial flights to Latin America possible and to encourage the idea of international flight through movies. These included a coterie of businessmen and flight enthusiasts who built Pan American Airways into the dominant commercial carrier to Latin America, in part by securing lucrative government airmail contracts. Merian C. Cooper, an air enthusiast and filmmaker, plays a crucial role here by bringing Yankee Clippers and luxury air travel to RKO movies; he not-so-coincidentally sat on the board of Pan American Airways. Through individuals like Cooper and a careful business history of Pan American and RKO, Schwartz demonstrates the interconnections among the growth of the airline, Hollywood promotion of flight, and the Roosevelt administration's goals concerning relations with South America. Films like Flying Down to Rio, which "pledged hemispheric friendship" (p. 299), acted as popular diplomacy between the government and South America as increased travel promised to boost the administration's plans for economic recovery. By 1940, the relationship between movies and airlines as promoters of tourism had solidified and Pan American had been successful in gaining control of air routes to Latin America. Both would be well-positioned to host the expansion of mass travel after World War II.
In sum, Flying Down to Rio does important work in internationalizing our view of commercial flight in the interwar period. Its strengths lie in the explication of the business relations between two formidable industry leaders, RKO and Pan American, and the New Deal. Historians interested in the relationship between Hollywood and airborne tourism might be frustrated by the theorization of popular culture as a top-down transmission of ideas rather than a more dialectical process. On the other hand, Schwartz does offer intriguing evidence for the reception of these films in...