Top Hat


Rating *5*

Directed by Mark Sandrich

Written by Allan Scott and Dwight Taylor

Songs written by Irving Berlin

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

Jerry Travers, a celebrated American dancer, comes to London to star in a new show produced by Horace Hardwick. He meets Dale Tremont in less than congenial circumstances and instantly falls in love with her. Dale is on her way to Italy to visit Madge Hardwick, the wife of Horace, and also to model the clothes of Alberto Beddini, a flamboyant Italian fashion designer. She mistakes Jerry for Horace, thinking that Madge’s husband has designs on her, and a comedy of errors ensues.


Between 1933 and 1939 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made nine films for RKO Radio Pictures, reuniting again briefly in 1949 to star in ‘The Barkleys of Broadway’ for MGM. They remain the most celebrated and the best loved dancing duo in the history of Hollywood film musicals and Astaire has been widely acknowledged as one of the foremost American dancers of the 20th Century. Rudolph Nureyev is quoted as having called him, “Simply the greatest, most imaginative, dancer of our time.”

‘Top Hat’, the fourth of the nine films they made at RKO, one of the so-called “Big Five” studios during the Golden Age of Hollywood, was their most commercially successful film together and the second most successful film of Astaire’s career, behind ‘Easter Parade’, the 1948 musical in which he co-starred with Judy Garland. Like that film, the songs featured in ‘Top Hat’ were written by Irving Berlin, who is arguably the most celebrated American songwriter of the 20th Century, although Astaire is more usually associated with the songs of George and Ira Gershwin. ‘Top Hat’ contains all the elements that went to make Astaire and Rogers such a winning combination – unforgettable songs (including ‘Cheek to Cheek’), outstanding dance routines, a light frothy rom-com storyline and just the right degree of screen chemistry between the two leads. It has often been claimed that Astaire and Rogers constantly feuded, but there seems to be little real evidence to support this rumour, although Astaire did lose his temper with her during the filming of the ‘Cheek to Cheek’ sequence, something that has subsequently become Hollywood folklore, and his perfectionism is known to have been hard on his dance partners, especially those like Rogers who were not professional dancers.

Astaire’s first dance partner was his sister Adele and it has sometimes been said that she was the more talented of the two. They began dancing together in 1905 and by 1917 they were dancing on Broadway. They became major stars of the musical stage on Broadway and in London’s West End during the 1920s and unsuccessfully auditioned for Paramount Pictures in 1927. In 1932 when Adele married Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish, the 9th Duke of Devonshire, and retired from performing Astaire continued to dance with new partners Claire Luce and Dorothy Stone, before trying his luck again in Hollywood.

Legend has it that the initial response to his RKO screen test was “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.” However, RKO signed him up and immediately loaned him to MGM for the 1933 Joan Crawford and Clark Gable musical film ‘Dancing Lady’, playing himself. The film was a box office hit and RKO next put him in ‘Flying Down to Rio’ in a supporting role alongside a contract player, Ginger Rogers. This was their first film together and from it the partnership was born. Their first film as co-leads was ‘The Gay Divorcee’ in 1934, which Astaire had previous starred in on the stage at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway in 1932, partnered by Claire Luce. It has been said that he wanted Luce to reprise her role in the film, but this was vetoed by RKO when the screen chemistry with Rogers in ‘Flying Down to Rio’ was specifically noted by many film critics.

I first saw the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films in either late 1976 or 1977, when, coming towards the end of my teenage years, I had become a punk, or at least a fan of punk music. Although the two things may not seem obviously symbiotic, I perhaps perversely found something glamorous about the early punk era and as much as it was a reaction to the abject dreariness and hopelessness of 1970s Britain, so the Astaire and Rogers films seemed to speak of a more glamorous past. It is clearly no coincidence that part of the appeal and glamour of 1930s Hollywood was the escapism it offered its audience from the grim reality of the Great Depression. And so it was that, as well as buying records by the Sex Pistols and the Clash, I was also discovering the recordings Fred Astaire made for Brunswick Records at the time of the Astaire and Rogers musical films.

‘Top Hat’ is not my favourite Astaire and Rogers film, but it is their archetypical outing. The frothy plot moves along at a crisp pace and it has a lightness of touch that matches their dancing. The deliberately artificial Art Deco sets are also notable. However, the film is almost stolen by supporting actors Helen Broderick and Edward Everett Horton, a master of the double-take. Lucille Ball, a mainstay of American television in the 1950s, has a small uncredited role as a flower shop sales girl.

It’s just a delightful film that defies criticism.

Review posted 1 January 2010


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