Bert Wheeler plays Chick Bean, a New York bootlegger who comes to the Mexican town of San Lucas to get a divorce so he can marry Dolly (Dorothy Lee). After the wedding, Ned Levitt (Robert Woolsey), Chick's lawyer, informs Chick the divorce was invalid, and advises Wheeler to stay away from his bride.
The Wheeler-Woolsey plot is actually a subplot of the film, and the main story features Bebe Daniels (in her first "talkie") as Rita Ferguson, a south-of-the-border beauty pursued by both Texas Ranger Jim Stewart (John Boles) and local warlord General Ravenoff (Georges Renavent). Ranger Jim is pursuing the notorious bandit Kinkajou along the Rio Grande, but is reluctant to openly accuse Rita's brother, Roberto (Don Alvarado), as the Kinkajou because he is in love with Rita.
Ravenoff successfully convinces Rita to spurn Ranger Jim on the pretext that Jim will arrest Roberto. Rita unhappily agrees to marry Ravenoff to prevent him from exposing Roberto as the Kinkajou. Meanwhile, Wheeler's first wife, Katie (Helen Kaiser), shows up to accuse him of bigamy, but conveniently falls in love with Woolsey.
At this point, the film switches into Technicolor. During the wedding ceremony aboard Ravenoff's private barge, Ranger Jim cuts the craft's ropes so that it drifts north of the Rio Grande. The Texas Rangers storm the barge, arrest Ravenoff as the real Kinkajou just in time to prevent the wedding, and Roberto is revealed to be a member of the Mexican Secret Service. Jim takes Rita's hand in marriage and Roberto escorts Ravenoff back to Mexico for trial.
Wheeler and Woolsey were the only principals from the stage version to appear in the film. Based on the success of this film, Wheeler & Woolsey were also given contracts to star in a series of comedies for Radio Pictures.
The 1929 Rio Rita is a faithful rendering of the stage version of the show. It is one of the few films personally supervised by legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld, who also produced the musical onstage. It is very likely that the film gives an accurate impression of what a Ziegfeld stage presentation was like.
The choreography for the grand finale on the barge was created by Pearl Eaton.
The 1942 Abbott & Costello "remake" has little in common with this version. Two songs, "Rio Rita" and "The Ranger's Song", made an appearance, but the story line was so different, that the screenplay was credited as an original piece.
A version for television was produced by NBC in 1950.
Rio Rita was a box-office success. Earning an estimated profit of $935,000, it was RKO's biggest grossing film of 1929.
It was generally well-received by critics. Photoplay praised it as nearly "the finest of the screen musicals" and judged that director Reed had done well with a "difficult assignment".Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times was more overtly disappointed in Reed: "(He) has contented himself in making virtually an audible animated photographic conception of the successful Ziegfeld show," wrote Hall, and noted that Daniels, though capable, was "not up to the standard set by Ethlin Terry in the stage version". Hall was otherwise appreciative of the lavish, if thinly-plotted, production.
Five reels of the film are believed to be lost. The print currently circulating (103 minutes) is the re-release version from 1932, which was edited significantly, taking the original length of fifteen reels down to only ten reels. This is the print that is currently being broadcast on cable by Turner Classic Movies, which is missing about forty minutes of footage. New York'sMuseum of Modern Art used to have a print of the original full-length version, but this print seems to have been lost or stolen from their archives. The entire soundtrack for the original roadshow version of the film survives on Vitaphone disks. Both picture and sound for at least two musical numbers from the long version are also known to survive ("When You're In Love, You'll Waltz" and "The Kinkajou").