Tag Archives: June 2016

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!

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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.

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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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Modern Essentials #1 – Frightened Rabbit’s “The Midnight Organ Fight” (2008)

MidnightOrganFightCoverThe Midnight Organ Fight by Frightened Rabbit
Release Date: April 15, 2008
Genre: Indie folk/rock
Length: 48:00

2008 seems like an entire lifetime ago for me.  I was in high school and experiencing the extreme highs and lows of young love.  Those first few heartbreaks I experienced growing up had an incredible influence on the person I am today.  We all learn a lot about ourselves during those countless restless nights spent reassessing every little detail of the relationship, trying to figure out what went wrong and what it would take to make things better.  For days, weeks, or months you feel like the world you thought you once knew is a completely different place; replaced by a much darker, more hopeless place.  But then one day you feel just a little bit better.  You even catch yourself smiling the next day.  Then a week later you’re able to laugh at yourself a little bit.  These realizations continue for some time until finally you find that the person you thought you couldn’t live without hasn’t even crossed your mind for months.  We’ve all gone through it; the despair, the desperation, the sadness, the bleakness, and the subsequent build back to who you once were.  Heartbreak is universal, and in a weird way it’s one of the most beautiful things about the idea of love.  Frightened Rabbit’s sophomore album The Midnight Organ Fight is about every single one of these feelings, wrapped up into one lovely, heartbreaking (but hopeful) package.

The Midnight Organ Fight was the first album I heard that made me truly appreciate how powerful music could truly be.  I remember crying myself to sleep more times than I’d like to admit while listening to the incredibly powerful voice of Scott Hutchison, lead singer of the Scottish indie folk-rock trio.  This is an album that I can safely say shaped who I am as a person, and helped put into perspective many of the thoughts and feelings experienced when falling in and out of love.  It’s an album that I’ve shared with few people, for fear that it might not touch them in the same ways it did for me.  Even eight years after the first time I heard it, I still cry every single time I listen.  I sing along loudly to the hopeful songs, and relate and empathize during the bleaker portions of the brief album.  The Midnight Organ Fight is perhaps my favourite album of all time simply because of the way it makes me feel, what it means to me, and the things it’s made me change about myself.  I’ve decided to share it with you all because I’ve recently decided to not be afraid of anything anymore.

The writing featured in The Midnight Organ Fight is some of the most brutally honest and powerful I’ve ever heard.  Written entirely by lead singer Scott Hutchison, Frightened Rabbit’s seminal album paints a picture of love, heartbreak, and recovery so profound you’ll feel like you lived it yourself.  Hutchison’s desperate yearning for love, affection, and gratification are at times difficult to listen to if you’ve ever felt the same way, but he balances this with catchy anthems about getting better and not needing the woman who tore his heart in two.  One of my favorite things about the album is that it’s not entirely in chronological order.  Things don’t start off bad and become gradually worse; instead we’re taken on an emotional roller coaster that rivals the inconsistent feelings, the highs and lows, and the good moments ruined by intrusive thoughts that you’ve no doubt experienced after any great heartbreak.  This is what makes The Midnight Organ Fight such a beautiful experience, it’s more relatable that most music could ever hope to be.  It’s angry, depressed, suicidal, bleak, remorseful, desperate, hopeful, positive, and horny all at once.  If Frightened Rabbit’s album doesn’t do anything at all for you, then you’re probably already dead inside.

The three man band managed to put together one of the most accessible and listenable albums about some of the toughest subject matter imaginable, and I very much appreciate them for doing so.  The Midnight Organ Fight truly has a little something for every music fan: Songs like “I Feel Better”, “Old Old Fashioned”, “Head Rolls Off”, and “Floating in the Forth” fill you with unimaginable hope with their catchy hooks and slightly more positive vibes, “Fast Blood”, “The Twist”, and “Keep Yourself Warm” give you three completely separate intimate, frank, and brutally honest songs about sex, longing, lust, and desire to be wanted, and “The Modern Leper”, “Good Arms vs. Bad Arms”, “My Backwards Walk”, and “Poke” dive deep into feelings of rejection, betrayal, jealousy, anger, and desperation.

Scott Hutchison’s singing is complemented extremely well by his charming Scottish accent.  Hutchison’s ability to change his tone and pitch from honest and revealing, to hurt, to hopeful in the blink an eye is truly incredible, and helps to set the mood for the album as a whole.  The composition by Scott, Billy Kennedy on guitar and bass, and Grant Hutchison on the drums is loud and in your face without being obnoxious or ruining the atmosphere set up by Scott’s beautiful and revealing lyricism.  The drums pound away in every single song, the bass and guitar are loud and clear, doing their absolute best to keep up with Scott’s many mood swings and tonal shifts.  Many of these are songs that might bring you to your feet and have you moving if you weren’t aware of their deeper meanings. Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight is truly a revelation in every single way.  As a whole it’s relatable, catchy, thought-provoking, and most importantly so incredibly human.  I hope that these words compel you to listen to the album, and I sincerely hope that it shakes you to your core like it’s been doing to me for the past eight years.  If you couldn’t tell from my endless stream of praise, Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight is a masterpiece, and gets my highest recommendation.
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Below is a breakdown of my brief thoughts on each track:

1. The Modern Leper

This was the song that convinced me to give the album a listen, as I had heard it on an indie music podcast sometime before the album dropped.  Its beautiful and haunting lyrics were stuck in my head for weeks until I finally got around to listening to The Midnight Organ Fight in full, and I’m so glad I did.  The Modern Leper is catchy as hell in its chorus, while also dealing with the pain of losing somebody close to you, and the subsequent deep, dark depression Scott went through.  He describes himself as a “modern leper on his last leg”, but is still begging his lover for another shot at the live they once shared.  “You’re not ill, and I’m not dead, doesn’t that make us the perfect pair?”.  These lyrics say far more than I can, but feel oh so relatable.  If any song is going to get you hooked on the band, it’ll be this one.

“Well I am ill but I’m not dead/And I don’t know which of those I prefer/Because that limb which I have lost/Well it was the only thing holding me up/Holding me up”

2. I Feel Better

This song perfectly describes the good days and the bad days following any breakup.  When thoughts of your former lover aren’t clouding your mind, things are great; but sometimes you don’t have control over those thoughts.  Scott triumphantly declares this “this is the last song I’ll write about you”, which we as an audience know is a blatant lie, but his hope and the rebuilding of his self-image is so infectious that you truly believe him.  

“I’ll stow away my greys/In a padlocked case and in a padlocked room/Only to be released/When I see you walking around with someone new/This is the last song, this is the last song/This is the last song I’ll write about you”

3. Good Arms vs. Bad Arms

The first song on the album that I’ll admit makes me tear up a little bit each time I hear it.  Good Arms vs. Bad Arms is about the hurt you feel when you see your former partner happy in their new life without you, and the extremely confusing emotions you feel towards their newfound happiness.  You don’t necessarily want that person back in your life, but in no way are you ready to see them so happy without you.  This is perhaps the most universally relatable song on the album, because it’s something almost everybody has or will go through.  Scott’s declaration of “I might not want you back, but I want to kill him” always gets me.  A truly beautiful and heart wrenching song.

“Leave the rest at arm’s length/I’m not ready to see you this happy/Leave the rest at arm’s length/I am still in love with you, can’t admit it yet”

4. Fast Blood

Fast Blood is where the album (The Midnight Organ Fight) gets its name from.  It’s much more sexually-charged than the first three songs were, and establishes a lot of Scott Hutchison’s desperation and desire to be wanted sexually.  It beautifully and honestly describes the “midnight organ fight” experienced between himself and his former lover.  The imagery used is very effective, and leaves no doubt in your mind about the song’s meaning.  It’s loud and powerful while also being quite delicate and intimate.  This is one man’s poetic description of his most private and intimate moments.  “I feel like I just died twice, was reborn again for all our dirty sins” is strangely profound.  

“And your black eyes roll back/Midnight Organ Fight/Your’s gives into mine/It’s all right”

5. Old Old Fashioned

Taking a break from the longing and desperation felt previously, Old Old Fashioned is probably one of the catchier songs on the album.  Instead of reflecting on what once was, Scott is trying to reset the clock on his relationship and do things the way they were done at the beginning of the relationship.  Things were a lot more simple back then, and it’s obvious why anybody would want to go back to that when a relationship begins to get rocky and uncertain.   The bass line will be stuck in your head all day long.

“Put the wall clock in the top drawer/Turn off the lights so we can see/We will waltz across the carpet/1-2-3-2-2-3”

6. The Twist


The second song on the album about doing the nasty, The Twist is a much more desperate and needy song than its predecessor.  Scott Hutchison sings that he “needs human heat” which is something I think all of us can admit to wanting and needing.  He toys with the idea of one night stands with strangers in order to make himself feel less alone, opting for an easy and painless option that can’t possibly lead to more heartbreak.  Quite possibly the most desperate song on the album, Scott’s voice is absolutely beautiful when backed by Grant’s thumping drums.  

“Did you blush then when our hips touched?/I can’t tell, we are already red/Am I right? Will you give me the signs?/Is that pink mist or just lit dry ice?”

7. Bright Pink Bookmark (Instrumental)

An instrumental that gives you a taste of what’s to come, tonally in line with Floating in the Forth.

8. Head Rolls Off

While I realize that Head Rolls Off is probably an intensely personal song for lead singer Scott Hutchison, it just doesn’t do much for me.  Instead of looking back on the relationship he’s been focusing on for seven tracks, Scott instead examines his relationship with faith and religion.  It’s probably my least favourite song on the album because of its tonal difference.  That being said, I absolutely adore the line “and while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth”, which is repeated over and over throughout the song.  It serves as something of a bridge between the first and second chapters of the album, and does so effectively.  It’s poppy and loud and catchy, but it just doesn’t do a whole lot for me.

“When it’s all gone/Something carries on/And it’s not morbid at all/Just when natures had enough of you”

9. My Backwards Walk

Just when you think things can’t get as emotional as Good Arms vs. Bad Arms, this heartbreaking little gem strolls into the room.  My Backwards Walk is about exactly what the title describes.  Scott finally feels ready to admit his faults, forgive himself for his wrongdoings, and begin the long and painful grieving process.  He realizes that the journey is going to be tough, but he’s more than ready for the fight.  There’s no line better at describing the feeling of loving somebody but needing to be far away from them than “You’re the shit and I’m knee-deep in it”.

“I’m working on my faults and cracks/Filling in the blanks and gaps/And when I write them out they don’t make sense/I need you to pencil in the rest”

10. Keep Yourself Warm

The third and final song on the album taking a look at everybody’s favorite dance of the no pants variety, Keep Yourself Warm sees Scott realizing that he’s been doing this whole grieving thing wrong the entire time.  He finally sees that these meaningless one night stands aren’t doing anything to make him feel better, but are instead making him more miserable.  He declares that while sex is an amazing thing experienced by two people, there’s a lot more to it than that, and it’s also no way to get over a painful breakup.  “It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm” perfectly describes the moral dilemma faced by our lead singer.

“It takes more than fucking someone you don’t know/To keep warm/Do you really think that for a house beat/You’ll find your love in a hole?”

11. Extrasupervery (Instrumental)

The second instrumental on the album breaks things up nicely between two highly emotional tracks, and once again helps to build to the satisfying climax that is Floating in the Forth.

12. Poke

I’m not going to lie to you, but Poke is incredibly tough for me to get through for a variety of reasons.  The relationship we’ve been lamenting for the entirety of the album is dead and gone, but Scott and his partner just aren’t quite ready to let go yet.  Hutchison’s lyricism is scarily relatable for anybody who’s stayed in a relationship long after the expiry date has come up.  There have been beautiful, intimate moments, but those have long since faded into something almost unrecognizable.  “Well we can change our partners, this is a progressive dance but remember it was me who dragged you up to the sweaty floor” is the verse that leaves me a teary-eyed mess every single time.  This is one of the most heartbreaking songs ever recorded, and never gets any easier to digest.  It’s brutally honest and Scott truly lays everything out in front of you; a man with nothing to hide.

“Why won’t our love keel over as it chokes on a bone?/And we can mourn its passing/And then bury it in snow/Or should we kick its cunt in/And watch as it dies from bleeding?/If you don’t want to be with me just say and I will go”

13. Floating in the Forth

Finally, the misery we’ve experienced for more than forty minutes has come to this.  The Midnight Organ Fight as a whole can be viewed as something of an allegory about sex.  It has triumphant, confident moments, and deeply personal and sensitive moments.  All of these moments serve to work up to the climax.  Floating in the Forth is an incredibly satisfying climax indeed, where Scott bravely declares that he’s going going to be okay after all.  “I think I’ll save suicide for another year” tells us that he knows things are going to get better, and that this probably isn’t the last time he’s going to feel this heartbreak.  Scott (and us as an audience) are finally ready to let go and move on, and it couldn’t possibly be anymore hopeful or satisfying.

“Down the forth, into the sea/I’ll steer myself/Through drunken waves/These manic gulls/Scream “it’s okay”/Take your life/Give it a shake/Gather up/All your loose change/I think I’ll save suicide for another year”

14. Who’d You Kill Now?

While not quite an instrumental piece, Who’d You Kill Now? serves as the finale to the emotional roller coaster that is The Midnight Organ Fight.  It’s not entirely necessary, but it’s still a nice touch.  I think I would rather end on Floating in the Forth’s positivity, but this track is so short that it can almost be instantly forgotten about.

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