Top Hat May 7, 2015
To attain musical perfection is a feat rarely mimicked in the grasp of the take-it-or-leave-it genre. A manicured finger playing the why wasn’t the movie successful blame game could easily point at too much spectacle, not enough comedy, or too much comedy, not enough spectacle. But to have neither issue — to run harmoniously, to exist in a cloud of escapist contemplation — that is an exploit worthy of endless praise.
This is why the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers remain to tread on such sacred ground. They’re miles away from the Technicolor escapades of Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Betty Grable; they start champagne drenched fires in a luminous black and white where reality fades and cinematic exhilaration placates the area. They’re simultaneously artificial and real; here, artifice is real.
While The Great Depression wore on and midwesterners were gagging on dust, film took a detour into the extravagant and invented worlds where ordinary folks were rich, dressed expensively, traveled to the most beautiful parts of the world, lounged in the most luxurious of hotels, and found love with someone just as wealthy as them. In these worlds, international problems didn't exist — more important ones, such as romantic misunderstandings and how will they get out of this one comedic situations, acted as quaint replacements.
It’s all a bit ironic (considering the plight of the 1930s), but the heightened determination to make life seem happy/joyful/hopeful/fun/adorable ended up causing an influx of delicious screwball comedies and a superiorly pristine, dressed-to-impressed batch of musicals. The worst of them are still decent, sitting pretty while tickling our senses. But the best, most noticeably the (cough cough) Rogers and Astaire partnerings, are overwhelming in their dedication to wow.
Top Hat, the fourth pairing of the quick-footed legends, is their most famous, most acclaimed moment. (Though I’m not so sure I agree with its frequent “best of the best” placement — Swing Time and The Gay Divorcee are pretty damn spectacular.) A delirious blend of slapstick antics, tuneful Irving Berlin melodies (including the instantaneously classic “Cheek to Cheek”), and awe-inspiring choreography, the film pulls off a fluffy plot with its keen sense of wit and dizzying amount of artistic talent.
Astaire portrays Jerry Travers, a dancer staying in London to prepare for his starring role in an upcoming musical. While practicing one of his complicated tap routines in his ritzy hotel suite, he awakens the beautiful Dale Tremont (Rogers), whom immediately flies upstairs to complain. Dale is irritated, but Jerry is attracted, deciding to spend the rest of his stay attempting to win her heart.
Enter conflict. Dale is under the impression that Jerry is Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), the producer of the show and the husband of her best friend, Madge (Helen Broderick). Figuring he’s a pig, as he’s apparently cheating on his wife, Dale does everything she can to dissuade him from chasing after her, attempting to romance flamboyant fashion designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) to rid of him. But even tired mishaps can’t stop them from unconsciously coupling.
Roger Ebert called out Top Hat for its Idiot Plot and still deemed the film one of the “Great Movies." It has a paint-by-numbers storyline, sure, but in a musical, a sound screenplay is the least of one’s troubles. We want to be amazed, shocked, satisfied; Top Hat delivers more than we could expect. It’s not that it does anything revolutionary — it’s that it transitions from plot to song to dance so evenly that the popular notion of what a musical is supposed to be is surehandedly thrown away.
Consider the famous “Cheek to Cheek” sequence. It begins with Astaire and Rogers in romantic conversation, continues into a sweet serenade, and delves into a flashy, unbroken ballroom dance that dares us not to blink. Most scenes in Top Hat work like this. They range from scrambling to sentimental to hysterical, but never does something feel out of place, unwanted. It’s a parfait of genial entertainment, impossible to