Synopsis: A dancer (Fred Astaire) meets and woos a model (Ginger Rogers) amid much confusion and mistaken identity.
Musical comedies of the 1930s were generally of two kinds. In one, a collection of singers and hoofers rally to put on a show and save the theatre from the clutches of developers. In the other, the course of true love is thwarted in a farcical plot usually involving a case of mistaken identity. In both kinds the creaky plots usually sag, but that doesn’t matter, as the plots were just there to hang together scenes between songs and dance numbers.
“Top Hat” is of the latter kind: plot-wise it’s a mess (at best, it’s a second-rate farce), but the songs are by Irving Berlin, so do you really care? Dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) is performing in a show produced by his friend Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). He stays – and dances – in Horace’s hotel room, which just happens to be above where fashion model Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) is trying to get to sleep. She complains; his response (after been smitten by her) is to throw sand on the floor and soft-shoe her back to sleep. Naturally, they fall in love (after dancing together in the park), but she thinks he’s Horace, and she’s a friend of Horace’s wife Madge (Helen Broderick), so there’s all sorts of confusion before the two lovers can be together.
Most of the film takes place in Venice, and this is not the decaying Venice of “Death in Venice” or “Don’t Look Now”. This is a studio set so artificial you can practically smell the chlorine in the canal, with gondoliers and carabinieri in garish costumes. The Venetian in Las Vegas may be closer to the real thing. It’s not really clear why the story is set there instead of anywhere else. Perhaps it’s an excuse for Horace’s snippy valet Bates (Eric Blore) to wear silly disguises and fall into the water. Or perhaps it’s because Jerry’s rival is a rash and buffoonish Italian stereotype, Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes), who sings operatically to his reflection “Beddini, I’m so glad you’re not skinny!”
Or perhaps the Venice setting is simply to accommodate the song ‘The Piccolino’. Lyrically it’s only so-so, but once you’ve heard the tune, you’ll never get it out of your head.
By the Adriatic waters Venetian sons and daughters
Are strumming a new tune on their guitars.
It was written by a Latin, a gondolier who sat in
His home out in Brooklyn and gazed at the stars.
He sent his melody across the sea to Italy,
And we know they wrote some words to fit that catchy bit
And christened it the Piccolino
The same plot as “Top Hat”, with much the same cast, had been filmed as “The Gay Divorcee” the year before, with songs by Cole Porter. Astaire had other dance partners in his career (Cyd Charisse, Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron, Judy Garland), but people tend first to remember his films with Rogers. The two seem made for each other, and their pairing certainly helped them both. Without her, he could have been just another immensely talented dancer stuck in secondary roles. And without him, she would have remained rather rough around the edges. As David Shipman commented, Astaire gave Rogers class, and she gave him badly needed sex appeal.
Their films together were immensely popular with critics and audiences. Audiences were in love with them, probably because when they danced it seemed just another way of moving, and it looked so effortless. In truth, they rehearsed endlessly because Astaire was an obsessive perfectionist: he worked Rogers so much that her feet used to bleed. Choreographer Hermes Pan said that his association with Astaire was “a twenty-five year war”, and producer Pandro S. Berman – who made most of the classic Astaire-Rogers films – described his time with Astaire as “six years of mutual aggression.” And as brilliant as Astaire was, as everyone knows, Rogers did the same as he did, only she did it backwards and in high heels.
In “Top Hat” Astaire and Rogers glide across the floor to the strains of ‘Cheek to Cheek’: even if you haven’t seen the film, you surely know the clip (it’s used in “The Green Mile” and countless television shows and commercials). And of course it also has ‘Top Hat’, with Astaire using his cane to mock-shoot an all-male chorus line (it’s probably best not to think about the implications of that number).
Apart from the dancing, the film has some wonderful moments, mostly provided by Helen Broderick, who gets the snarkiest lines. She can’t believe Ginger Rogers has fallen for her husband, but that may be simply because her husband is Edward Everett Horton, an actor who was a gay icon even in the closeted 1930s. He spends most of the film – as with most of his career – campily looking appalled, doing double takes, terrified of any hint of scandal. Broderick seems to have married him for the express purpose of questioning his manhood.
Jerry: She’s been mistaking me for Horace the whole time.
Madge: Hmmm. No wonder she thought he was fascinating.
When Dale tells her “he wants to divorce you and marry me,” her sublime reply is “I see: he wants to do right by both of us.”
There’s also the opening scene where Astaire disturbs the fuddy-duddy members of a London gentlemen’s club by coughing, rattling his newspaper, and finally tap-dancing out the door. The film doesn’t bother to explain why Astaire, who always seemed to me rather unclubbable, would be allowed in such a place.
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