Fred and Ginger week comes to a close (as does the 2015 installment of The July Five) with one of their best remembered films, Top Hat. Top Hat brings together all my favorite elements that I’ve discovered with Fred and Ginger this week: an easily resolved story that becomes unnecessarily complicated to hilarious effect; Ginger and Fred being awkward; and Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick. I’d probably give the edge to Shall We Dance – it possesses the complete package, sans Horton – but Top Hat has a great screwball premise, legendary songs, and the incomparable “Cheek to Cheek” dance number.
Jerry Travers (Astaire) is working to put on a show for producer Horace Hardwick (Horton) in Britain. When Jerry meets Dale Tremont (Rogers) sparks fly, but Dale assumes that Jerry is actually Horace, the husband of her friend, Madge (Broderick).
Top Hat’s premise is ridiculous, but in that classic screwball way that’s complicated and easily explained, but keeps you guessing for 100 minutes. We see several of the requisite cliches of the genre, particularly the assumption that one of the lovers is lying to the other (in this case it’s Dale who assumes Jerry isn’t who he says he is) and all of it settled through dance. I gave The Gay Divorcee a hard time for relying too much on dance in lieu of emotion, and Top Hat gets that right. Jerry and Dale dance through a rainstorm where it isn’t just their confidence in dancing that proves their true love for each other, but Jerry’s explaining of how a blossoming relationship is like the interplay of thunder and lightening. So we get the emotion conveyed by both dialogue and interaction.
This all comes to a head in the “Cheek to Cheek” dance number, the musical moment most closely associated when people think of “Fred and Ginger movies.” I’ve included it for you to watch below, but it best illustrates how dance can be used to convey romance without speaking. The two characters improperly assume things about the other, especially Dale, but there love is, supposedly, undeniable. When they start dancing, look at the facial expressions on their faces. If you didn’t believe they were soulmates before, it’s irrefutable here. And this sequence is easily one of the great danced moments in musical history. The moves are sophisticated, graceful; the epitome of class! The other dances here are all well-done, and several of their movements together are so rapid-fire it’s as if they’re a spinning top, but “Cheek to Cheek” withstands the test of time for a reason!
From an acting standpoint, Fred and Ginger are great (as if you expected anything less). The physical comedy and many of the jokes are placed on Astaire’s “free for anything fancy” man-about-town, Jerry Travers. This isn’t a movie too interested in rehashing the tropes about Britain and the US, but Jerry exhibits that American patriotic attitude that the we commonly identify with the USA, here contrasted with the stock depiction of the British as stuffy and uptight when Jerry starts loudly tapping in a proper club room. Astaire, again, uses the items in the room as props, and after that interlude a longstanding question unasked in all musicals is answered: Doesn’t anyone get annoyed hearing all that tapping? In one of the most ingenious bits of comedy, Dale and Jerry meet because he wakes her up with all his tapping. And you all thought they danced in a soundproof room!
Jerry is fun and fancy free, a man for whom “I suddenly find myself dancing.” Rogers’ Dale is more of the straight man (or lady). Her introduction leaves the audience questioning whether she’s a kept woman because “her niceties are very nice.” Thankfully she’s not. She’s a model for designer, Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes playing almost the same character from The Gay Divorcee). Dale spends most of the movie angry, but her interactions with Madge shine. Helen Broderick and Rogers have a great rapport and, for all the film’s discussion of male infidelity, Madge never turns on her friend. The threat, we know, isn’t there, but it’d have been easy for the script to turn Madge and Dale into misplaced bitter enemies.
But none of them kept me smiling like Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore as Horace and his manservant, Bates, respectively. These two are a pompous version of Abbott and Costello with Bates using the royal “We” in his discussions and constantly aggravating the already befuddled Horace. By the time the two start arguing over stupid things, you’re busting up. “You can’t rub a girl with butter!” There scenes have little foundation to the plot, playing more as interstitials, but they’re always funny.
I did find the final dance, the “Piccolino” to be too reminiscent of the bloated “Continental” number. Because the characters move to Venice, it gives the climax a bit of exotic flavor, but it’s watching strangers dance when we’ve paid for Fred and Ginger. And Rogers is the one left singing because even Fred Astaire didn’t care for the number. I’m not sure what it is, but these movies always peter out for me by the conclusion.
Top Hat was a great ending to a stellar month! I’ve been fortunate to have a great crash course in Fred and Ginger movies, crossing off several titles I’ve been meaning to watch. Between this and Shall We Dance, it’s hard for me saying which I enjoyed more.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.