Top Hat (1935). 101 minutes. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Starring Fred Astaire (as Jerry Travers), Ginger Rogers (as Dale Tremont), Edward Everett Horton (as Horace Hardwick), Erik Rhodes (as Alberto Beddini), Helen Broderick (as Madge Hardwick), and Eric Blore (as Bates). Music by Irving Berlin.
Top Hat remains the most commercially successful musical made by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers during their film partnership in the 1930s. In it, Astaire plays dancer Jerry Travers, who is headlining a revue on the London stage. While noisily tap-dancing in his producer and friend Horace Hardwick’s hotel room, Jerry encounters the woman in the room downstairs, Dale Tremont (played by Ginger Rogers), who complains about Jerry’s impromptu performance to the hotel. He falls in love instantly. She, however, cannot stand him, his noisy tap-dancing, or his efforts to woo her. Through a series of misunderstandings, she also comes to confuse him with his producer Hardwick, whose wife Madge she happens to be friends with, with the result that Dale believes that Jerry is Horace and is coming on to her in spite of his marriage to her friend. She grows so frustrated that she leaves for Venice with her acquaintance, the Italian fashion designer and dandy Beddini, whose clothes she models. Jerry and Horace follow her to a Venetian hotel, where Madge happens to be residing. Dale grows frustrated with Jerry, who she believes is flirting with her even more recklessly than before. In spite of her growing feelings for the dancer, Dale agrees to marry Beddini. The two are apparently wed at the hotel, but Dale soon learns of Jerry’s true identity, and they spend an evening getting to know each other while Horace, Madge, and Beddini get lost in a motorboat on the bay. When everyone reconvenes at the hotel later that night, Dale and Beddini learn that they were married by Horace’s manservant Bates, who was only posing as a priest so that he could spy on them, and Jerry and Dale are free to be married after all. The film’s closing shot is of the happy couple dancing along the lagoons together.
None of the Astaire-Rogers movies are highly complex in terms of narrative. They work with a formula and produce pretty much identical results each time: Astaire and Rogers play characters who think they hate each other—therefore they must be in love (I believe these exact words were used years later in Carol Burnett’s parody of Astaire-Rogers movies). There is singing and dancing, identities are mistaken, lies are uncovered, and eventually all is smoothed out. Astaire and Rogers dance off together in the end, ecstatic and soon to be wed.
But Top Hat is a particularly accomplished, inventive, and ambitious musical. In addition to the choreography, some of the more dazzling elements of the mise-en-scène point to the film’s ambition. The first is the amazing, water-filled set that stands for Venice in the last third of the movie. Exaggerated and immense, it is rife with fantastic, stylized gondolas and decorated with outrageous bridges and pavilions. Then there is Rogers’s famous dress during the dramatic “Cheek to Cheek” sequence that takes place on the Venetian set. It is a feathered monstrosity that makes her look long and wide. As she dances, we often primarily see the impression of her body as it ripples through the feathers rather than more direct evidence of her form. The effect is that Rogers’s dress magnifies her movements much as the water set magnifies Venice, with the result that both are impressive and over the top.
As is well known, this was Astaire’s least favorite of his partner’s gowns; he said he was whipped by its feathered tentacles all throughout the performance. Interestingly, we can see the dress in the process of being destroyed as Rogers dances. It is so delicate and her movements are so dramatic that pieces of the dress fall to the ground as Rogers twirls around in it. But the fact that it is falling apart before our eyes makes her performance seem all the more precious and momentary, much as we know that the Venetian sets were conspicuously constructed for this movie only and probably destroyed as soon as the scenes filmed in them were completed. In both the temporary Venetian sets and the transitory feather dress, it is as if this movie is stretching reality in order to create something particularly fleeting and special: both exaggerate what we think we know (the real Venice, Rogers’s physical presence) in order to show us how ephemeral both really are. In this way, what may at first seem like the movie’s bolder and more inflated elements actually reveal a delicate subtext.
The result is a movie that transcends the limitations of its cute and screwball story, and the music helps it to do so. The song-and-dance numbers showcase the inane (“The Piccolino”), the risqué (“Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails”), and the sublime (“Cheek to Cheek”). In the “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” number that Astaire performs as part of the stage show in London, he tap-dances in formal attire before a row of similarly dressed male dancers. Using his cane and the sound of his clattering taps to simulate gunfire, he pretends to mow down the dancers one by one. I call this risqué because it seems to take its cue from the sort of gunplay that characterized the controversial gangster movies of the time—here the mock execution of Astaire’s back-up dancers is inventive, humorous, and the tiniest bit disturbing. In the mode of the classy and immaculate tuxedoed man tap-dancing with a cane, Astaire achieved perfection, yet he constantly sought to contribute invention and wit to tasteful performances such as this one. “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” is reflective of the playful and sonically exploratory dancing that Astaire would be involved in for the rest of his career.
The sublime “Cheek to Cheek” sequence is also worthy of praise. The singing and dancing in this number are a fantastic mixture of the timid and tender with the dramatic and severe. One of the things that I love most about Astaire’s singing in this scene is the extent to which he is allowed to be vulnerable. The song’s range is high for his voice, and as he ascends the scale to the uppermost notes, his volume diminishes slightly, making him seem slightly unsure and very sweet. (The delicate quality of his voice is echoed in Rogers’s fragile feathered gown.) Astaire’s voice was never technically one of the most sophisticated of his era, and yet it remains one of my favorites of any time period.
The lyrics to “Cheek to Cheek” are very much about enjoying a particular moment:
Heaven, I’m in heaven,
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak,
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.
Heaven, I’m in heaven,
And the cares that hung around me through the week
Seem to vanish like a gambler’s lucky streak
When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.
The Astaire-Rogers movies, filled with songs like this one, are often held up as classic examples of the kinds of films that Hollywood produced during the Great Depression: frothy distractions from the heaviness of economic realities. In these lyrics, you might say, we see the quintessential spirit of Depression-era movies neatly expressed. The words focus on the momentary pleasure that we take in dancing together or merely being near the people we love—the transportive nature of a small interpersonal moment that makes habitual suffering (“the cares that hung around me through the week”) evaporate.
Sometimes movies like Top Hat (and lyrics such as these) are put down as examples of pure escapism, but escapism can mean more than mindlessly forgetting reality. In one of the sweetest and most heartbreaking odes to old movies that I have ever seen, Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), the protagonist (played by Mia Farrow) escapes her dreary and often crushing Depression-era life by going to the movies. At the end of the film, she is devastated by the terrible turn that her life has taken and enters her local movie theater, where Top Hat is playing. Farrow’s expression as Astaire and Rogers dance to “Cheek to Cheek” can be hard to understand at first: she must be in a great deal of emotional pain, and yet she is so obviously moved by the beauty of what she sees on screen. Because of what has transpired in The Purple Rose of Cairo, we know that for her, what she watches must in part be a reminder of that pain, but her complex emotional situation presumably also enables her enjoyment: her desire for distraction does not numb her but rather connects her with her feelings. The Purple Rose of Cairo suggests that the escapism that movies like Top Hat made available was complex, and while the Astaire-Rogers movies offered a sort of global panacea during the Great Depression, they worked their soothing magic in rather ingenious ways.
Top Hat ends as Astaire and Rogers descend one of the film’s Venetian bridges and begin to twirl around in their coats in a brief dance that does not appear to be formally choreographed. Compared to the elaborate “Cheek to Cheek” performance, this perhaps improvised dance along the lagoons feels more like the sort dancing that either Astaire or Rogers probably did all of the time: unrehearsed but stunning, magical. In its casual nature, both in terms of the steps and the characters’ attire, it is exceedingly charming. It is still dancing beyond the ability of most people, but of all of the dancing we have seen, it is the most accessible, the most akin to what we mere mortals in the audience are capable of. We may prefer to remember them performing the high drama of a dance like “Cheek to Cheek,” but it is important to recognize that Astaire and Rogers also put aside some of their more fantastic moves for small moments like this one. It is one of the ways that their movies could forgo escapism when necessary in order to celebrate the everyday, albeit by means of Astaire and Rogers’s extraordinary talent.