TOP HAT ( 1935 )
The other night I watched “Top Hat” again, and while watching it, I couldn’t help but reminisce about my Great Grand Pop, who was an ardent supporter of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I’ve got many fond memories of Pop, and I can still clearly remember him telling me about his love for the renowned dancing duo, and urging everybody to see their movies. His favorite movie of theirs was “Top Hat”, so for my next review for musical month, I thought I would pay tribute by dedicating this write up to him. This is for you Pop.
After the success of their three previous vehicles, audiences were awaiting the release of “Top Hat”, which would later be inaugurated as the dancing duo’s best known work. The film is lavishly directed by Mark Sandrich, who acquired his first directorial assignment working with the team in the 1934 film “The Gay Divorcee”. When “Top Hat” proved to be a triumph, he continued working with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, before moving to Paramount in 1940. It was written for the screen by Allan Scott and Dwight Taylor, who annexed the idea from “Scandal In Budapest” and “A Girl Who Dares”, two different stage plays with similar stories.
“Top Hat” marks a milestone for Irving Berlin. This was the first of a series of distinctive film musicals that starred some of Hollywood’s most eminent performers. Berlin had only just returned to Hollywood, and with the credit he attained for his music, he gained a new appreciation for the business end of the motion picture industry. Berlin had been there in the first three years of sound and wrote a few songs for the screen. He didn’t like writing and seeing his work integrated into the scores of other films, he also couldn’t stand seeing his work on the cutting room floor as was the case in “Reaching For The Moon”.
With Top Hat Berlin began a tradition of total control. After that it was extremely rare to hear a non-Berlin note in any score he wrote. He was as in on the creation of the film as he would have been on the Broadway stage. And he retained copyright control of his songs which was usually not the case, the studio did. The man was a first class businessman as well as our greatest songwriter.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers illuminate the screen in this dazzling tale of mistaken identity. Jerry Travers ( Fred Astaire ) is an American dancer, who is currently residing in London, so he can star in the newly produced play by Horace Hardwick ( Edward Everett Norton ). Late one night while practicing dance steps in his hotel room, he encounters the beautiful model, Dale Tremont ( Ginger Rogers ), who goes up to his room to complain, after she is awakened by the sound of tap dancing. Jerry is enamored by her charms and elegance, and instantly becomes infatuated in her, that he proceeds to pursue her all over town.
Problems arise when there is a mix up at the hotel, and Dale mistakes Jerry for Horace, the husband of her friend Madge ( Helen Broderick ). Dale is choleric and enraged, thinking that Jerry is married to her best friend, while Jerry remains incognizant of the whole thing, and why Dale is so irascible towards him.
Complications ensue when Jerry continues to try to enchant Dale, resulting in a comedy of errors, until Dale finally elicits the truth, and realizes that it was just a lapse in identity.
It’s light, it’s fluffy, “Top Hat” is everything a musical should be. This is the true definition of wholesome family entertainment. Not only does it sparkle with an array of classical dance numbers and songs, it also sparkles with humor and wit, showcasing many elements of Screwball Comedy.
What I like most about “Top Hat” is the songs and dance numbers. I’ve always been captivated by Fred Astaire’s dancing, and watching this again the other night really brought back wonderful memories of my Great Grand Pop. I know that he was an avid fan of both Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and this was his favorite movie, so I sort of classify this as his movie. Even the songs made me think of him, so much that it’s like the songs were especially written for him.
I highly recommend “Top Hat” to everyone, even those that don’t like musicals. The songs in this are absolute gold. These songs are timeless classics that are catchy and fun. The highlight of the film to me is the “Cheek To Cheek” number. This scene is clipped in many documentaries pertaining to movie musicals or Astaire and Rogers themselves. “Cheek to Cheek” was nominated for best song of 1935. Although it didn’t win, it remains as memorable as the Astaire and Rogers dance itself. The scene and the song has also been nostalgically referred to in so many notable films including “The Green Mile” and “The Purple Rose Of Cairo”.
Almost eighty years after it’s release, “Top Hat” continues to enthrall audiences of all ages. From the zany plot to the spectacular songs and dance numbers, this distinguished classic has stood the test of time, and will always be remembered as one of the greatest movie musicals to ever be presented on the silver screen.
“No Strings, I’m Fancy Free” (sung and danced by Fred Astaire); “Isn’t It a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain” (sung by Astaire/ danced by Astaire and Ginger Rogers); “Top Hat” (sung by Astaire); “Cheek to Cheek” (sung by Astaire/ danced by Astaire and Rogers); and “The Piccolino” (sung by Ginger Rogers and chorus/ danced by Astaire and Rogers); and “The Piccolino” (reprise, finale).
For the “Cheek to Cheek” number, Ginger Rogers wanted to wear an elaborate blue dress heavily decked out with ostrich feathers. When director Mark Sandrich and Fred Astaire saw the dress, they knew it would be impractical for the dance. Sandrich suggested that Rogers wear the white gown she had worn performing “Night and Day” in The Gay Divorcee (1934). Rogers walked off the set, finally returning when Sandrich agreed to let her wear the offending blue dress. As there was no time for rehearsals, Ginger Rogers wore the blue feathered dress for the first time during filming, and as Astaire and Sandrich had feared, feathers started coming off the dress. Astaire later claimed it was like “a chicken being attacked by a coyote”. In the final film, some stray feathers can be seen drifting off it. To patch up the rift between them, Astaire presented Rogers with a locket of a gold feather. This was the origin of Rogers’ nickname “Feathers”. The shedding feathers episode was recreated to hilarious results in a scene from Easter Parade (1948) in which Fred Astaire danced with a clumsy, comical dancer played by Judy Garland.
The finale of “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” production number with Fred Astaire miming his cane as a weapon “attacking” his supporting dancers, 13 canes were prepared for it. During shooting, Astaire, ever the unforgiving perfectionist, was continually breaking his canes in frustration at his mistakes, which concerned the crew that he was running out of them. As it turns out, the shooting of the scene was finished with the very last cane.
Fred Astaire was an inspiration to many future dancers, including Michael Jackson, who idolized him all his life. Eventually Michael met Fred Astaire, and attained some advice on dancing from him. Some of Fred Astaire’s dance moves in “Top Hat” also happen to be some of Michael Jackson’s signature dance moves, most notably in the “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” number.
Dale Tremont: What is this strange power you have over horses?
Jerry Travers: [thinks] Horsepower?
Dale Tremont: How could I have ever fallen in love with a man like you!
[Dale slaps Jerry, then storms off]
Jerry Travers: She loves me.
Jerry Travers: All is fair in love and war, and this is revolution!
Madge Hardwick: My dear, when you’re as old as I am, you take your men as you find them – if you can find them.
Jerry Travers: Are you afraid of thunder?
Dale Tremont: Oh, no. It’s just the noise.
Jerry Travers: You know what thunder is, don’t you?
Dale Tremont: Of course. It’s something about the air.
Jerry Travers: No, no. When a clumsy cloud from here meets a fluffy little cloud from there, he billows towards her. She scurries away and he scuds right up to her. She cries a little and there you have you showers. He comforts her. They spark. That’s the lightning. They kiss. Thunder.
Fred Astaire: Born Frederick Austerlitz on May 10th, 1899 in Omaha, Nebraska. Died: June 22nd, 1987 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 88.
Ginger Rogers: Born Virginia Katherine McMath on July 16th, 1911 in Independence, Missouri. Died: April 25th, 1995 in Rancho Mirage, California. Aged 83.