Top Hat (1935)

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Director: Mark Sandrich

Producer: Pandro S. Berman (RKO)

Writers: Allan Scott, Dwight Taylor (screenplay)

Photography: David Abel

Music: Irving Berling, Max Steiner

Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore, Helen Broderick, Lucille Ball

He gave her class, she gave him sex appeal. He got most of the clout, and she did everything he did, only backwards in high heels. As long as there are movies, there will never be a better dancing duo than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Of the nine films they did together between 1933-1949, two have risen to masterpiece status: Swing Time (1936), recently claiming a spot on the AFI’s Top 100 Films, and their most iconic of all, Top Hat, ranked #15 on the AFI’s 25 Greatest Musicals of All Time. Together, they are masterworks in the realm of romantic comedy musicals, released by RKO a year apart, produced by Pandro S. Berman, co-written by Allan Scott, photographed by David Abel and touched by the Oscar-nominated genius of Hermes Pan, choreographer on Top Hat and dance director on Swing Time. Even if you don’t like musicals or know a thing about dance, these are two pieces of American culture that you must experience in your short time on this earth. And if you’ve never seen any, start with Top Hat.

The film features Astaire as tap-dancing sensation Jerry Travers, who one night busts out a number in his hotel room and disturbs the sleeping Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) on the floor below. After her initial complaint and his super-cute “sandman” response, the two fall for eachother, only for Dale to mistake Jerry for his married friend, Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). Thinking she is being pursued by a married playboy, Dale slaps him around, fends off his innocent approaches and awkwardly avoids conversation with Horace’s wife, Madge (Helen Broderick), whom she thinks is the victim of a two-timing husband. In the end, the film fulfills the same basic plot formula that permeates most all of the Astaire/Rogers films: Fred falling for Ginger at first sight, only for a series of interuptions and misunderstandings to keep them apart until finally dancing their way back into eachothers’ arms for a happy ending.

Watching Top Hat, you’ll see many of the series’ recurring players, including Broderick, Eric Blore and director Mark Sandrich, who helmed five of the collaborations. Audiences should also keep an eye out for a young Lucille Ball in a small part as a flower-shop girl, funny considering 23 years later she would buy the whole RKO studio. (A) In 1935, however, Ball was a mere wannabe next to these dancing titans, such huge stars that Astaire’s legs were actually insured for a million dollars! It was quite the ascendance from his first RKO screen test, which is said to have come back with this report: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.”

Either way, then-RKO head David O. Selznick saw the potential, saying, “I am uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even on this wretched test.” (D) And so, after being lent to MGM for his film debut, Dancing Lady (1933), he would make his RKO debut alongside Rogers in Flying Down to Rio (1933), receiving fifth billing, one notch below Rogers, who earlier that year had already appeared in the hit Warner Bros. musicals 42nd Street (1933) and Golddiggers of 1933 (1933). While the film was essentially a vehicle for Mexican movie star Dolores del Rio, Astaire stole the show.

“The main point of Flying Down to Rio is the screen promise of Fred Astaire,” Variety wrote. “… He’s assuredly a bet after this one, for he’s distinctly likable on the screen, the mike is kind to his voice and as a dancer he remains in a class by himself. The latter observation will be no news to the profession, which has long admitted that Astaire starts dancing where the others stop hoofing.” (D)
But Rogers was an equal part of the duo’s success. Commentator John Mueller says she stood out “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.” (D)

And so, with Astaire turning heads and Rogers making it look thrilling, RKO decided to cash in on their popularity and reteam them in The Gay Divorcee (1934), their first with Sandrich as director. By the time Roberta (1935) appeared, it was clear the Astaire-Rogers brand was going to be an institution. RKO had found their answer to the highly successful musicals of Busby Berkeley over at Warner Bros.

As the money rolled in, Astaire maintained total control over the final look of the dances. His biggest insistence, and greatest contribution to the history of movie musicals, was that his numbers be photographed with a stationary camera, as if a performance on stage. This was in total contrast to the approach of Berkeley, who moved his camera freely through each dance number, with multiple cuts. While the Astaire approach is less exciting from a directorial standpoint, it allows full attention on the dancers themselves and showcases the enormous difficulty of the performance, performed without edits. What’s more, audiences knew exactly what they were going to get out of an Astaire-Rogers picture: old-fashioned entertainment.

With three pictures down and their names household, Astaire and Rogers would make their most iconic picture of all, Top Hat. Why the film stands out among the rest is easy — the music of Irving Berlin, who would write songs for five more Astaire films. Here, the most legendary of American songwriters gives us the finest film score of his career, better than Holiday Inn (1942), better than White Christmas (1954). Overseen by musical director Max Steiner (Gone With the Wind), Berlin’s Top Hat catalog includes “Isn’t it a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)?”, a duet tapdance on a London bandstand during a thunderstorm; “The Piccolino,” the film’s big finale; and one of the most fun numbers in history, “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” featuring Fred as a one-man firing squad, mowing down top-hatted men with just the point of his cane and the stomp of his tap shoes (his machine gun is priceless). You can just imagine the joy of Astaire and Pan at the conception of it.

Of course, the film’s most famous number is “Cheek to Cheek,” where Astaire sings Berlin’s heavenly lyrics: “Heaven, I’m in heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak. And I seem to find the happiness I seek, when we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.” Immediately, viewers see that Astaire’s stength is not in his singing ability, but rather the way he sings it, his projection, his delivery, his charm. The way he accents the word “fishing,” for instance, is endearing in its quirkiness. The song earned Berlin an Oscar nomination, and its status has only grown over the years, to the point of landing #15 on AFI’s 100 Movie Songs.

Equally as memorable as the song itself is the accompanying dance, performed in an Oscar-nominated Art Deco rendering of Venice, a lavish collection of canals on an RKO soundstage. What begins as a slow dance serenade in each other’s arms escalates into an extreme long shot where brass instruments send the two spinning across a bridge and into their own private ballroom. Here, the number reaches its zenith, as Astaire spins Rogers right out of the feathers of her famous, self-made wardrobe, the two of them dipping and swinging and telling their story through dance, one that moves from romantic resistence to sexual surrender. (B) As Astaire once said of Rogers, “She was able to accomplish sex through dance. We told more through our movements instead of the big clinch. We did it all in the dance.” C).

This sort of physical expression not only wowed the critics, earning four Oscar nominations, Best Picture (Berman), Art Direction (Carroll Clark, Van Nest Polglase), Dance Direction (Pan) and Song (Berlin), it also captivated audiences, finishing second in worldwide box office receipts that year (D) and becoming RKO’s biggest box office hit of the ’30s (E). It was the most successful of any of the Astaire-Rogers pairings and, along with King Kong (1933), was responsible for pulling RKO out of depression-era bankruptcy.

For sociologists and film scholars alike, one can not overestimate the importance of the Astaire-Rogers pictures to the American psyche in the 1930s. In that most dire time, fanciful films like Top Hat were a much-needed escape from everyday despair. The fact that RKO was doing it to keep itself afloat adds another layer of magic, in that both the audience and the filmmakers tapped into Top Hat for survival. Least we forget that it was Rogers who sang “We’re in the Money” in Golddigers and captured a nation wanting to watch movies about luxury when they themselves had none.

It was precisely this depression era escapism that Woody Allen so brilliantly captured in his tribute to the movies, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), which opens with the audio of “Cheek to Cheek” and closes with his main character attending a screening of Top Hat to forget about her everyday troubles. That Allen would choose this film as his ultimately testament to the power of the movies is important. It may be the one film, more even than 42nd Street, that represents a ray of light in an otherwise dark period of American history. Frank Darabont had the same idea when he screened Top Hat for his prisoners in The Green Mile (1999). In a film of imprisonment, Top Hat is the escape.

Thanks to such homages, and Astaire’s narration of animated TV specials like Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970), the Astaire/Rogers mystique is ingrained in us all as part of the American experience. Either because of its cultural standing or in spite of it, watching the dance numbers is pure bliss, like realizing a piece of history, realizing what made our ancestors smile and what the peak of celluloid performance could be. If a friend is looking to plug into a giant piece of performing arts culture, just smile and direct them to Top Hat. They’ll be amazed at the delight capable of those feet buried just yards away from eachother at Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery.

It’s fitting their bodies be interred that way, dancing “in heaven” across eternity, while their pictures continue to flicker for us in this lowly place. And if alien beings ever were to visit our little planet, scholar David Thomson poses we show them Astaire’s dance steps to demonstrate the potential of the film medium: “Astaire is the most refined human expression of the musical, which is in turn the extreme manifestation of pure cinema: the lifelike presentation of human beings in magical, dreamlike, and imaginary situations.” (F) Such a display would demonstrate both the power of the cinema and one of humanity’s closest encounters with heaven — the privelege of watching a great dancer dance.

Citations:

CITE A: TV Guide Top 50 Movies list
CITE B: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
CITE C: IMDB trivia
CITE D: Mueller, John (1986). Astaire Dancing – The Musical Films. London: Hamish Hamilton, pp.76-87.
CITE E: Tim Dirks, filmsite.org
CITE F: David Thomson, New Biographical Dictionary of Film

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