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Sunday, May 25, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Top Hat (1935)

Director: Mark Sandrich
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers

Have two people ever been as impossibly elegant and effortlessly charming as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? To see them together is to see a perfection of craft and a joy of performance that is difficult to match. Top Hat, the fourth of ten films Astaire and Rogers would make together, is their best. With music by Irving Berlin and a story that makes the most of pairing them together (they dance more together in this film than in any of their others), this is a film that can’t be missed.

The plot of Astaire/Rogers vehicles never really mattered that much; the stories, if not always just a means of connecting the dance numbers, are always secondary to the dance sequences. Here we’re given a plot constructed and executed in the style of a screwball take on Shakespearean comedy, complete with mistaken identities, foils, and of course the clown. Astaire is Jerry, a performer collaborating on a show with Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Hardwin). Rogers plays Dale Tremont, a friend of Hardwick’s new wife, Madge (Helen Broderick). Dale meets Jerry but is under the mistaken impression that he’s Hardwick. The film sustains the mistaken identity plot by never having all four characters in the same place together until the end, and injects the story with some classic screwball comedy by having Dale and Madge plot to trap “Hardwick” in an attempt to have an affair, and introducing Beddini (Erik Rhodes), a rival for Dale’s affections who thinks that Hardwick is Hardwick, but not the Hardwick he thinks he is. Also featured is the incomparable Eric Blore as Hardwick’s valet, Bates, whose talent as a “master of disguise” helps bring about the film’s happy resolution.

The film features a number of the more famous Astaire/Rogers song and dance numbers. It begins with Astaire singing “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)” with an accompanying dance. The shot pans down from his dance to the hotel room below his, where Rogers is attempting to sleep. She marches upstairs to tell him off, and he’s instantly smitten. Also on hand are the “Isn’t It A Lovely Day” number, which finds the two in a bandstand during a rainstorm with Rogers first doing a mock imitation of Astaire, but ending with the two dancing together in harmony; and “Cheek to Cheek,” with Rogers in a dress with feathers which caused much trouble during shooting. “Cheek to Cheek” is arguably their best number together in the film, but “Isn’t It A Lovely Day” is interesting in the way that it sets up a kind of gender equality between the two by having Rogers in pants, and by ending the number with a friendly handshake. This number considered alongside “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” which ends with Astaire using a cane and tapping to imitate mowing down a row of dancers with various kinds of “gunfire,” point perhaps to an attempt to masculinize an art form which is stereotypically considered feminine.

Astaire and Rogers are, of course, the stars, but the film surrounds them with a memorable cast of supporting oddballs. Hardwin, Brodderick, Blore and Rhodes more than hold their own, etching out firm places for themselves in the film and not being outshone by Astaire and Rogers, as much as they simply shine in a different way. These four make the comedic plot - on which the romantic one depends – work, with each supplying a different kind of comedy. As Hardwick, Hardwin is bewildered at how he’s always, somehow, in trouble with someone; Brodderick as Madge is the cool wit of the film, understated and cutting in every scene; Blore as Bates is the man who skirts the line between clever and foolish; and Rhodes as Beddini is the foolish man who simply becomes more foolish – but more aggressively so – as the film carries on. These characters (and their actors) are invaluable to the film as a whole and serve as a reminder of how much has been lost, especially in the realm of comedy, now that solid character actors are so rare and underused in films.

Top Hat is a film that is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. We know from the outset that Astaire and Rogers will end up together in the end, but then again, we don’t watch to see if they get together, but how, and to watch the footwork that comes between “boy meets girl” and “boy gets girl back.” As a musical, and as a comedy, this film delivers.

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