Top Hat (1935)

Astaire and Rogers dance Cheek to Cheek in Top Hat

Director: Mark Sandrich

Cast: Fred Astaire (Jerry Travers), Ginger Rogers (Dale Tremont), Edward Everett Horton (Horace Hardwick), Erik Rhodes (Alberto Beddini), Helen Broderick (Madge Hardwick), Eric Blore (Bates)

It’s got the sort of plot PG Wodehouse would consider a bit far-fetched. Due to a series of misunderstandings and mistaken identities (that the script executes quite a few linguistic gymnastics to keep in place, since a few words from someone would sort it all out in seconds), Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) falls in love with Broadway star Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) but believes that he is in fact West End producer Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton) who is married to her best friend Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick). So, thinking Jerry is a cad, she decides to run away to Venice with her boyfriend, Italian dress designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) – only for a confused and infatuated Jerry to follow.

Of course the entire thing revolves around Dale having never met Madge’s husband, and Madge never for a minute questioning the description of her husband (despite the resemblance he clearly bares to Jerry in how Dale talks to him) – or when Madge later “introduces” Dale to Jerry, not saying a word that could suggest they’re not married. But that’s classic farce here, and the light comedy works an absolute charm with mistakes, confusion and jealous clashes occurring at every moment. Top Hat is a superb piece of witty light froth, with some cracking lines and some great comic set pieces. 

And of course, its main attraction is some superb dancing from Astaire and Rogers in probably the highlight of their long collaboration with each other. The grace and skill of these two has to be seen to be believed – as does the natural synchronicity with which they move together. With Sandrich’s camera calmly and carefully tracing the lines of Astaire and Rogers’ movements, the viewer is invited to sit back and enjoy some of the finest dancing you are ever going to see. With music from Irving Berlin – and the songs are endlessly catchy – it makes for a perfect combination.

This is the film where Astaire first used top hat (of course!) and cane as part of a dance number. The play-within-a-film musical number “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” is perhaps one of the finest displays of tap dancing in the movies, in which Astaire moves from moments of stillness into explosions of energy, mixing cane taps with foot taps, ending in a superbly funny sequence where Astaire uses his cane as a “tap powered machine gun” to playfully shoot out the chorus line behind him. It’s a set-piece that makes you believe that Hardwick’s West End show really is the smash hit you keep hearing it is.

That’s then followed by a parade of no-less than three superb dances that chart the progress of Dale’s and Jerry’s relationship – from flirtation in “Isn’t it a Lovely Day”, full of side-by-side steps that lead into a growing physical looseness, to the grand ballroom “Cheek to Cheek” which uses every inch of a huge Venice hotel set to see the two lovers come back together again after confusions (and which ends with the famous slap of Astaire by Rogers for making her fall in love with him, with Astaire’s dreamingly happy “She loves me!” after she departs). Finally the two come together for a final duet dance – after of course all the confusion has been cleared up – which is yet another triumph of two dancers working in perfect partnership. You can’t help be swept up in the excitement of watching these two masterful performers push themselves to the limits.

That’s not to overlook that the film also operates because of the charm of the two leads. Astaire is a dreamy, compulsive, slightly naïve man, passionate about the things he cares about. Rogers is a bit harder-edged, but increasingly find herself both drawn to Jerry and appalled at the guilt in believing she is falling for her friend’s husband, her shame mixed with her strong emotional attachment.

But then she also interprets some of Helen’s seeming ease with the idea of her husband flirting with another woman as a (surprisingly modern) go-ahead for all the flirting that follows. Certainly Helen doesn’t seem fussed at the idea of her husband contemplating playing away (for all that she later punches Horace for not telling her truth). Perhaps that’s because she recognises her husband is as camp as Christmas, with Edward Everett Horton living in like a bickering old married couple with Erik Blore as his equally camp butler Bates. These two bicker cattily comment on everything from each other’s clothes to their manners. 

Mind you Dale’s other love interest is an equally preening – and malapropism-prone Italian dress maker (Determined that “Woman shall wear my dresses no more!” after one particular moment of stress) played with wit by Erik Rhodes. It’s possible that with a lead as un-traditionally masculine as Astaire, it was thought best to make every other man in the film even less masculine than him. Either way, the film has a surprisingly modern air of sexual freedom in it, where husband swopping seems not entirely out of the question, and the Hardwick marriage (seemingly a marriage of convenience) might as well be an open one. Don’t often get that from a 1930s musical.

Astaire was critical of the script itself at first – it’s basically an exact rewrite of The Gay Divorcee, the Astaire and Rogers film from the previous year – but everything settles into one of the most triumphantly enjoyable and funny films the pair worked on, with Astaire at his most graceful and Rogers at her most dynamic. And the dancing is a joy that will last forever.

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