Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Astaire and Rogers Series: Top Hat (1935)

Fred and Ginger dancing cheek-to-cheek to a song of that
title from the film Top Hat
Of all the Astaire/Rogers films, this one is considered the quintessential. I'm not sure if it's the best--for my money that award would go to Swing Time, which I shall be reviewing soon--but it's certainly the most-remembered of their outings together. Certainly the songs by Irving Berlin and dances are memorable, the plot charming, and the supporting cast (Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, Helen Broderick, and Erik Rhodes) at their finest.

I think the only major problem with this film is over-exposure, which tends to diminish the reputation of the other films. People will say, "If you've seen Top Hat, you've seen them all," which is really unfair considering all the great composers with distinctive styles that worked on these films and the fact that Fred Astaire always took great pains to make sure each of his dance routines did not resemble any of his other work. Thus it is fallacious to claim that Top Hat became old hat. Yes, it's a fabulous movie, but viewing it is no excuse to skip the rest of the Astaire/Rogers collection.

Fred Astaire plays a Broadway star who comes to London to star in a West End show. He starts out by singing the exuberant ode to bachelorhood "No Strings," which makes one think that he's just tempting fate to make him fall in love. Since in works of fiction, moereover--as Tom Stoppard so brilliantly points out in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead--there's no such thing as chance, he does fall in love with a girl immediately afterwards. The film thumbs its nose at our suspended disbelief while Fred is dancing to "No Strings" in his hotel room. Whereas in most musicals we are trained just to forget logistics like the fact that Fred's tap dancing in the middle of the night is creating a horrible racket for the other people at the hotel, this film actually shows some consequences. His downstairs neighbor Ginger Rogers comes up to complain about the noise, and Fred is instantly smitten with her. Although Ginger initially spurns his advances--a common trope in these movies--Fred wins her over by dancing with her in the song, "Isn't it a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain)?" which became a jazz standard overnight.

The rest of the plot deals with a Shakespeare-worthy case of mistaken identity, with Ginger mistaking Fred for the husband of her good friend (played by Helen Broderick), and everything everyone else saying things that unintentionally reinforcing that belief. Through it all Fred and Ginger get to dance their most famous number together--but not their best--"Cheek to Cheek." That song also features what is unquestionably the ugliest dress ever put on poor Ginger, a gaudy feathered affair that shed all over the stage and completely conceals her fabulous figure.

Another number in this movie that would be hallmark in Fred Astaire's career is "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails." Fred Astaire had already been doing the debonair gentleman-dancer thing for the last fifteen years at that point, so a song about him getting dressed up to go dancing was considered to epitomize his on-screen/on-stage personality. Aside from that, it's also a really good tap number that includes a famous bit in which Fred's tapping simulates machine-gun fire, and he proceeds to mow down the chorus line behind him with his feet.

Really, though, as far as Astaire/Rogers films go, this one has no weak points--no weak points, that is, if you don't mind that the part of the film that's supposed to take place in Venice is so obviously a sound stage that only the most ignorant or credulous could suspend their disbelief for it. I rather think of it as a giant Art Deco re-imagining of the city than something that even remotely tries to resemble the real thing, and that has a certain charm for me. If you can forgive that fault, though, I really can't recommend a more enjoyable way to spend two hours than watching this gem of a movie.

I give this movie an 8.1 out of 10, easily one of the highest-rated Astaire and Rogers films.

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