Top Hat – 1935 – dir. Mark Sandrich
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made only ten movies together but oh, what a ten they are! Top Hat is the best of them. After Astaire’s Easter Parade, it was the most successful movie of his long career. Certainly, it is the loveliest, best-looking the pair ever made, and the most expensive to produce; the cost of the lavish Art Deco sets — what the industry used to call “The Big White Set” — reached up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, an astronomical sum for those times. Remember that this was The Depression — 1935 — and savvy movie producers knew that people suffering in a bleak economy survived by going to the movies; they flocked to the theaters in droves to live and dream vicariously, watching their favorite movie stars carouse and cavort in fabulous costumes on luxuriant sets, dressed in tuxedos and bundled up in minks, sipping champagne and tripping the Light Fantastic.
Audiences left their own hard lives behind at home to join in on the easy-going lives being lived by those they saw on the silver screen. The more extravagant the picture, the more money it took in at the box office. Few stars in those days were more beloved than Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire for that very reason; they lifted their audiences up out of the gloom, a very real and nationwide gloom, and for that generation to whom they gave hope and color and dreams and romance, and dazzling entertainment; they remain heroes of an eternal kind.
Arguably, no screen dancer has ever equalled the flair and unmistakable style of Fred Astaire. Many splendid male dancers lit up movie screens in those days: the lightning-footed Ray Bolger, the easy-as-an-evening-breeze Buddy Ebsen. But not even the jaunty bulldog airs of James Cagney’s hoofing, not the daring athletic
physicality and inventiveness of Gene Kelly nor the sexual duende of early John Travolta (Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Pulp Fiction) could match Fred Astaire’s golden choreography. His abilities brought a perfection to dancing that no one has ever quite been able to imitate. All of the above-mentioned dance gods were legendary, but Astaire was their Zeus.
By himself, he was good, and by herself, Ginger Rogers was good. Together, they were great. What Rogers lacked, Astaire had, and what Astaire lacked, Rogers had. They complimented each other beautifully. It is said of them, acting-wise, that “Ginger gave Fred sex and Fred gave Ginger class”. On his own, Astaire could seem somewhat asexual. And Rogers herself was the first to admit she could be “a little bit rough around the edges”. Fred elevated her down-to-earth qualities to glamorous heights and she made him look sexy by making us see that he had a lot more going for him than shiny tap shoes. When she looked at him with longing, loving eyes, as if he was Adonis, the audience looked at him that way, too.
Their dancing is nonesuch. Their feet seem to have wings, so light-as-air do they fly and glide across whatever ballroom floor they happen to be gracing. Astaire had other able dance partners after Rogers: Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, Audrey Hepburn but however talented these women were. they would act then stop to dance, act then stop to dance, separating the two skills into unconnected entities. Rogers outshone them because she was capable of remaining a dancing actress, carrying her acting skills with her right out onto the dance floor. Her lovely, knowing face could convey a myriad range of emotions: coyness, love, mischief, anger, allure. Together, Astaire and Rogers were dynamite.
And if the duo did not, as has been suggested by many stories and Hollywood biographies, hate each other’s guts, it is true that they were not exactly thrilled to share a film set either. Rogers especially
disliked the way Astaire drove her, himself and the entire company mad with his taskmaster’s demands for endless rehearsals until a number was 110% perfection. “Manys the night”, Rogers said, “I went home with blistered, bloodied feet after rehearsing a simple movement dozens and dozens of times.”
The suffering seems to have paid off, for Astaire and Rogers became consummate entertainers. No one dances, or ever has danced like they dance. They seem to shed their bodies and melt into a silken invisibility until they and we are lifted up into a place of sheer joy, outside all time and space.
Top Hat is their most appealing picture, a frothy concoction of mistaken identities, memorable Irving Berlin songs and top-of-the-line choreography. Astaire plays Jerry Travers, an American hoofer (what else?) in love with Rogers’ Dale Tremont, a wisecracking American girl who thinks that Astaire likes someone else so she marries someone else so so so…….well, one mix-up leads to another until we find ourselves in a deliciously silly plot played out by barmy farceurs including the always divine Edward Everett Horton, pretty Helen Broderick, the ever prissy Eric Blore and, as a rival for Dale’s affections, the dashing Erik Rhodes. If you look closely, you will see Lucille Ball as a clerk in a flower shop and Dennis O’Keefe as an elevator operator.
The songs are nothing short of wonderful: “Isn’t It a Lovely Day?”, “No Strings” and the burnished chestnut, “Cheek to Cheek” which was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar. The movie received
three other Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Art Direction and Dance Direction (the legendary Hermes Pan).
No words, no technical explanations, no fancy film notes can ever even begin to explain the absolute magic of a Rogers and Astaire movie. When they are in motion, the whole world seems to stand still in deference to unalloyed joy.
Or……..as little Shirley Temple, no mean slouch of a hoofer herself, said, after seeing Top Hat, “It’s darned good dancing”.