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TOP HAT (1935)

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made ten films together between 1933 and 1939. Many of these were directed by Mark Sandrich – but who cares? I don’t mean to belittle Sandrich, who was a talented practitioner of the movie musical, but it was Astaire and Rogers they came to see. Probably the most adored screen couple during the depression years, audiences flocked to their films in search of blithe escapist fare. And they found it. The quest was most delightfully fulfilled with TOP HAT (1935). It is certainly the most typical of the team’s collaborations, with its mistaken identity plot, witty rejoinders, splendid supporting cast, endlessly hummable Irving Berlin songs and, oh…those lighter than air dance numbers – the dances that have always served as a metaphor for the swooning emotion of romance.

The screwball plot of TOP HAT has Jerry Travers (Astaire), an American song and dance man in London for a stage performance, falling head over heels for Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers), a globe-trotting mannequin. But through a series of wild coincidences, she comes to believe he is married to her friend Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick). Madge’s husband Horace (Edward Everett Horton) is the producer of the show in which Jerry is starring, further complicating matters.

The power of dance to sooth the soul is playfully depicted right from the start. Visiting Horace in his hotel room, Jerry performs an elegant tap dance to Hermes Pan’s choreography, waking Dale, who is staying in the suite below. She hurries upstairs to confront Jerry, who immediately falls in love. When she leaves, Jerry spreads sand from a cigarette but receptacle onto the floor to quiet the sounds of his taps. Dale, Horace and eventually, Jerry all fall asleep to the soft shoe as the dancer becomes a literal Sandman. But Jerry’s taps are also lethal weapons as in the “Top Hat, White tie and Tails” number. Here he shoots at the all male chorus line with his cain, while his taps double as the sound of the gun shots. Dance also has the ability to bring people together in a way unlike any other art, as is demonstrated by the literal crossing of bridges in the Venetian set dances.

But the relationship is off to a stormy start in London as they dance together for the first time under the protection of a gezebo roof, during a torrential downpour. “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” may be the title of the song to which they frolic, but clouds on back drops and rear projections follow them throughout the film, thanks to the astute art direction by Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark.

But even with Dale’s misconceptions about Jerry’s true identity, everyone else disappears (including cast members and extras) during the couples “Cheek To Cheek” moment. They are the only two people left on earth, it seems, as it often does when young couples fall in love.

Along with the major relationships depicted in TOP HAT, there are several other couplings of note. First is that of Horace and his valet Bates (Eric Blore). The comedic interactions are highly effective and the performances involved are top-notch. But there is something else – something that could only be hinted at in 1935. There seems to be a decidedly gay angle, here. This is perhaps because Edward Everett Horton and Blore play their scenes to persnickety, perfection. They seem at times to be a bickering married couple and Jerry even remarks “I hate to interfere in these little family squabbles.” Another interesting pairing (and one with still more gay undertones) is that of Horace and Jerry. When the two follow Dale to Venice (under the guise of meeting up with Madge) they end up, through complications, sharing the bridal suite. After the men are asked to move out of the room to make way for an actual married couple (see below) Jerry batts his eyelashes and affects disappointment. “We’ve hardly settled in, have we angel?” he asks Horace. Lastly, there is the strange and seemingly contradictory relationship between Dale and Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes), her dress designer. They travel Europe together to promote his designs, and he is at once a strong male protector but also very effeminate. When he thinks her honor is at stake he proposes marriage, explaining “I’m rich, I’m pretty, and this Hardwick will leave you alone.” His classification of himself as “pretty” is yet another feminine trait revealed in a male character. At the film’s conclusion, when all is straightened out (pun quite definitely intended), Alberto kisses Horace passionately as Madge remarks “Go right ahead boys! Don’t mind me!” All these couplings make for delighted speculation on the part of viewers watching the film with the twenty/twenty hindsight of a twenty-first century perspective.

A final note about Fred Astaire and the man who would eventually succeed him as Hollywood’s king of dance: Gene Kelly. The star and co-director of ON THE TOWN (1949), SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) and other classic musicals provided in several ways a counterpoint to Astaire. Kelly was a great dancer – athletic but perhaps a bit mechanical. Astaire brought dance to the level of “poetry in motion” as the cliché goes – but the cliché was invented for him. He seemed to walk on air, to use another well turned phrase. We are impressed with Kelly’s precision and prowess on the dance floor but Astaire virtually carries us to the clouds – too enraptured to be impressed by mere technique. The differences between them can best be summed up by paraphrasing critic Andrew Sarris’ famous dissection of the personas of Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin. The difference between Kelly and Astaire is the difference between poise and poetry, between man as machine and man as angel.

CREDITS: Produced by Pandro S. Berman. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Written by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott. Story by Dwight Taylor. Photographed by David Abel and Vernon Walker. Edited by William Hamilton. Art Direction by Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark. choreographed by Hermes Pan. Songs by Irving Berlin. WITH: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Helen Broderick, Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes.

July 31, 2013 Posted by | 1930's cinema, classic cinema, film comedy, film directors, musicals | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment