Top Hat, 1935, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Music by Irving Berlin. B&W, 100 minutes.
A simple story told with wit and charm, a top-notch score by Irving Berlin, and of course, the superb dance numbers with Astaire and Rogers make this musical a lovely escape, just as it was fully intended to be.
The plot is a familiar one to fans of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films: a mistaken identity, an unsought attraction between a man and a woman already entangled with others, a love that grows through one dance number after another. It isn’t the story line that keeps you captivated. It’s the dancing, the music, the Art Deco sets, the one-liners, and the glimpse at a world that likely never existed.
Dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) is practicing his latest routine, a tap number, in his hotel room one night, much to the chagrin of Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers), who is in the room below. She forcefully complains; he falls in love. For her part, Dale could fall in love, but for one thing: she believes Jerry is actually Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), husband of her good friend, Madge (Helen Broderick).
All five songs of the classic Irving Berlin score went on to become big hits, and several are frequently-heard standards today, particularly “Cheek to Cheek.” Also notable is one of Astaire’s best-known tap numbers, “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” in which he famously “shoots down” a chorus line of like-dressed men with his cane. Astaire and choreographer Hermes Pan worked closely together to create each routine.
The dress Rogers wore in “Cheek to Cheek” is known as the “feather dress,” an outfit she loved but was burdensome to many others, in part because of its tendency to shed while the couple was dancing. Much of that problem was fixed prior to shooting, but if you look closely, you can see feathers flying and a few scattered on the floor.
The film was made shortly after the production code went into effect, and a few changes had to be made to make it acceptable to censors. In one scene, Astaire states, “he didn’t give a dam” when referring to a horse’s lineage, and the censors required the word “dam” be struck, so a door is heard slamming shut as it is uttered. Censors also warned the director to take care not to make the character of dress designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) “too effeminate,” and while he is all that, apparently director Sandrich curtailed enough of what would be offensive to make it past the censor’s strict eye.
Top Hat is one of the best Astaire-Rogers films, and one that showcases all these films were capable of bringing to an audience that delighted in them.