Tag Archives: 1935

Classic Musicals #1 – Top Hat (1935)

TopHatORGITop 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!


Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire doing what they do best in 1935’s 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.


Fred Astaire’s famed “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” dance number.

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.

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Women in Film Feature #1 – Alice Adams (1935)

p5209_p_v8_aaAlice Adams (1935)
Directed by: George Stevens
Written by: Dorothy Yost, Mortimer Offner, Jane Murfin (Based on Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington)
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Fred MacMurray, Fred Stone, Ann Shoemaker, Frank Albertson, Evelyn Venable, Hattie McDaniel

Katharine Hepburn is an actress who left quite possibly the single greatest impression on Hollywood films in the entire history of women in film, only being matched quite recently by the terrific Meryl Streep.  She was an actress praised for her range, starring in dramas, romances, comedies, and everything in between, but never did she allow her male counterparts to outshine her on the screen.  Instead of portraying female characters who were weak and subservient to their husbands, boyfriends, fathers, bosses, etc., Kat typically chose strong-willed parts that better fit her more progressive views.  Any woman currently wearing jeans, khakis, or anything or the sort also has Katharine Hepburn to thank, as her fashion sense on and off the screen led to generations of her fans being influenced by her stylistic choices.  Hepburn’s career would span more than six decades, see a record four Academy Award wins, as well as another eight nominations for the award.  Hepburn’s most famous works include Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib, The African Queen, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and On Golden Pond.

George Stevens’ 1935 film Alice Adams is the early project that helped to push Kat into the spotlight after suffering from a brief slump period following her first Oscar win for 1933’s Morning Glory.  The project would not only rejuvenate the career of its star, but would also serve as a launching pad for director George Stevens – who would go on to direct Hepburn again to an Academy Award nomination in Woman of the Year in 1942.  Stevens would go on to direct such acclaimed films as Gunga Din, The More the Merrier, The Talk of the Town, A Place in the Sun (for which he won his first Academy Award for Best Director), Shane, Giant (which netted him his second Oscar for Best Director), and The Diary of Anne Frank.  Alice Adams would see Katharine earn her second nomination for Best Actress at the Oscars, with her performance being praised for the hope, optimism, determination, and stubbornness found in her titular character who is fighting an uphill battle against the social class system so that she can impress the man she truly loves.  Alice Adams was adapted from the novel of the same name by Booth Tarkington, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1922.  The film adaptation was praised for taking Tarkington’s biting social commentary and turning it into a loyal yet humanistic and accessible picture for all to enjoy.  Starring alongside Hepburn is a young Fred MacMurray, star of such future films as Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and The Apartment, and the television hit sitcom My Three Sons.  Though it would take more than thirty years for star Katharine Hepburn to win her second Academy Award, Alice Adams is an important moment in her early career that could have done just as much to hinder it as it did help propel her into the mainstream.  She would star in acclaimed dramas and comedies for decades after playing the titular Alice Adams, finding a place in the hearts of moviegoers worldwide.


Katharine Hepburn and Grady Sutton during the early dance scene in 1935’s Alice Adams.

Alice Adams tells the story of young Alice (Katharine Hepburn), the youngest member of the Adams family.  The family consists of Mr. Adams (Fred Stone), Mrs. Adams (Ann Shoemaker), and Alice’s older brother Walter (Frank Albertson).  The family lives in poverty, and there is a great deal of tension between all members: Mrs. Adams is frustrated with her husband’s lack of ambition and with the limited potential of Alice due to their social standing, Mr. Adams is ill and being kept on salary by the factory he works at, and their son has a gambling addiction that is slowly tearing him apart.  At the beginning of the film, Alice attends a high class dance without a date, so is escorted to the event by her brother.  Once there, she is quickly taken by the handsome and wealthy Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray).  Russell notices young Alice as well, and is immediately charmed with her personality, despite the very clear class difference between the two.  Following the dance, Arthur begins to court Alice, who tries desperately to cover up her own social class and the poverty her family lives in.  Arthur looks the other way on each occasion, even ignoring petty town gossip about Mr. Adams.  Eventually, Alice is talked into inviting the charming Arthur Russell to dinner at the Adams residence, where the family desperately tries to act as a cohesive and wealthy unit.  Will the Adams family be able to charm the wealthy young man into making things serious with their ambitious daughter, or will the class divide between the two families prove to be too much?  Find out in George Stevens’ Oscar-nominated Alice Adams!

The idea of somebody pretending they’re of a social class above or below their own is an age-old story in the land of Hollywood, and one that seemed to work a great deal in the golden age of films.  Alice Adams tells a very familiar story and hits all of the major notes along the way, but does it with such passion and charm that it’s impossible to not recognize this as at least a noteworthy early effort from its cast and crew.  George Stevens directs the film with such a soft hand that it’s almost impossible to tell that it’s coming from the same man who shot the epic tale Giant just two decades later.  It’s intimate and personal, but never delves too deep into any of the characters or their motivations.  The restraint shown by Stevens and his cinematographer Robert De Grasse keeps things flowing smoothly, and never pauses for too long for fear of losing its audience.  The photography is soft and soaked in beautiful shadows, making it feel at times like a picture with a much higher budget.  The single best thing about Alice Adams (and probably the only reason people are still talking about it today) is the performance of a young Katharine Hepburn.  Her portrayal of Alice is strong-willed and overly-ambitious, and Hepburn’s real-life persona fits the bill perfectly.  You can feel the heartbreak and frustration felt by each member of the family when faced with the difficulties of living in poverty, most notably with Alice.  She tries her absolute best to impress a man who is technically far out of her league, arguably going much further than she ever should have dared.  She’s blinded by her love for a man she hardly knows, and can’t see that he doesn’t even care about the social difference with which she’s so obsessed with.  The harder she tries to push the issue with Arthur, the more she risks pushing this man away and out of her life forever.  Hepburn is absolutely terrific in the film, and her Academy Award nomination was well-deserved.  Fred Stone is also very good as Alice’s ill father, showing off a great deal of comedic abilities in his sympathetic (but stubborn and cowardly) supporting character.  Another standout is the very young Fred MacMurray, who was never known for his great performances.  MacMurray does just enough heavy lifting to believable as the wealthy Arthur Russell, and is incredibly charming (and dreamy) in the role.  On a minor note, it’s incredibly difficult to see the way African Americans are portrayed throughout the film, especially after my marathon on Black Directors where everybody on screen was treated equally, regardless of race or class.  It’s not something I can hold against the film because of the era it was made in, but that doesn’t mean I can’t cringe during certain (admittedly very minor) moments.


Alice Adams (Katharine Hepburn) and Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray) in George Stevens’ Alice Adams.

Alice Adams is an above average film made memorable by a single performance, which serves as the film’s greatest advantage.  Katharine Hepburn is terrific as the titular Alice, and there’s no wonder why the role saw her once again grow in esteem of American audiences.  Director George Stevens shows some early promise for what would be an incredible career, but never quite pulls the trigger on what could have truly been a remarkable film.  The finished product serves as a showcase for one of history’s greatest actresses, and little more.  It’s charming, funny, sweet, and sappy, but probably isn’t the kind of thing you’ll be thinking about long after the credits have rolled.  Alice Adams is recommended.

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John Ford Feature #1 – The Informer (1935)

The_Informer_posterThe Informer (1935)
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Dudley Nichols (based on The Informer by Liam O’Flaherty)
Starring: Victor McLaglen, Heather Angel, Preston Foster, Margot Grahame, Wallace Ford

As the old adage goes, “snitches get stitches” – this is exactly what John Ford’s early acclaimed drama tries to convey to the audience.  The Informer was a massive hit upon its release in America, grossing more than double its meager budget, as well as widespread critical acclaim.  Ford’s film was nominated for six Academy Awards that year, bringing home four of them despite going head-to-head with that years Best Picture winner Mutiny on the Bounty.  John Ford brought home his first Oscar for Best Director, the film’s star and regular John Ford film actor Victor McLaglen won Best Actor, Dudley Nichols won Best Adapted Screenplay (which he then refused), and the film would also win Best Score.  1935 was a tremendous year for films, with about half of the twelve films nominated for Best Picture still being recognized as truly great or memorable works (Mutiny on the Bounty, Alice Adams, Captain Blood, David Copperfield, The Informer, and Ruggles of Red Gap). And yet even among that kind of company, Ford’s The Informer still manages to stand out from the crowd as one of the most fondly remembered films of the director’s early talkie career.  Though the famous Western director had made a name for himself with his many silent films starring Harry Carey, The Informer is arguably the point where John Ford became noticed as one of the great directors of the time to look out for.  His film Arrowsmith had also been nominated for Best Picture in 1931, but that film hasn’t endured the test of time the same way this has.


The Informer follows ex-IRA (Irish Republic Army) foot-soldier Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) shortly after the young man has been kicked out for trying to spare the life of a Black and Tan soldier.  The film takes place in the early 1920’s, when the outlaw IRA were battling the Black and Tans during the Irish War of Independence.  Our protagonist Gypo has his sights set on America, but first needs to get the money together to allow him passage into the blossoming country.  During a late night walk, Gypo finds that his good friend and former comrade Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford) is a wanted man, and the bounty on his head would allow for Gypo’s voyage to America.  He decides to meet with McPhillip, who has been living the life of a fugitive, and has been on the run for six months. Gypo finds out that McPhillip is one his way back to his mother (Una O’Connor) and sister (Heather Angel), making the trip by night to avoid the authorities.  Gypo very quickly makes the decision to become an informer, and alerts the Black and Tans to the presence of McPhillip.  The soldiers surround McPhillip’s family home, and the young fugitive is killed in a vicious gunfight, taking out several Black and Tans on his way out.  Gypo is given the bounty, but now bears the guilt of the death of his colleague weighing on his shoulders.  The new informer decides to drown his sorrows at a local pub, and runs into his girlfriend Katie (Margot Grahame).  Gypo lies to Katie and tells her that he mugged an American sailor and took the money from him, rather than betraying a former comrade and directly leading to his untimely death.  A now drunk and generous Gypo eventually runs into ex-IRA comrades, who are holding an inquest into the death of Frakie McPhillip.  They know that Gypo was the last man to speak with McPhillip, but can they prove that our protagonist snitched on him to enemy soldiers?  To find out, you’ll have to watch John Ford’s terrific The Informer and see for yourself.

If The Informer is any indication of the caliber of film I’m going to enjoy over the next month, then I can safely say I’ve chosen well.  The film has a very deliberate pacing, and very much feels like an early suspense film, but never slows down for too long.  The tension at the beginning of the film with Gypo roaming the darkened streets of Ireland is incredible, and the moment he sees the wanted poster for somebody who is clearly his friend is unlike any I’ve seen from the period.  Victor McLaglen’s performance as the slow-witted Gypo Nolan is easily the standout in the film, and his constantly conflicted character is not an easy one to get behind because of his actions. Gypo’s intentions are always good, but the way he goes about them are so morally ambiguous that you’re left not quite sure who to root for, which is something I always appreciate in a film.  It’s no wonder McLaglen won the Oscar for Best Actor that year, and I absolutely can’t wait to see him in a few more upcoming Ford films.  The directing technique in the film isn’t quite up to par with what we would come to see in works like Stagecoach (1939), but are still fairly impressive for an early sound film such as this.  Though the “talkie” had been around since the late 1920’s, you can still absolutely tell that Ford was working in an environment he wasn’t 100% comfortable with.  I think that the film would have worked just as well as a silent picture, and even feels like one in moments without music or dialogue.  As I was watching this film, it struck me that I’m going to be able to see this incredible director grow in talent and esteem, and I could not have picked a better film to begin with.  The Informer, though clumsy in small moments, is a terrific, suspenseful, and incredibly well-acted start to a prolific and critically acclaimed career.


Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) and Barty Mulholland (Joe Sawyer) in 1935’s Best Picture nominee, The Informer.

If you’ve never had the privilege of seeing a John Ford film, I can probably think of better places for new viewers to start.  The Informer is a great film by a great director, but it’s definitely not the absolute best place for one to begin, because it only shows a small amount of what Ford was capable of.  The film is held together by an incredible performance by Victor McLaglen, who very deservedly beat out two of America’s best actors (Charles Laughton and Clark Gable) for Best Actor that year.  The Informer is sure to challenge viewers with its moral ambiguity, and get audiences very excited for what’s to come in Ford’s storied film-making career.  The Informer is highly recommended.

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