Sunday, August 14, 2011

Fred and Ginger: 'Top Hat'

“Top Hap” is the quintessential Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film.

It’s definitely my favorite, and it contains all the elements that people associate with this great duo: sophistication, stylization, elegance, tuxedos and glamorous gowns, art deco sets, Irving Berlin music, and above all glorious dancing.

In their fourth film together, Astaire and Rogers radiate Hollywood glamour. If their last film, “Roberta,” forced them into glorified supporting roles, “Top Hat” takes advantage of their star power and charisma. Each has a distinct personality, yet their undeniably chemistry together links them as one.

“Top Hat” also rounds up the best of the Astaire/Rogers supporting players: Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore, all of whom were in the “The Gay Divorcee,” and the wonderful Helen Broderick, making her first appearance in the series. Director Mark Sandrich returns for a second time and Hermes Pan again works with Astaire on choreography.

It all works, even the mistaken-identity, boy-meets-girl plot. Jerry Travers (Astaire) is in London to open a new show. Producer and friend Horace Hardwick (Horton) is staying with Travers at an elegant hotel, where one night he explains his exuberance at being single with “No Strings.”

A brilliant number, it also functions as a way to move the plot along by setting up the Astaire/Rogers romance. Jerry’s singing and dancing wakes up the occupant of the room below – Dale Tremont (Rogers, looking lovely as she awakes with full makeup and not a hair out of place). She files a complaint and storms up to confront the occupants, where a smitten Jerry agrees to keep it down. She leaves with a wry smile, and the audience knows that sparks are flying.

To help lull Dale back to sleep, Jerry appoints himself as her sandman and spreads sand from the hallway ashtray on the floor. His resulting soft shoe does the trick – and puts Horace to sleep at the same time. The next day, Jerry hi-jacks Dale’s carriage to the park, and the two find themselves in an empty bandshell as thunder and lightening lead to a torrential downpour.

This begins their duet “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” The dance is reminiscent of “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” in “Roberta,” in that the two are more casual, and Astaire’s steps are then repeated by Rodgers. The bandstand provides an isolated stage for the number that develops the romance between these two. The claps of thunder send Dale into Jerry’s arms and provide a musical accompaniment of their own, and the pair are as lovely as the song they sing.

Later, Jerry uses Horace’s account to buy a boatful of flowers (from clerk Lucille Ball) for Dale, who mistakenly believes Jerry is Horace. What’s worse is that Dale’s good friend is Horace’s wife, Madge, who is waiting in Italy for Dale to arrive so she can introduce Dale to her husband and his single friend – who happens to be Jerry.

Meanwhile, Jerry and Horace believe that Dale is romantically involved with Alberto Beddini (Rhodes), who actually is a clothes designer paying Dale to wear his fashions.

When Dale slaps Jerry across the face in the hotel lobby and storms away, Horace frets about the publicity and its impact on his show. He sends his valet, Bates (Blore), to follow Dale, which he does all the way to Italy.

Meanwhile, Jerry needs to open his show, and Astaire gets a brilliant solo in “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.” Apparently this number was part of a Ziegfeld show called “Smiles,” which Astaire appeared in on Broadway. The show was a flop, but Astaire always liked the number and asked Sandrich to incorporate it into the movie. The result is a marvelous bit that features a male chorus and ends with Astaire using his cane to shoot down each member of the chorus as if in a shooting gallery. Only Astaire could make this look both elegant and thrilling.

After opening night, Jerry and Horace dash off to Italy for the weekend so Jerry can see Dale. Once there, Madge – unaware of the mix-up – keeps pushing Jerry at Dale, who believes Madge is giving her the OK to have an affair with her husband!

One night at dinner, Dale finally gives in to Jerry in what may be the perfect dance of seduction in the entire series, “Cheek to Cheek.” In “The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book,” Arlene Croce writes of the two singing this song, “Astaire’s face is peculiarly beautiful when he sings; the strain of his features when he hits the difficult notes gives him an intense look of romantic ardor. And Rogers is perhaps never more beautiful than when she’s just listening; she never takes her eyes off him and throughout the scene I don’t think she changes her expression once. The modesty of the effect makes her look like an angel.”

If Rogers looks like an angel, the dance is a dream as they float across the floor, combining elegance and drama. Rogers infamous ostrich-featured gown (which shed throughout the dance) moves as if defying gravity, and without ever kissing Jerry completes his seduction of Dale by the end. Compare “Cheek to Cheek” with “Night and Day” (itself an excellent number) in “The Gay Divorcee,” and you see just how far these two have come in such a short period of time. In particularly, Rodgers carries herself more elegantly, which adds an impeccable grace to her chemistry with Astaire.

As the plot comes to an end, the final number is “The Piccolino,” the large group dance in the same vein as “The Carioca” and “The Continental.” But here the dance is short, and while delightful, its placement in the film almost feels like filler. If anything, it would have been nice to see Astaire and Rogers participate more in the number like they did with “The Continental.”

But that’s quibbling. “Top Hat” is truly brilliant from top to bottom, the pacing expert, the actors delightful, the dancing sublime. I tend to hate movies that resort to mugging, and yet the broad playing of the supporting cast is so funny that I relished their every raised eyebrow, from Blore’s reactions to Rhodes’ mangled phrasings to Horton’s double-takes. Broderick delivers her retorts with straightforward zest (in contrast to Alice Brady’s fluttery mannerisms in “The Gay Divorcee”).

As for the stars, they truly are magnetic. Most satisfying is how Rogers blossoms as a leading lady. Known for being an expert comedienne as a supporting player, particularly showing her flair in “Roberta,” she takes it down a notch here and simply glows. As for Astaire, it would be nice to see him play someone who isn’t a musician or a dancer. That’s a minor point, because he does it so well. His persona may be set, but his dances allow him the expression to create unique characters.

Also working is the art deco set. No one will ever mistake the movie’s Venice for the real city, yet it’s a set that looks like a whole lot of fun and one that evokes early 1930s Hollywood glamour. RKO pulled out the stops by using two adjoining studios for the set.

If movies helped people forget about the Depression, “Top Hat’s” stylized elegance did the trick. If the series feels familiar with its similar elements, it’s a welcome kind of familiarity that is never stifling here.

The movie went through several changes before it was released in 1935, including the deletion of several scenes in Venice capitalizing on the large set, as well as a paring down of “The Piccolino.” “Top Hat” opened at Radio City Music Hall and became one of the biggest box office hits of the year. The film scored four Oscar nominations – for Best Picture, Best Song (“Cheek to Cheek”), Best Art Direction and Best Dance Direction – but unfortunately didn’t win any.

As I mentioned in my review of “Roberta,” Astaire and Rogers came of age with this film. You would think that they would no longer be treated as second bananas – which is why “Follow the Fleet,” their next film, is so surprising, as they are co-leads with Randolph Scott and Harriett Hilliard. But you’ll have to wait until that review to find out if it works. Just enjoy the clip from “Top Hat” below and you’ll be in heaven.


This is the fourth in my look at all of the Astaire/Rodgers films. Please read my reviews of “Flying Down to Rio,” “The Gay Divorcee” and “Roberta.”


  1. Spending time with Ginger and Fred is like being invited to the best party in town. I'm enjoying your journey through their films.

  2. This is my favorite Fred and Ginger movies as well, in addition to being one of my all-time favorite movies.

    The script is so great and oh so witty. I just marvel at it. Think about it, if you would remove all the musical numbers, you would still have one of the brightest, smartest and most sophisticated comedies ever made.

    Still, I do agree with some of the trims. The scene with Eric Blore and the policeman who pretends he can't understand English stops the film cold. But I'll take a rare misstep like this scene when the rest of the film is the brightest of jewels.

  3. Thank you, Caftan Woman. I love your comment equating their films to the best party in town. Wouldn't it be great to have a large art deco apartment in NYC with a shiny black floor where people can dance?

    Hi Kevin, glad you love it as much as I do. You are so right in that the script can stand up on its own. It's just delightful ... I smile just thinking about the film.

  4. Another marvelous write-up, CFB, about a subject close to my movie-loving heart. I liked your phrase that Hat -- "...rounds up the best of the Astaire/Rogers supporting players: Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore ... and the wonderful Helen Broderick, making her first appearance in the series." How much less those movies, with their fun but thin plots, would have been without those fabulous actors.

    My favorites from this movie: "Isn't It A Lovely Day", of course "Top Hat", and especially "Cheek to Cheek", which ties for me with "Let's Face the Music and Dance" as the two best numbers they ever did. Your description of the reasons for the beauty and special nature of "Cheek to Cheek" are right on.

    Loved this, CFB!

  5. Thank you! I love the supporting players, particularly in these early films. This particular group is the best. And the music/dances ... I never tire of watching them in this film. And you'll get my take on "Let's Face the Music and Dance" in my next review :)

  6. Yes, I agree CFB, this is the best supporting group. I love this film and it might be my favorite Fred and Ginger film, though THE GAY DIVORCEE is neck and neck. I adore Edward Everett Horton in both films.

    Beddini. I love Erik Rhodes in both films too. "Oh Beddini, I'm so glad you're not skinny." I mean, I howl with laughter.

    In THE GAY DIVOCEE, I love him as the hapless paid (divorce) correspondent. "Chance is a fool's name for fate," mangled every which way. Ha!

    I really enjoyed reading your review.

    I've always had one quibble with the script and it is this: Why would Astaire take off for Venice (to see Dale, I know) or be allowed to, by the producers of a HIT show? I've never heard of having a Big Hit opening night and then closing down the theater for two days.
    Never made any sense to me, but maybe I misunderstood it.

  7. Smart, informative review of probably my favorite Astaire-Rogers musical (though I have a soft spot for both THE GAY DIVORCEE and SWING TIME). What separates this one isn't the dances (which are superb in all three films), but the incredible songs, especially the standards "Isn't It A Lovely Day" and "Cheek to Cheek." Glad that you gave a shout-out to those excellent comedians: Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore.

  8. Hi Yvette: Thank you for the comments. It is odd that Astaire would leave after opening night. While he does say something about having to be back in 48 hours for the next show, it is unusual that you have opening night, two days off and then another show.

    Hi Classic Film and TV Cafe: The songs are incredible. Apparently all five from the film were hits as well. The whole package works in this one.

  9. Classicfilmboy - thank you for taking us through these wonderful Astaire and Rogers films. They really are national treasures, and I never tire of seeing them over and over. That's one of the big advantages of having those great supporting cast members - they add tremendously to the fun. I'll await your review of Swing Time, the other great film among their many jewels. As an anecdote, Jimmy Cagney was in the soundstage when Fred performed take after take of the "Top Hat" number, and gave Astaire his recommendation on which one was best.

  10. You are welcome, Christian, and thank you for the comments and great Jimmy Cagney trivia. I didn't know that!