Saturday, April 7, 2012

Movie – Top Hat (1935)

Top Hat is usually considered the best of the ten Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies (although I prefer 1936’s Swing Time.)  Top Hat has the two of them at the peak of their popularity, in the first movie written specifically for them, and with songs written by Irving Berlin.  As you can imagine, the result is a very entertaining movie.  It was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture.

As another blogger wrote in his/her review of one of their films, “you don’t watch an Astaire/Rogers film for the plot.”  [I tried to find this review again so I could credit the blogger, but I was unable to do so.  My apologies.]  You watch their films for the sheer artistry of their dancing, and for the chemistry between the two of them.

Top Hat is the fourth film for Astaire and Rogers.  Joining them in the cast are regulars from their other films like Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore, and Helen Broderick.  Also watch for a young, pre-fame Lucille Ball as a clerk in a flower shop.

Jerry Travers (Astaire) is an entertainer and is in London to do some shows.  He is staying in the hotel suite of his promoter Horace Hardwick (Horton).  Jerry is so excited about things he can’t sleep and instead practices his tap dancing routine in the hotel room.  Dale Tremont (Rogers), who is staying in the room below him, is rightfully upset that she can’t sleep with all the racket.  She comes up to complain.  When Jerry sees Dale it is love at first sight.

The next day Jerry poses as a hansom cab driver in order to spend some time with Dale.  He takes her to a park and romances her in a gazebo in the rain.  At first Dale starts to fall in love, too, but then she mistakes Jerry for the husband of Madge Hardwick, a woman she has become friends with.  In actuality, Madge is Horace’s husband, but Dale has never seen him, so since she met Jerry in Horace’s room, it looks like he is married and trying to cheat on Madge.

Dale is also romanced by Italian designer Alberto Beddini (Rhodes).  He convinces Dale to accompany him back to Italy to see Venice.  Before she leaves, Dale slaps Jerry (who she thinks is trying to cheat on his wife), but doesn’t explain her action.  Horace Hardwick gets complaints from the hotel staff for his performer causing a scene.  Confused, Horace sends his assistant named Bates (Blore) to Italy to follow Dale and see if he can find out what is going on.

Before she left, Dale also confessed to Madge that her husband (who she thinks is Jerry) made advances to her.  Needless to say, Madge is not happy and Horace now ends up in the doghouse, for no reason that he can understand.  Everyone ends up in Italy where the mistaken identities continue for much of the picture.  Just to add to the confusion, Madge tries to set Dale up with Jerry, not realizing Dale thinks Jerry is Madge’s husband.  Got all that?

There are several classic Irving Berlin songs in the film, such as No Strings (I’m Fancy Free), Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain)?, Top Hat White Tie and Tails, and the Oscar nominated Cheek to Cheek.  There is a huge production number of a song and dance called The Piccolino at the end, and this is actually my biggest negative with the film.  It is a longer sequence and the song is not that particularly great.  In addition, the actors/actresses trying to act like it is the most wonderful thing just come across as false.  According to the trivia for the film on IMDB, Astaire didn’t like the song, either, which is why only Ginger Rogers sings on it.  All the other numbers were a lot more intimate and this huge production just feels out of place.  This scene, coming at almost the end of the movie, knocks a star off my rating for the film.

The Cheek to Cheek song/dance is famous for more than just popularity of the song; it’s also the scene where Rogers insisted on wearing a feathered dress for the number, which Astaire knew was going to be trouble during the dance that had been choreographed.  Rogers got her way, but by that time there was no chance to rehearse the number in costume, so the first time she danced in it was the scene shot for the film.  As the dance progressed, more and more feathers kept coming off the dress.  Astaire was later quoted as saying, “It was like a chicken being attacked by a coyote.”  In the final film you can still see some feathers floating around as the dance goes on.

Astaire is a fantastic dancer, of course – probably the greatest to ever appear on film.  His acting is serviceable and he doesn’t embarrass himself during the singing.  Rogers was a good dancer in her own right, and was a better actress than Astaire.  She would later win a Best Actress Oscar for 1940’s Kitty Foyle.  I can’t actually remember my impressions of her singing, but I’m sure what was used in the film was the very best recordings they got from her.

Unless you hate musicals, I recommend you give this film a try.  It has some classic songs in it, and some great dance sequences.  There are several humorous moments during all the mistaken identity scenes, too.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. I like the story in Top Hat more than I do the story in Swing Time. Fred Astaire is too nice and likable for me to really buy him as a swindler and gambler. The dancing in both is tremendous, and probably a little better in Swing Time, though.

    The unsung hero for me in this film is Edward Everett Horton, who never fails to make me laugh throughout. He pulls off that "guy over his head" act beautifully, and never really catches up to everyone else in the film. Aside from the dancing, he's my favorite part of the film.

  2. @SJHoneywell - I completely agree on Horton. I also agree that Astaire always comes across as likable, but in Swing Time I just saw him as a likable swindler and gambler - yes, I realize in real life those people don't exist.

  3. I love all of the musical numbers in Top Hat, but The Piccolino is definitely the weakest. I never tire of hearing Astaire on that now infamous feathered dress!

  4. @KimWilson - Thanks. I had noticed the feathers coming off when I watched the movie and didn't think much of it at the time. It wasn't until I heard about it afterwards that I realized how big a deal it had been.

  5. I love Top Hat. I really do. I started out preferring Swing Time when I first started watching Fred & Ginger, but Top Hat kept persisting. Is there anything more divine than Fred Astaire singing Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails? Not for me.

    I do feel the first hour of the film is FAR stronger than the last half hour. The film just kind of peters out.

    I simply adore the "Fancy Free" song; I love love love when Fred walks Edward Everett Horton over to the ringing telephone while he's still dancing.

    I've written a review of Top Hat, but have yet to post it.

    siochembio (film_flammers)

  6. @Siochembio - Thanks for the thoughts on the film. My favorite song is probably Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails.