Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935)

The musical sequences in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers collaborations have always been expressions of uncontrollable emotion. While logic tells Dale Tremont (Rogers) that an affair with a married man is wrong, her heart beats a different tune and suddenly she’s gliding across a deco dance floor with such beauty and grace that one forgets all the silly circumstances of the plot. The plot remains very silly; almost too much so… then again, that is my complaint for all Rogers & Astaire collaborations. Though this is often lauded as their best film, and I’d have to agree from what I’ve seen, it unfortunately still does not come together as completely as other musicals of its era. I’ve heard many complaints against the storylines of 42nd Street and The Gold Diggers of 1933 but I have always thought they were clever, relevant and engaging: the same can’t be said for Top Hat’s plot. Though the story is largely inconsequential because even musical sequences aside, it is the design of the sets and costumes that take precedence, I still mourn the idea of what could have been.

Top Hat is a classic tale of classic misunderstandings as Dale Tremont falls for a man, only to find out he is married. Unfortunately for him, she has mistaken him for someone else, and though similarly love-struck, she knows rejects all his advances. Maybe I would be more receptive to this storyline if it wasn’t the same one in every one of their films. And even though this one does it better, the misunderstandings only wear thin as the film goes on, instead of reaching new levels of zaniness. There doesn’t seem to be any logical escalation in the comedy, which is unfortunate, as I think it would have been a great counter-balance to the film’s romance.
What I find exceptional about this film though, is that it does manage to sell Astaire as a romantic lead. Though he is incredibly awkward, not very good looking and has questionable acting skills, somehow when you let him dance he becomes desirable. That’s probably where the success of this film rests, since him and Rogers dance more in this film than any other. It seems every second scene has them on the dance floor, probably the best idea that scriptwriter ever had.

The film’s best scene (a dancing one believe it or not) is easily the “dancing cheek to cheek” sequence. The first sequence, which is Astaire singing to Rogers, is shot in almost exclusive close-up, but begins to expand as they move towards the dance floor, when it opens up to a long-shot. Long takes are used divinely, something that is sorely missed in the contemporary musical (how much better would Hairspray have been if there wasn’t a cut every 5 seconds during every dance scene!). Despite the obvious chemistry between the leads, what makes the sequence so exceptional for me is Roger’s dress. Both the director and Astaire both complained how absolutely impractical it would be, and actually got the costume department to change it. Rogers’ would have nothing of it though, insisting that she wear the feathery dress. Even in the final product, at any given moment you see feathers floating in front of the lens and all over the scene. If Astaire was in heaven dancing cheek to cheek, Rogers’ was an angel and had just sprouted wings. The whole sequence takes on a kind of ethereal quality, and the accident of the feathers only contributes to the spontaneity of their affections and passion.
I don’t see myself ever being an Astaire/Rogers convert, but I can still enjoy their films. They are well worth seeing for choice sequences, and are luckily often short and sweet.

One response to “Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935)

  1. The popularity of this film – and it’s definitely the most celebrated of the Astaire-Rogers oeuvre despite some strong competition from Swing Time – is due to the “look” (this is one of the most sophisticated milieus Fred & Ginger found themselves in), its placement in their run of films (they were really hitting their stride with a vengeance), and the originality and verve of the numbers (the aforementioned feathers, the dancing on sand, the dancing under cover in the rain, the iconic top hat solo). It didn’t blow me away on first viewing; I appreciated it more when I became a fan of the Astaire-Rogers films in general. It’s a more graceful film, replacing the rawness of some of their earlier numbers and the zaniness of later films with a sense of elan.

    By the way, I’ve collected all the Astaire-Rogers dances here.

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