Friday, June 13, 2014

Guest Review: Top Hat (1935)

by Kit

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 plot
The 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.
But soon a wrench is thrown into the works when, due to an unlucky set of circumstances, Dale believes Jerry is really the married Horace and Horace is Jerry. So she leaves for Venice and and Jerry and Horace follow. Dale meets up with Horace’s wife, Madge, (Helen Broderick) who she already knows. But, since there is a mix-up we get a rather funny scene where, after telling Madge what happened, Madge reveals, with shocking nonchalance, that Horace has a history of “flirting” with girls (adultery in a Code Era comedy?). Anyway, Horace and Jerry arrive in Venice with Dale and Madge. Hijinks ensue.
Why It Works
There 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 best example would be a scene where Madge, Fred, and Ginger are sitting at a table. Now, again Madge is trying to set Fred and Ginger up and Ginger thinks that Fred is Madge’s husband. So you have Fred wooing Ginger, Madge playing matchmaker with the two, and Ginger just sitting there stunned.

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.
Film historian John Mueller pointed out this about Ginger Rogers’ acting: "Rogers was outstanding among Astaire's partners, not because she was superior to others as a dancer, but, because, as a skilled, intuitive actress, she was cagey enough to realize that acting did not stop when dancing began ... the reason so many women have fantasized about dancing with Fred Astaire is that Ginger Rogers conveyed the impression that dancing with him is the most thrilling experience imaginable”. He’s right, she takes Fred Astaire’s natural charm and amplifies.

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.
Conclusion
This 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.

13 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Thanks for the review. On the surface, this doesn't sound like a great movie. It sounds like an extended sit-com. But you are right that this is an excellent film. I think what really makes it work is the charisma of the actors. They elevate this above a generic mistaken-identity comedy.

Kit said...

Andrew,

You are right. Fred and Ginger's chemistry and some memorable songs by Irving Berlin makes this movie one to remember.

Also, another good quote on the duo, this one from Katherine Hepburn: "Fred gave Ginger class. Ginger gave Fred sex."

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I think it's a brilliant observation. Fred's an ok dancer in my book. He doesn't do anything that really excites me or makes me think "wow!" (I think that's a factor of time passing and all the dancers out there copying his moves and improving on them).

Nevertheless, he's still fun and exciting to watch, and I think it's because Ginger adds so much to what he's doing. She's the one who sells him as the greatest thing ever. Without her, he's just a guy doing some dance steps that most modern dancers can probably do.

Kit said...

Andrew,

I think that is the result of time passing and dancers improving on what he did. Many famous dancers from the 40s onward have revered him. Stage dancers and choreographers Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine both cited him as a major influence. Michael Jackson revered him.

Tennessee Jed said...

One can never really go too far wrong with Fred and Ginger. Of course, as the saying goes: "imagine what it would be like to do every move Fred Astaire does while dancing, but do it backwards and in high heels.

ScottDS said...

I've never seen this film, or any of the Fred & Ginger canon. Don't worry, I'm sure I will one day... but I also HATE mistaken identity plots (they're my pet peeve along with amnesia plots).

I did, however, just watch Funny Face, in which Astaire co-stars with Audrey Hepburn (radiant as usual). Can't argue with talent!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, My most hated are (1) mistaken identity, (2) evil (unrelated) twin, (3) amnesia, and (4) the hospital bed episode (clip show where everyone comes by to tell the comatose actor how they really feel.

What really kills me on the mistake identity stuff is just how stupid everyone needs to be for those to work. One simple question... the type humans routinely ask... kills the story. So the "writers" make the characters too stupid to ask the right question.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

I don't mind the twin thing (it's the Mirror Universe influence!) and the hospital bed episode can be done right, assuming it's not just flashbacks. In the best of those episodes, its usually the characters who are NOT in the bed who have some kind of personal revelation. The person in the bed is simply the MacGuffin.

Kit said...

I thought Scrubs did the hospital bed plot well with the Nurse Laverne's last episode.

How many of you have seen Top Hat and, if so, what did you think of it?

Tennessee Jed said...

I have seen this one and a couple others; Shall We Dance for sure, and can't recall others. This is a genre we don't really see any more. A bygone era. To be honest, watching these fi,s, I never gave much thought to the plots, but liked the music and dancing. I can't say I have seen any of them in the past 30 years, so it is hard to remember.

Kit said...

Jed, Shall We Dance is on my to-see list.

I've seen The Gay Divorcée, this one (obviously!), and Swing Time. This has been my favorite so far.

Kit said...

Another thing about Top Hat is that the Venice set looks more like a really fancy Deluxe Resort at Disney World than actual Venice. But that is more of a result of budget constraints of the time and never really detracts from it.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, The hospital bed plot was a staple of shows in the 1970s-1990s. Some shows, like Stargate SG-1 took turns with each character getting their turn in the bed.

Barf.

I have seen Top Hat and enjoyed it. Hopefully, others will add their opinions.

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