#287) Top Hat (1935)
OR “Venice Match”
Directed by Mark Sandrich
Written by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott. Based on the plays “Scandal in Budapest” by Sandor Farago and “A Girl Who Dares” by Aladar Laszlo. Songs by Irving Berlin.
Class of 1990
The Plot: Celebrated dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) meets designer model Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) at a fancy hotel in London. Despite some initial friction, they find themselves attracted to each other. In a case of mistaken identity, Dale thinks that Jerry is Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), a theatrical producer known for his skirt-chasing. This all comes to a head in a bridal suite in Venice, where Dale’s Italian designer friend Beddini (Erik Rhodes), Hardwick’s wise-cracking wife Madge (Helen Broderick), and his effete valet Bates (Eric Blore) are thrown into the mix. But all this plot still leaves plenty of room for some classic Irving Berlin standards.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “the quintessential Astaire-Rogers musical”, though admits that “Top Hat” is just a retread the pair’s previous outing, “The Gay Divorcee”. There’s also an essay by film critic Carrie Rickey.
But Does It Really?: If I have to pick one Astaire-Rogers movie for the vault, it’s “Top Hat” (Oh “Swing Time”, if only you didn’t have that Bojangles routine). There aren’t a lot of musical numbers, but the ones they have are among the duo’s best, and in the interim are fun performances by a cast you enjoy spending time with. On top of its expected musical attributes, “Top Hat” is surprisingly funny. I chuckled pretty consistently throughout the film, which speaks to how well “Top Hat” has aged. Do yourself a favor and watch “Top Hat” at least once in your life.
Everybody Gets One: Mark Sandrich directed five of the ten Astaire-Rogers musicals, despite allegedly not getting along with Rogers. Sandrich would go on to direct Astaire in “Holiday Inn”, which gave us the classic song “White Christmas”.
Wow, That’s Dated: Lots of gender politics in this one. Nothing too groan inducing, but it’s definitely there. And as always, I’ll pour one out for the gone-but-not-forgotten RKO Pictures.
Seriously, Oscars?: One of the biggest hits of 1935, “Top Hat” was nominated for four Oscars, winning none. Among its defeats: Best Song entry “Cheek to Cheek” lost to “Lullaby of Broadway” from “Gold Diggers of 1935”, and Best Picture went to the only movie that out-grossed “Top Hat”: “Mutiny on the Bounty”. Side note: How is “Mutiny” not on the NFR yet?
- While “Top Hat” was the fourth pairing of Astaire and Rogers at RKO, it was the first of their movies with a screenplay tailored specifically for them.
- Even without dialogue, Astaire’s effortless charm shines through.
- Oh yeah, Hardwicke and Bates are so gay for each other. How did no one at the Hays Office catch that one?
- Speaking of, Bates always refers to himself in first-person plural form (“We are Bates.”). There’s no way America was ready to even conceive of non-binary pronouns.
- The Flower Clerk at the beginning is played by a young RKO contract player named Lucille Ball. And now you know the rest of the story!
- Nice pun involving the word “dam”, as in the mother of a horse. This is followed by a “horse power” joke that…. [Deep exhale].
- There’s nothing I can say about Fred and Ginger dancing that hasn’t already been covered. Both had their own unique star quality, but together they formed a third property. One never upstaged the other when they danced; they became one cohesive unit. It is always a joy to watch.
- I don’t know where I stand with the Jerry/Dale courtship. It’s one of those “he’s a jerk but she’s okay with it” deals, but they’re both so charming. For a black and white movie, this is more shades of gray than I care for.
- Beddini is one spicy Italian stereotype! Apparently this greatly offended Italian Prime Minister/Fascist Benito Mussolini, which led to “Top Hat” being banned in Italy.
- Shoutout to Gertrude Stein, whose 15 minutes of fame were just starting when this film was released.
- “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” is great, but why does Fred have so many backup dancers? Does he need to shoot all of them?
- Helen Broderick is great as the kind of sardonic supporting character she always played in these movies. Fun Fact: She’s Broderick Crawford’s mother!
- I can see how this film got an Art Direction nomination: the Venice set is huge! It even has a canal going through it!
- Bow down to Edward Everett Horton and his perfect comic timing. He is the Astaire-Rogers of the comic take.
- If you take out the musical numbers, “Top Hat” has the same structure as many of the best “Frasier” episodes.
- And then we get to “Cheek to Cheek”. It’s lovely, although slightly overshadowed by the behind-the-scenes stories involving Ginger Rogers’ problematic feather dress. You can see a bit of molting going on in the final cut.
- This movie’s wardrobe is so elegant. Did the crew have to wear tuxes too?
- Some articles about “Top Hat” mention an excised scene where Bates tells off an Italian police officer. I’m not quite sure when it was cut, but it seems to have been restored in the print I watched (and hilarious).
- Looks like Hermes Pan is going for some Busby Berkeley-esque dance formations in “The Piccolino”. Sadly, he can’t quite pull it off.
- My last note simply reads: “That’s just delightful”. This whole post could have just been those three words. In fact…
- Every song in this movie became a standard, and I’m pretty sure Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded all of them.
- The “Feathers” incident inspired a sequence in the Fred Astaire/Judy Garland vehicle “Easter Parade”, as well as Fred’s endearing nickname for Ginger.
- “Top Hat” was adapted for the stage in the early 2010s, with a score filled out by additional Irving Berlin material. The show has toured the UK and Ireland, but I don’t see it coming to the states anytime soon.