“Every once in a while I suddenly find myself dancing,” Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) says to Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) when they meet cute at a London hotel at the beginning of Top Hat (1935). Jerry, a song-and-dance man, has just arrived in London to star in a show for his producer pal Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton) and has been explaining to Horace his casual philosophy of romance. How else would Fred Astaire express his feelings in a musical film but through song and dance? Here the song is “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)”—”No ties to my affections / I’m fancy free and free for anything fa-a-a-ncy”—and the dance is a raucous tap routine that has disturbed the sleep of the young woman in the room below, Dale. This is why Jerry feels the need to explain to her his occasional compulsion to sing and dance. At this first meeting, Dale responds to Jerry frostily. He responds to her with a level of interest that has him rethinking his no strings attitude to romance.
The rest of the movie might be described as Fred persists, Ginger resists, with complications. It’s those complications that are wrung for every last drop of plot to sustain this light-as-air confection of a movie. The main complication is one of the oldest in the book—mistaken identity. Just when Dale is beginning to reconsider her opinion of Jerry, circumstances lead her to believe that Jerry is actually Horace, who happens to be the husband of her best friend Madge (Helen Broderick), and narrative coincidences conspire to perpetuate her error. Naturally, she finds her pursuer a cad and continues to reject his advances, while Jerry can’t understand why she won’t thaw in the face of his tenacity. Things definitely reach an impasse when Dale impulsively decides to marry a sexually ambiguous dress designer to avoid Jerry.
Besides the sublime team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Top Hat has a great deal else to recommend it. For one thing, there’s the delightful score by Irving Berlin. It might not have the number of standards found in Shall We Dance or Swing Time, but its five songs are all tuneful and lyrically catchy, and one, “Cheek to Cheek,” not only provides the music for the most memorable dance routine in the film but became a much-recorded standard. The song was nominated for an Oscar but came in second behind “Lullaby of Broadway,” a well-crafted song which, however, doesn’t strike me as having the lasting appeal of “Cheek to Cheek.” But who ever credited the Academy with foresight? And its chances were probably hurt by the fact that the winner was the centerpiece of a mind-blowing 14-minute long Busby Berkeley production number in a movie directed by the master himself (Gold Diggers of 1935) and also that the only other nominee, “Lovely to Look At,” was from another Astaire-Rogers movie, Roberta.
The art direction in Top Hat, which also received an Oscar nomination, is by Carroll Clark and Van Nest Polglase, who was head of the art department at RKO from 1932 to 1943. (Among the 331 films Polglase is credited with are all nine of the Astaire-Rogers musicals made at RKO in the 1930s as well as Citizen Kane, also made at RKO.) The great film director Michael Powell wrote in his autobiography that “the most genuinely creative member of a film unit, if the author of the original story and screenplay is excluded, is the art director . . . the creator of those miraculous images up there on the big screen.” Top Hat is a great illustration of the truth of that statement, for the art direction of this film is largely responsible for its considerable visual appeal.
The first half of Top Hat takes place in London, mostly in a swanky hotel, and the decor here is pure Art Deco, all angles and planes and architectonic silhouettes arrayed in open, spacious settings. When the action moves to Venice in the second half of the film, the decor becomes rococo frou-frou full of sensuous curves and ornamentation, a look that might have been inspired by the decoration on a wedding cake. Throughout, the color scheme is pale—white on white on white. Dark colors are restricted largely to the costumes, which helps the actors stand out amid all that pallid visual splendor. The set decoration reaches its zenith in the elaborate sound stage representation of a fantasy Venice, a set so vast that two sound stages were required to house it.
In the Greatest Musicals Countdown there has been some discussion of the use of the sound stage in musicals and whether this is a practice antithetical to the innate realism of the film medium. But let’s face it—the musical film is an inherently artificial genre. In the traditional musical like Top Hat, the fundamental mode of expression is fantasy, not realism. This is due at least in part to its antecedents in opera and in the operettas, variety shows, and musical comedies of the stage. I’m not saying that real locations don’t enhance outdoor scenes and the serious subjects of the modern social realist musical like West Side Story. But the basic aim of the musical film is to heighten reality through contrived and often frivolous plots, simplified characterization, and the combining of song with speech and movement with dance. Artifice, stylization, and exaggeration are the engines that drive musical films like Top Hat.
Now on to the great cast of Top Hat. Anyone reading this is likely well-acquainted with the talent and teamwork of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But one thing that makes their films work so well is the support they get from the character actors cast in smaller roles, and none of their pictures has a better supporting cast than this one. Erik Rhodes plays the fashion designer Ginger marries (you’ll have to watch the movie to see the clever ruse used to get around this so that Fred and Ginger can get together at the end of the movie), an excitable Italian named Beddini, essentially a reprise of his excitable Italian Tonetti from The Gay Divorcée. Helen Broderick plays Madge Hardwick, making wry moues and snapping out wisecracks as though it were second nature. Best of all are fussy Edward Everett Horton, firing off exclamations like “Oh, dear dear!” and “My word!” while doing double-takes, and Eric Blore, as Horton’s sassy valet Bates. Horton and Blore make a wonderful comedy team, Horton feeding Blore straight lines and Blore rolling his eyes, pulling faces, and drawling back punch lines in his hilariously over-precise diction. And I mustn’t forget to mention a platinum blonde Lucille Ball in a tiny role as a florist’s assistant. (She must have had fond memories of this picture. Horton later appeared with her in a memorable episode of I Love Lucy, and in another episode Desi Arnaz sang “Cheek to Cheek” to a pregnant Lucy.)
Finally, there are the dance numbers, choreographed by Astaire and the great Hermes Pan, who worked on all ten of the Astaire-Rogers movies. The five musical numbers here represent just about every style of dance then current in musical movies. “No Strings” begins as an energetic tap dance and ends as a hushed soft-shoe with Fred lulling Ginger to sleep by dancing on sand. “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain)?” starts off almost as a competition between the two, with Fred attempting to use his dance technique as a tactic for seduction. Ginger begins mimicking his moves to prove her dancing mettle but ends up dancing in unison with him, a choreographic strategy perhaps intended to show how close Fred came to succeeding. It’s a good thing that thunderstorm passed before things went too far! “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” is done as a stage number in Jerry and Horace’s musical revue, in the style of the Warners backstage musicals, Astaire performing solo with a male chorus. The legendary “Cheek to Cheek” is the ultimate romantic dance, with Fred in tails and Ginger in that famous feathered dress, together gliding, swooping, and whirling with ethereal grace, like a pair of exotic birds performing a mating ritual. The film’s final number, “The Piccolino,” sung by Ginger and performed on that huge Venetian set, is a lavish production number on the grand scale, almost an homage to Busby Berkeley.
Top Hat, nominated for an Oscar as best picture, was the fifth of ten musicals Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together and one of five directed by Mark Sandrich. It is in the opinion of just about everybody one of the two best of the lot, the other being Swing Time (1936). I’d go along with that opinion, but if pressed to choose one as the absolute best, I’d go for Top Hat over Swing Time, as much as I like that George Stevens-directed delight. Top Hat is a more comfortable fit with the airiness I consider typical of Astaire-Rogers vehicles, and of all the Astaire-Rogers movies, it’s the funniest and the most risqué.
How Top Hat made the ‘Elite 70’:
Judy Geater’s No. 4 choice
Greg Ferrara’s No. 5 choice
Allan Fish’s No. 5 choice
Pat Perry’s No. 9 choice
Dennis Polifroni’s No. 9 choice
Sam Juliano’s No. 43 choice