Top Hat (1935)
Directed by: Mark Sandrich
Written by: Allan Scott, Dwight Taylor, Ben Holmes, Ralph Spence, Karoly Noti (based on Scandal in Budapest by Sandor Farago, A Girl Who Dares by Aladar Laszlo)|
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are perhaps the most famous early Hollywood on-screen duo, charming American audiences with their unique song and dance productions. The two Hollywood stars made ten famous musicals together in the period of about a decade, starring in multiple Oscar-nominated pictures, setting box-office records, and creating an untouchable legacy in the process. 1935’s Top Hat is the pair’s fourth, and arguably most successful, collaboration. Musical numbers like “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails”, “Cheek to Cheek”, and “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)” have made Top Hat the most iconic and memorable Astaire and Rogers film, becoming the second highest-grossing movie of 1935, and even earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Director Mark Sandrich had previously worked with Astaire and Rogers in their highly successful 1934 film The Gay Divorcee. Sandrich would continue working with the two throughout his stay at RKO Pictures, directing films like Follow the Fleet, Shall We Dance, and Carefree. Sandrich’s most iconic picture would come after his departure from RKO, in the form of Holiday Inn, starring Astaire and Bing Crosby, and introducing “White Christmas” to the world. Top Hat has also been praised for its elaborate and marvelously choreographed tap dancing sequences, elegant set design, and its lighthearted screwball nature. While many cite Top Hat as the most successful pairing of Astaire and Rogers, historians and critics have noted the superior choreography of the dance numbers in the slightly less appreciated Swing Time (released a year later in 1936). Top Hat remains beloved by fans of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and studied for its impeccable choreography and musical numbers. It currently resides in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, where it will continue to charm audiences for generations to come.
The story of Top Hat is a relatively simple one: We follow the famous American dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) in London for latest new show. The new musical hit is being produced by the esteemed, but bumbling, Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). While in his London hotel room, Jerry meets a young woman named Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers), who has become annoyed at the sounds of Jerry’s late-night tap dancing on the floor above her. The American dancer falls in love with Dale at first sight, and immediately sets his sights on charming the young woman, pursuing her all around the city. He eventually follows her all the way to Venice after his show premieres to rave reviews. Dale is in Venice visiting her friend Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick), and modelling the fashions of renowned designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes). After a series of mix ups and a bad case of mistaken identity, Dale mistakes Jerry for Horace Hardwick, who just happens to be married to her friend Madge. After being outraged by Jerry’s marriage proposal (and still believing him to be the husband of her dear friend), Dale instead agrees to marry the Italian designer Alberto Beddini. Can Jerry and Horace clear things up with the women who have won their hearts, or will this case of mistaken identity prove too much to handle? Find out the answer to that question – and see some wonderful musical numbers in the process – in Mark Sandrich’s 1935 film Top Hat!
I’ll start with a major confession right off the bat: It took more than three viewings of Astaire and Rogers’ Top Hat for me to fully appreciate and understand the praise leveled at the film. On my initial viewings I was charmed by the opening act of the film, but ultimately lost interest in the messy story of mistaken identity and all the zaniness that it brings to the table for all characters involved. Determined to see this one through to the end, this amateur reviewer let the film digest in my mind over the course of a week, re-watching the film and individual scenes, until I finally came to appreciate more than Top Hat’s incredible musical numbers. The biggest struggle I encountered with Top Hat was the sparse musical numbers coupled with the incredibly dry wit of the film’s screenplay. Whereas many modern day musicals are rather over-the-top in their comedic and emotional delivery, Top Hat maintains a good-natured and subtle sense of humor throughout, never pandering to an audience looking only to be thrilled by song and dance set pieces. For this, I can only applaud the four credited (and one uncredited) writers of the script for creating a picture that charms not only in its music, but also in its story and character development. What could very well have been nothing more than a showcase for the dancing and singing abilities of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers instead is turned into a genuinely charming, funny, and witty screwball comedy.
The surprisingly smart script is paired with incredible music by Irving Berlin and Max Steiner, who together wrote some of Astaire and Rogers’ most iconic numbers. These include “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)” – where Astaire proudly declares that he doesn’t need a woman in his life, and famously lulls Ginger Rogers to sleep by being her personal “sandman”, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)” – where a madly in love Astaire tries to charm Rogers in a park on a rainy night, “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” – which sees Astaire mockingly and playfully guns down a chorus of men with his cane, and finally “Cheek to Cheek” – the musical number that has become one of the most famous songs shared by the two actors, which sees Astaire once again try to woo the hesitant and rather confused Ginger Rogers. This being my first ever exposure to the work of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, one can’t help but immediately notice the incredible on-screen chemistry shared by the two actors. They play incredibly well off each other comedically, and compliment one another perfect in their musical sequences – Astaire playing the role of the cocksure famous dancer, and Rogers playing the strong, but hesitant woman who suspects his intentions may not be entirely noble. Complimenting their chemistry is the energetic, but patient, direction of Mark Sandrich. His camera perfectly follows the fluid movements of both dancers, and also isn’t afraid to sit and observe a scene if it calls for it. Quick edits and unique high angle shots are wonderfully employed to capture the film’s more elaborate dance numbers, creating a sense of wonder seen in many of Hollywood’s early musicals. If I have one minor complaint about Top Hat, it would be that the madcap and zany nature of its middle act stands out awkwardly when sandwiched between the incredibly charming and romantic first and last acts. This isn’t a major issue, nor does it completely ruin the film’s flow; the transitions between these acts just stands out as being slightly abrupt and awkward.
While it may have taken me longer than most to find something to sink my teeth into, Top Hat managed to win my appreciation – and a place in my heart – after multiple viewings. The pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are still unrivaled as a musical duo, and the chemistry, passion, and charm they bring to the big screen has to be seen to be believed. While I may not be an expert of song or dance, I can certainly appreciate that the onscreen pair are some of the very best to ever appear on film. Top Hat brings with it a solid and truly funny screenplay, incredibly memorable and well-choreographed dance numbers, and high-energy direction that suits the tone of the film perfectly. Whether you’re a fan of dance or not, Top Hat is a film you should see in order to fully appreciate the evolution of music and dance in the movies. Top Hat is highly recommended.