Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Top Hat (1935)

RKO Pictures
Director: Mark Sandrich
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers

Honors:
#15 on AFI 100 Musicals
National Film Registry

Over the past couple of years RKO had found its own formula of success in the motion picture genre of musicals. From the moment Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were teamed up in Flying Down to Rio as a pair of side characters making wisecracks at each other and danced beautifully together there was a noticeable spark. The duo would be pair in a couple more films, and here in Top Hat for the first time a film was initial conceived with the intention of being an Astaire/Rogers movie. With Astaire’s smooth dancing skill and Rogers’ complimentary grace and beauty, the team would make what is considered their finest film together. A stylized love story with wonderful dance numbers provide us with 101 minutes of comedy and elegance as Fred and Ginger entertain in their all-time classic style.

Top Hat is an Astaire/Rogers comedy musical of a man’s attempt to woo a lady, but has troubles as she mistakes him for someone else whom she should not be with. As usual Astaire plays an American dancer, Jerry Travers, who is in Europe to perform, but meets and becomes enamored with the beautiful Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers). Jerry attempts to wins her affection with his charisma and beautiful dancing, but when Dale mistakes Jerry’s identity with that of his married friend Horance (Edward Everett Horton), she becomes disgusted that he was trying to have an affair with her. She is especially offended since she is good friends with the wife of his mistaken identity, Madge ((Helen Borderick). While in beautiful Venice Dale goes through great confusion that includes humorous encouragements from Madge to have Dale spend time with Jerry, whom she adamantly thinks is Horace. While sharing beautiful dances with Jerry, Dale cannot help but fall in love with him, but her conscience tells her to keeps her distance. Dale keeps her distance by moonlighting with and marrying moonlights a snooty Italian designer, Alberto (Erik Rhodes). Jerry discovers the mix up and explains the situation, further discovering that wedding was performed by a phony minister, therefore the marriage was never official, and Jerry and Dale are finally together “cheek to cheek.”

The picture makes for a wonderful and whimsical musical with dazzling sets and far more beautiful dances by its stars. The large, fanciful art deco Venice set, complete with canals and gondolas, give the picture an almost fairytale quality as the real Vince is not as clean, pristine, and modern as the sets have it. It serves as a perfect background for the love story of the two main characters and as a canvas for which they glide so gracefully across its surfaces. The story is comical, but shallow, filled with two-dimensional characters that help to provide extra humor with and around Astaire and Rogers. For a while you are entertained by the tale of misidentity and how humorous it is to understand how Rogers takes words the wrong way, confused as to why Jerry, thought to be a married man, being pushed into the lap of Dale by who she thinks is his wife. As the film moves on the running gag, which is pretty much the whole story, gets a bit stale, but it is only to provide for the moments in which Astaire and Rogers dance together, which is better than any team had ever danced together in film before. It is a beautiful set of choreography set within the confines of a fun comedy.

The art deco set of Venice, complete with canals.
To direct Astaire and Rogers for the second time is Mark Sandrich, who had worked with the team in The Gay Divorcee. Sandrich here gets bolder with his filmmaing in this feature. With larger sets and beautiful decoration Sandrich is able to position his camera is places that wonderfully accent the dancing with the set pieces. It the large musical number “The Picolino” for which Astaire and Rogers sit for a while and watch a large chorus of dancers perform, we see Sandrich was inspired a bit by the works of Busby Berkeley, by shooting from a more overhead shot. The dancers perform a ballroom set and further is expanded upon by the number of couples performing, forming a near kaleidoscope sensation in their movements of gowns, arms, legs and fabric. In the end we know that much of the beauty of the film comes from the choreography of Astaire, for which Astaire himself sets the movements of the camera, almost as if he was dancing with the frame of the camera as his partner. That was Astaire’s genius.

Top Hat features a new beginning for famed composer/song writer Irving Berlin, for the first time in five years writing a complete composition for an entire motion picture. Astaire wished very greatly to have Berlin compose and write the songs, and it brought back confidence that Berlin seemed to have lost over the last several years. What made Berlin so remarkable was that he could not read or write music, but he had a great ear for the magic, with a sound that would go into one’s deeper emotions.

While Astaire created the dances for the film with his team of collaborators while Rogers was commonly working elsewhere, devoting herself to becoming a well-rounded actress and not one to be held down in simply the musicals. This made Rogers even more admirable as she would learn so quickly the dances with such devoted hard work and grace that only she seemed to provide. Astaire and Rogers perfectly complemented each other, making the other look even better than they were alone.

Astaire and Rogers with the infamous feather gown.
The most challenging number the two worked on was the for the intoxicating number “Cheek to Cheek,” when the two dance so well together that you watch them fall in love in the process. Beyond the great dancing and singing, what made the number so difficult for the two was Rogers’ ostrich feathered gown. This exquisite dress flowed well, enhancing the movements as the feathers swayed with the couple. However the feathers would commonly fly off the dress and into the air landing all over. It is clear to see in the film as from time to time feathers fall all about the ground as they move so gracefully through the number. Astaire had troubles dancing on the feathers, slipping on them as they rest on the slick dance floor, and would even get them in his eye, mouth, or nose, at times making him greatly upset demanding Rogers to change gowns. Rogers loved the dress and refused, taking much abuse from her co-star even coming to tears, but in the end Rogers won out with the beauty of the final number, for which Astaire would admit to Rogers her decision being right for the feature.

To add to the humor of the film was a cast of character actors in their various flat roles. Edward Everett Horton returns to play the straight laced character that is the yin to Astaire’s yang. Horton’s role as Horace plays compliment to Astaire’s characters, as Horton commonly is the man that is confused, slightly freighted, and even a little offended by what is outside his social norm, which Astaire is happy to oblige him with. His wife would be played by Helen Broderick, and dominate female in the relationship, but is humorous in her approach to Dolly’s relationship with Jerry during her confusion. On a small level are the character actors Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore. Both play somewhat over the top caricatures of flat characters that just add humor and nudge the plot along. Rhodes plays the slightly effeminate and proper Italian designer with his thick accent, a attribute RKO loved about him. Blore, an English comedian, too served an off-kilter character and seemed to pop up when convenient for the film, creating the loopholes necessary to get Astaire and Rogers together.  Together the side characters are just filler, keeping to their roles, but never overshadowing Astaire or Rogers.

The result of the picture was what many consider the finest film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as a team. RKO was happy to see the film bring in the second highest box office numbers for the years, trailing only the year’s hottest picture Mutiny on the Bounty. Audiences obviously loved it while critics had mixed feelings. Some were very enthusiastic about the grace and magnificence of the picture. Others saw the convenience similarities to a previous Astaire/Rogers picture, The Gay Divorcee. With very much the same cast and similar situations, it in no wonder how critics would see that. In the end it would not matter as Top Hat still remains one of the better known musicals of all time, and the finest of the teaming of its two stars. The film would be nominated at that year’s Academy Awards for best art direction, best song for Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” best dance direction (a short lived category), and best picture. The film would leave a legacy honored in the National Film Registry, persevering it in the Library of Congress, as well as #15 on AFI’s 2006 list of best musicals.

Astaire and Rogers were a hot commodity for RKO, a studio that was thriving from many successes in 1935. This was the first film written directly for the two to perform in together and it was not going to be the last. The musical genre was in the middle of a second high point of the decade and now these two stars were the top draw.

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