A+ List: Top Hat

Few Hollywood features have celebrated their own wholly unreal artifice like Top Hat, the best Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical. Despite its contemporary setting (contemporary for 1935, the year it was released), it contains almost nothing that suggests the real world.

Thanks to that artifice, the songs, the madcap comic dialog and hijinks, and most of all, the dancing, Top Hat belongs on my A+ list of all-time masterpieces. These are movies I’ve loved for decades, and still love.

Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails

In 1933, RKO cast Astaire and Rogers, who barely knew each other, in supporting roles in a Dolores del Rio musical called Flying Down to Rio. Their unexpected chemistry stole the movie. Top Hat was their fourth film together, and the first original screenplay crafted especially for the new team.

The chemistry worked because they had different but compatible strengths. Astaire was a great dancer who knew how to deliver comic dialog. Rogers was a great comic actress who could dance – a keep acting while she danced.

Just before their first dance together

Top Hat contains five songs, all written by Irving Berlin, and each one turns into a dance number. They’re all gems, but two stand out as masterpieces of dance on film. Fred and Ginger flirt and fall in love in Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain). Fred does a fancy step; Ginger tops it. Eventually they’re dancing together and glowing with new love. Cheek to Cheek feels like sex – all cleaned up for the heavy censorship of the early Production Code. All they do is dance, with their clothes on, but that’s not how it feels emotionally. Just look at their smiles when the dance is over.

Top Hat, made in the depths of the depression, provided a fantasy of extreme wealth for a desperately poor audience. Everyone dresses perfectly. Hotel rooms are as big as ballrooms. Berlin’s lyrics, “I’m stepping out, my dear/To breathe an atmosphere/That simply reeks of class,” puts the audience in the mood.

Dance as sex in Cheek to Cheek

The outrageous sets go completely overboard in the second half, where the setting switches from London to Venice. The old, beautiful city looks more like a very exclusive, newly-built waterpark for adults. I suspect you’ll find a more accurate Venice facsimile at Las Vegas’ Venetian hotel.

But would you really want to see an escapist musical comedy set in a realistic depiction of Mussolini’s Italy?

The fanciful sets also help us suspend belief of the movie’s absurd mistaken identity plot. It’s one of those stories where if one character listened to another for five minutes, everything would be cleared up. But because everyone is perfectly dressed while walking through an art deco version of Venice, you don’t care that the plot is ridiculous.

Venice of RKO’s imagination

The laughs also help overcome the absurdity. In addition to Astaire and Rogers, Top Hat offers four great comedians in supporting roles: Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, Helen Broderick, and Erik Rhodes. They can make even the weakest dialog funny. But here, they don’t have to, thanks to the screenplay by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott.

It took me years to realize this, but Top Hat is a youth movie. Astaire and Rogers are young, attractive, and hip. Their characters are funny because they’re witty. Horton, Blore, Broderick, and Rhodes seem older. Their characters (except Broderick’s) are funny because they’re stupid, or because they’re caught in old-fashioned ways.

Eric Blore (left) and Edward Everett Horton

There’s also a Europe versus America vibe. Astaire and Rogers play sexy, smart, wise-cracking Americans. Broderick’s character, though older, is also American, and she too can crack wise. The early scenes contain many jabs about stuffy Englishmen who tend to talk in the first-person plural (“We are concerned…”). Blore, playing a valet, manages a beautiful delivery of the line “We take all of the responsibility, myself.”

Top Hat is something of a rip-off. If you watch the Astaire/Rogers movies chronologically, it’s clear that this is a pretty close copy to a previous vehicle, The Gay Divorcee (based on a Broadway play). But this time, the rip-off turned out to be the masterpiece.

The main characters in a Venice hotel room