Every once in a while you need a movie that will make you smile. The Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers flick Top Hat is just such a movie. Widely considered their best, it is an escapist, non-cynical comedy that will put a big smile on your face.
The plotThe plot is rather simple: Fred Astaire is famous dancer Jerry Travers who has arrived in London for a show put on by his friend and producer Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton) and Horace’s royal we-using butler, Bates (Eric Blore). Ginger Rogers is Dale Tremont, a "designing woman" (fashion model), who is visiting London with her designer Alberto Beddini (scene-stealing Erik Rhodes) staying in the room below Horace and Jerry. Also, its subtly revealed that Horace’s wife, Madge, who knows both Fred’s and Ginger’s characters is scheming to get them together.
At the beginning of the movie Jerry wakes Dale up in the middle of the night with his dancing prompting her to complain to the front desk. Fred runs down to see who it is that called to complain and meets her in the hallway and is instantly smitten. Ginger? Not so much. But he decides to pursue her, much to her great annoyance. Eventually, though, he pursues her to a gazebo where its raining.
Why It WorksThere are four reasons this film works: funny humor, great songs, dancing that is a joy to watch, and, most importantly, the phenomenal chemistry between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
The humor is delivered mainly through the dialogue with very little physical comedy. That is not to say there is no goofy comedy or goofy characters. The goofy comedy is mainly provided by the supporting characters of Horace, Beddini, Bates, and Madge with Fred and Ginger playing the straight men. Erik Rhodes as the over the top, effeminate, Italian fashion designer Alberto Beddini is incredible fun, stealing just about every scene he has. While Fred and Ginger’s chemistry is great (more on that later), most of the good humor come when Fred or Ginger or both are interacting with one of the said supporting characters with the funniest scenes occurring while they are in Venice.
The songs, composed by Irving Berlin, are a lot of fun to hear. In my opinion the three highlights are “Isn’t it a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)”, “Cheek to Cheek” and “Piccolino”. The dance scenes for them are a lot of fun, especially the ones where Fred and Ginger dance, which is probably why you are watching the movie.
But, as I pointed out earlier, the main reason it works is because of the incredible chemistry between the two leads. The reason is a combination of two things: Fed Astaire’s magnetic charm and Ginger Rogers’ incredible but subtle acting skills.
One scene that illustrates this are “Isn’t it a Lovely Day”. In “Isn’t it a Lovely Day” the only dialogue Ginger has in the scene is at the beginning of the scene when Fred enters the Gazebo. Fred does all of the singing, which means everything she is feeling must be conveyed by her body language and facial expressions. Ginger Rogers pulls it off magnificently, making the audience believe that a single dance could make a woman swoon for Fred Astaire.
ConclusionThis movie is a delight to watch and a must-see. It's not only Fred and Ginger at their best it is Classic Hollywood at their best.
I recommend purchasing the TCM Classics Film Collection Astaire & Rogers Volume 1; it comes with four movies: Top Hat, Gay Divorcée, Swing Time, and Shall We Dance. The Top Hat DVD has a great bonus feature about the making of the film with special attention paid to Rogers and Astaire’s chemistry that provided an important source on understanding their dynamic.
Trivia: A young Lucille Ball appears as the clerk at a flower shop.