Sunday, 2 June 2013

Top Hat (1935)

Top Hat
Do you know the musical ”Top Hat”?


Do you know the song “Cheek to cheek”? You know, the one that goes like “I’m in Heaven, I’m in Heaven…”.

 Yes, that one! Of course you know it. It is from “Top Hat” along with a line of other excellent tunes.

That is how it is when songs outlive their original context. I would not say “Top Hat” has been entirely forgotten, but this is one of those tunes that stays around and pops up now and then to sneak up on yet another new audience. A few years ago it was revamped and included on an issue of the Hotel Costes compilation and certainly not as the poorest contribution. That one is an ear hanger as there ever was any. Irving Berlin had an excellent day when he made this one and almost make me forget that this is not the only great tune to come out of “Top Hat”.

Even aside from the music “Top Hat” is a delightful musical and it does get top marks from me. The center of any musical would be the music, but with their excellent dance routines Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers adds another element that makes this a very watchable musical. I am not a big fan of dancing and generally fail to grasp what is so wonderful of watching people dance, but I sort of forget that watching Astaire and Rogers sweep across the floor as if they are floating on air.

With such music and dancing I could even forgive the producers for wrapping this show in a silly or dull story to serve as a vehicle, but I actually love the story as well. It is not deep, but it is a fun comedy of mistaken identity with a host of actors who delivers.

Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) has arrived in London to appear in a show, but it a big secret and his impresario Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton) will go to great lengths to keep his presence a secret. Meanwhile Jerry has an encounter with a displeased neighbor Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers). He falls in love with her and she believes Jerry is actually Horace. Dale is friends with Horace wife Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick) and when she finds out Jerry is Madge husband she gets somewhat upset.

Dale goes to Italy to meet Madge and brings her suitor Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes), a pompous cliché peacock of an Italian who refers to himself in third person. Jerry with Horace in tow is in close pursuit and catch up on Dale and Madge in Venice. Madge wants to introduce Dale to Jerry and match them up to Dale’s horror since she thinks Jerry is married to Madge. Meanwhile Horace is suspecting Dale is some sort of spy to reveal the presence of Jerry and has put his man servant on her tail. He has a little secret of his own about a girl he has met in the zoo. Fairly innocent, but his wife must not find out.

All this leads to a lot of confusion and hilarity and it plays out very well. I simply love the scene where Madge is nudging Dale and Jerry together, winking at them to make out while Dale looks horrorstruck that Madge would throw her into her husband’s arms. The look on her face is priceless and I had a very good laugh.

I know this story does not sound like much and I suppose it is not, but it is actually plenty when it is as well executed as in “Top Hat”. Edward Everett Horton as Horace has all these terrific expressions and reminds me of W.C. Fields on a good day as he has his good natured clashes with his man servant Bates (Eric Blore). Where actually does this cliché come from about the British butler with this particular look? Compare this with “Sullivan’s Travels” and “Trading Places” and you will see what I mean. I would not be surprised to learn it started with “Top Hat”. Well, actually Blore played the same part in “Sullivan’s Travels”, so there is part of the explanation right there.

If I should have something negative to say about “Top Hat” it would be two particular items:

I singularly dislike films where the characters spontaneously break out in song. It is just so unreal. And where does the music come from? It is really more like a dream image than anything else and a convention with musicals that this can be done. Though in this case I will let it rest. I like this musical too much to let it bother me.

Secondly somebody should pay for the crimes committed by the set designers for their version of Venice. This is just ludicrous. Here I am, trying to cope with the fact that the characters may break out singing with music coming out of nowhere any moment and they add this sugarcoated Disneyland of a Venice to the mix. They are really pushing it! It was possible for Hollywood to make a good Venice set. Ernst Lubitch did it with “Trouble in Paradise”.  This one just looks too much like a stage from a Barbie commercial.

Again, I will try to ignore that and just focus on all I loved about this film. This is 100 minutes of good times, good music, good laughs and splendid dancing. Pour some champagne, darling and let’s burn some tap-shoes.


  1. This one is fun, isn't it? It's difficult to entirely dislike any Astaire/Rogers film because they're just so much fun to watch. Forget plot, forget the breaking out into song--just watch 'em dance.

    I enjoyed this one completely!

    1. Me too. I do not dislike them at all. They are so much fun, especially this one.

  2. I always think of something Chip once said when people (like you) talk about not being able to believe characters who spontaneously break into song and dance: there really is no difference between that and action movies where the hero does not get shot despite the fact that he only has a pistol and he's up against twenty dudes armed with semi-automatic weapons. It's just suspension of disbelief, that's all.

    ANYWAY, yes, I love this movie. My favorite number is actually the first one Jerry sings, the "Fancy Free" number where he tap dances around his hotel room. This movie always reminds me of a Jeeves and Wooster story by PG Wodehouse, a good comparison.

    But I agree that the film kind of peters out. The first hour is so strong, and the final musical number isn't as good as the others. The Venice is RIDICULOUS. It's almost as if they didn't quite know how to finish the movie.

    BUT BUT BUT I don't let that keep me from enjoying the movie. It's just so much dang FUN.

    1. Agreed on all points.

      Incidentally this is also my complaint with that sort of action movies. A story sets up its own inner logic that it has to comply with. For musicals it is that it is okay to just start singing IF it allows it. Not all musicals actually does that.

      The last song is definitely the weakest. It feels unnecessary and I would have prefered a different and cleaner ending, but that is a detail. At that point I have been having too good a time to complain about it.

  3. This is a fun film. I like Shall We Dance just a little more, but there's not much difference between them.

    As for the music, it comes from the same place the lighting comes from.

    1. Exactly. there is a divine element to it, definitely.

  4. You reminded me of all the reasons I am besotted with Fred and Ginger. It might just be my number one film of 1935. I'm still contemplating ...

    1. It is a strong contender for me as well.
      I have some musicals with Fred and Rita Hayworth and while a am nuts about Rita they lack the magic of Fred and Ginger.

  5. Astaire and Rogers' films always have some strange Art Deco theme--I think it's their schtick. They are always a delight to watch. As for your not liking spontaneous signing because it's unrealistic, I have to say you'd be surprised how often I burst into song at both home and work. It makes me co-workers find it disturbing but entertaining.

    1. I am sorry (though I guess I asked for it) that the spontaneous singing has become something of a theme when I genuinely like this musical. My issue relates to internal logic. The film sets up a number of rules for reality and has to stick to them for consistency. You can say that a musical like this "allows" singing, but the problem is that I do not buy the excuse. There is just no way the normal thing to do in many of the situations shown is to start signing with violins coming out of the sky. I have to make a leap of faith to accept it and this film is in the grey zone. Because it is as good as it is it is not really a problem for me in this case.
      Incidentally I suffer the same affliction to much embarrasment. While the singing may seem to come out of nowhere I still find it more natural than for instance a heated argument developing into a singing contest.
      But thanks for your comment and do enjoy the singing.