Welcome to another Film Friday! Today we’re finishing our series on films released in 1935, the first full year in which Hollywood studios were forced to adhere to the Production Code, which became official in the summer of 1934. The pictures we’ve been looking at are not connected by performers, but rather by their common bond to the censoring of creativity. So far we have covered The Goose And The Gander, Dangerous, No More Ladies, Star Of Midnight, Alice Adams, Goin’ To Town, The Gilded Lily, and Becky Sharp! I’ve saved the best for last, and today we’re looking at Top Hat!
Top Hat (1935)
A woman thinks the man who loves her is her best friend’s husband.
Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore, and Helen Broderick. (Plus Lucille Ball in a bit role.) Screenplay by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott. Story by Dwight Taylor. Directed by Mark Sandrich.
I briefly discussed this classic movie musical in last week’s Wildcard post on Broadway composers going Hollywood. With truly one of the greatest film scores of all time, Astaire and Rogers sparkle in this frothy, trivial, hilarious farce that benefits from the inclusion of five excellent Irving Berlin tunes. And the dancing — oh, the dancing!
While staying in a London hotel with his English theatrical backer, Horace Hardwick, American musical revue star Jerry Travers wakes up Dale Tremont, Horace’s downstairs neighbor, with his compulsive tap dancing. Upon seeing the furious Dale, Jerry falls instantly in love and, in spite of her snubbing, daily sends flowers to her room. Then, while posing as a hansom cab driver, Jerry delivers Dale to her riding lesson in the park and romances her in a pavilion during a rain storm. Dale’s loving bliss is shattered, however, when she incorrectly deduces that Jerry, whose name she has never heard, is actually the husband of her matchmaking friend, Madge Hardwick. In spite of her desire to return to America, Dale is convinced by Alberto Beddini, her adoring, ambitious Italian dressmaker, to accept Madge’s invitation to join her in Italy. Before leaving, Dale encounters Jerry in the hotel and slaps him without explanation. Worried that the slap will cause a scandal, the hotel management admonishes a confused Horace, who in turn blames the incident on Bates, his quarrelsome valet. After Horace orders Bates to follow Dale, he receives a telegram from Madge saying that Dale is on her way to the Lido in Venice. Overjoyed, Jerry rushes through his London revue and flies to Venice with Horace, unaware that Dale has confessed to Madge in their hotel room that her husband has made illicit advances toward her.
In Italy, Jerry continues to be baffled by Dale’s emotional vacilations, while Horace is equally baffled by Alberto’s threats of bodily violence. At the hotel nightclub, Dale dances with Jerry at the urging of Madge, who is unaware that Dale has mistaken Jerry, the man that she is trying to get Dale to marry, for Horace. When Jerry then proposes to Dale, she slaps him again, while Madge, who had taken Dale’s initial revelations about Horace with good humor, punches her husband in the eye. Depressed and heartsick, Dale succumbs to the affections of Alberto and accepts his marriage proposal. The next day, Jerry learns that Dale has married and, by tap dancing as he did in London, connives to see her alone. Although Dale finally learns Jerry’s true identity while cruising with him in a gondola, the revenge-hungry Alberto pursues the couple across the canals. Eventually Bates reveals that, while following Dale and Alberto, he had impersonated a clergyman and performed their marriage ceremony. Legally single, Dale now accepts Jerry’s proposal and, back in the nightclub, dances happily with him across the floor. (This summary brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Okay the story is so silly — stemming entirely from Roger’s mistaken notion that Astaire, the tap-dancing fool who romanced her under a pavilion during a during a rainstorm, is actually the husband of her best friend, the gamey Helen Broderick. And after that’s set up in the first 30 minutes, we get 70 minutes of repercussions. While not meaty enough to be considered a full fledged screwball comedy, the premise certainly has elements of farce — ideal for a staged musical comedy. (It was finally adapted for the West End in 2011, filling out the score, so as to disguise the thin plot, with more famous but undersung Irving Berlin songs.) The scarceness of the plot is not a hinderance to this 99 minute film; the simplicity of the proceedings is refreshing. Story beats and character moments are given space to play out in both comedic and dramatic fashions. Furthermore, the story doesn’t distract from the main attractions — the stars, the dancing, and the score.
What can one say about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? They’re one of the cinema’s most ideal pairings. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this duo in action, subscribe and comment below and I can personally help you remedy this! Mere words cannot describe the utter joy that comes across my face and fills my body when those two go at it with the beautiful and catchy Berlin melodies playing underneath. Truly — it’s just utter joy. Besides the dancing, both performers, their roots being in the theater, have such a flair for the COMEDY part of “musical COMEDY” that even the dialogue scenes sparkle. Rogers, in particular, is very funny in this film — fueling the mistaken identity plot. Meanwhile, the supporting cast is stellar — with Horton, Broderick, and Rhodes providing such wonderfully fleshed-out characters to support the action. (Incidentally, Broderick starred with Astaire in the 1931 musical, The Band Wagon, which we’ve covered on Musical Theatre Monday. She also starred in Cole Porter’s 1929 smash, Fifty Million Frenchmen, and Irving Berlin’s 1933 As Thousands Cheer. Both have been covered here as well.)
But for a Broadway buff like myself, the real gem of Top Hat is its Irving Berlin score — which, shockingly, only contains five numbers. But those five numbers are used divinely. For the rest of today’s post, I want to share a few of the numbers with you. Here’s Fred Astaire’s opening, “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free).”
Here’s Astaire and Rogers in “Isn’t This A Lovely Day (To Be Caught In The Rain)?”
One more — here are Astaire and Rogers in “Cheek To Cheek.”
For the rest of the dance numbers, you’ll have to check out the film for yourself, which needless to say, comes highly recommended!
Come back next week as Film Friday launches a new series of posts! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!