What’s black and white and simply reeks with class?
Top Hat is the apotheosis of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It has five dances, a total they matched in only one other film (Follow the Fleet). All five are first-rate, and several are among the best that Fred and Ginger ever did. Irving Berlin’s score is one of the most famous in film history, probably second only to Edgar Harburg’s and Harold Arlen’s work for The Wizard of Oz. “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” is the song most closely associated with Astaire throughout his career, while “Cheek to Cheek” has become a symbol of the Astaire/Rogers relationship as a whole (their onscreen relationship, at least).
Top Hat inflated every device of the previous three Astaire/Rogers picture to the bursting point. With each film, the icing on the cake got thicker and thicker. Top Hat was pure butter-cream. Cake this rich was never baked again.
The film begins with a brilliant opening device that, strangely, was never repeated: the dancing feet of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Fred’s gleaming pumps, Ginger’s dazzling gown, this is what we came for. Who could ask for anything more?
After this tantalizing glimpse of the stars, the opening credits appear over a top hat. In a clever trompe l’oeil touch that thirties films rarely displayed, when the credits end we discover that we’re looking at a real top hat, perched atop the head of a London clubman.1 We follow the clubman inside his club and discover Fred, as the young, elegant musical comedy star Jerry Travers, trapped in a crowd of boring old farts.
Fortunately, Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton, in the quintessential Edward Everett Horton role), who’s backing Fred’s latest show, comes to rescue Fred. They go to Horace’s neo-Grecian, art moderne, white-on-white-on-white-on-white hotel suite, the first of about a dozen that we’ll encounter in the film, each more opulent than the last. Horace announces that his wife Madge has a “little friend” for Fred to meet. They’re all set to head for Venice once Fred’s show opens.2 Fred, hearing wedding bells and not liking the sound, expresses his disdain for commitment by bursting first into song (“No Strings”) and then into brilliantly percussive dance.
Unfortunately, one dude’s floor is another babe’s ceiling. Fred’s tapping causes a sleeping Ginger to awaken “like a naiad rising from the foam,” as Arlene Croce put it, in a flurry of filmy negligee and satin sheets. Ginger phones the front desk to complain, and the message is relayed to Horace’s pad. Horace, who answers the phone, is conveniently confused, and heads downstairs to the lobby, thinking that a “young lady” wishes to see him, while Fred keeps tapping. An impatient Ginger, goaded by falling plaster, dons a wildly unsuitable “robe,” comprising about nine square yards of platinum satin,3 and heads upstairs.
When they meet, it’s love at first sight – for Fred only, of course. After an interlude of witty badinage, Ginger departs, and Fred, appointing himself her official “sandman,” sprinkles sand on the floor of Horace’s suite and dances her to sleep.
The next morning, Fred heads to the flower shop and arranges for the shop’s entire contents to be delivered to Ginger’s room. As he leaves, we overhear a conversation between the shop’s owner and his assistant, played by Lucille Ball.4 We learn that Ginger (aka “Dale Tremont”) is something of a kept woman. “All of her niceties are supplied by Signor Beddini. And her niceties are very nice,” the shop owner notes, with an unmistakable snigger.
Leaving the flower shop, Fred encounters Ginger, dressed for a day on horseback. He plies her with some more witty badinage, to no effect. She takes off in an old-fashioned Hansom cab, pulled by a horse, only to discover that Fred is at the reins. They engage in yet a third round of witty badinage on the way to the stables, but Ginger still isn’t buying.
Luckily, Ginger’s gallop is interrupted by a thunderstorm. She finds shelter, and Fred, in a deserted bandstand. After still more witty badinage, Fred sings “Isn’t This a Lovely Day to Be Caught in the Rain,” and the two engage in a lovely bout of one-upmanship, a “copycat can’t do that yes I can” dance very much in the tradition of the “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” number from Roberta.5
Though still keeping her distance, Ginger is clearly beginning to thaw. Returning to the hotel, she discovers Fred’s flowers, and we discover Alberto Beddini, played by Erik Rhodes.6 To our immense relief, we discover that the Alberto/Dale arrangement is entirely innocent, though utterly unfathomable (like so many details of life in Fred & Ginger land). Beddini is a top fashion designer, and, not so coincidentally, a screaming fag (this is what makes it all so innocent). Beddini pays Ginger’s expenses and furnishes her with his latest creations free of charge, so that all of her smart friends will be convinced of the genius of the House of Beddini.7
Beddini tells Ginger she needs to get packing for their trip to Venice, where she’ll be joining her friend Madge. At this point, of course, one can hear the tumblers of Top Hat‘snotorious “mistaken identity” plot clicking into place. Horace Hardwick’s wife is also named Madge. Could Fred have fallen in love with the woman that Madge wants him to meet, the woman that (he thinks) he doesn’t want to meet? Stranger things have happened.
Ginger naturally wants to stay in London. Why travel, when she’s got the man of her dreams wrapped around her little finger. Beddini expostulates,8 but Ginger stands firm, and, because her stylishness is all-powerful, Beddini has to give in.
The next day, Ginger learns that Madge’s husband Horace is staying in her hotel. When she inquires at the desk, the manager helpfully points him out, but, as fate would have it, it appears to Ginger that he’s pointing at Fred. She’s in love with her best friend’s husband! Oy!9
Fred approaches Ginger with a song in his heart. She slaps him, right in the lobby. Quelle scandele! Fred and Horace are kicked out of the hotel. Ginger, heartbroken, decamps to Venice. When Fred comes by her suite, he finds a pair of hotel maids tossing the flowers he sent Ginger into the trash. This picture of extravagant beauty being mechanically reduced to waste is surprisingly powerful, too powerful, really, for a film like Top Hat.
But Fred can’t afford to pout, because opening night is coming up. (Rather curiously, we never learn the name of the show.) Then, backstage just before the big “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” number, he learns that Ginger is indeed Madge’s little friend, and that she’s coming to Venice! So he can locate her!
Thus buoyed, Fred goes out and delivers one of his most famous performances, backed by a male chorus that really doesn’t seem to do enough to justify its size. It’s the song rather than the dance that has the most charm for me. The dance begins enthusiastically, and then makes an intriguing shift to a “dark” mode. The male chorus disappears at this point, but then they reappear and the dance goes off in an unrelated direction, with Fred “shooting” all the dancers. As a solo performance, it doesn’t really compare with the earlier “No Strings,” or “I Won’t Dance” from Roberta.10
Once Fred and Horace hit Venice, the needle of the fop-o-meter, which has been hovering at “Beyond All Excess” for the whole picture, goes over the top. Fortunately, there are compensations, most notably the “Cheek to Cheek” number. Beautifully sung and beautifully danced, this is the epitome of the black-and-white musical.11
An intriguing sidelight to this number is the affair of the feathered dress, a topic dear to the hearts of Fred & Ginger buffs. Rogers, who did not like being dictated to by Fred in the dance numbers, clung tenaciously to her control of her own wardrobe. Astaire compulsively resented this. Supposedly, Ginger’s dress, in its original state, shed feathers fairly freely, much to Fred’s distress.12) But a team of dedicated seamstresses came to Ginger’s rescue, somehow sewing on the feathers overnight (how were they attached before?) so that the dance could go on.
What’s remarkable is how much Ginger’s dress adds to the “Cheek to Cheek” number. The second half of the dance has, in effect, three “movements,” each ending with a dramatic backbend by Ginger, the backbends of course getting lower and lower with each repetition. The sexual connotation here is fairly explicit.13 In the finale, the flowing of the feathered dress extends the duration of the backbend dramatically, and, when the feathers finally drift to a halt, they obscure Ginger’s figure to the point where she’s scarcely recognizable as human. It’s a remarkable “dying fall.”14
With Fred, Ginger, Horace, and Madge15 all in the same hotel, keeping Ginger from finding out that Fred isn’t married to Madge is just about an impossible task. Soufflés are best if eaten quickly, and Top Hat definitely runs ten or fifteen minutes long. Once we get past “Cheek to Cheek,” it’s all over but the shouting.
Aside from the excessive talk, the other shortcoming of the last half of Top Hat is the big production number, “The Piccolino.” The song is the weakest of Berlin’s score, and the production number doesn’t have much energy either.16 However, Fred and Ginger’s portion, though it doesn’t have any real emotional punch, is a perfect dessert, a delightful trifle elegantly tossed off, with a wonderful “kick up your heels” finale. They reprise this bit at the very end of the film, a sendoff almost equal to the “dance on the furniture” finale of The Gay Divorcee.
Even though Top Hat was only the fourth of the ten films Fred and Ginger would do together, it marked the end of an era. The big black-and-white machine17 that made the Astaire/Rogers films happen never really figured out what to do for an encore. Plenty of people were already gagging on the froth of Top Hat, which was, after all, coming on top of the froth of Roberta, The Gay Divorcee, and Flying Down to Rio. The semi-non-frothy follow-ups, Follow the Fleet and Swing Time, had great songs and dances, but serious plot problems as well, while the return to froth in Shall We Dance didn’t really work either. (Ginger was also getting pretty damn tired of working with Fred at this point.)Carefree and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, the last two films Fred and Ginger did together in the thirties, were both change-of-pace projects that really didn’t attempt to scale the heights reached by Top Hat.18 Nope, they never found that recipe again. But it was fun while it lasted.
Astaire recorded all of the songs from Top Hat and continued this practice with most of the films he made in the thirties. These are available on the two-CD set “Starring Fred Astaire” from Columbia. Many of the cuts available on these two CDs are also available on other CDs released under Astaire’s name.
In the early fifties, Astaire recorded an album of Irving Berlin’s songs for Verve Records, backed by a superb group of jazz musicians. Unfortunately, Astaire’s voice was beginning to go, and on many of the songs he uses the sort of “talking/singing” technique used by Rex Harrison when he did My Fair Lady. Still, if you like the combination of Fred Astaire and Irving Berlin (and great jazz), these recordings, now available on CD, are well worth having.
Fred and Ginger did not record together. Surprisingly enough, so far as I can determine, Ginger made very few records on her own. CDs that have Fred and Ginger singing together are using the movie soundtracks.
Check my author page for reviews of other Astaire/Rogers films and a discussion of Irving Berlin.
- This opening is parodied in one of Astaire’s later films, The Band Wagon (1953). As before, the opening credits appear over a top hat (although this time the picture is in color). But when the picture starts we learn the hat is an artifact. It’s being auctioned off as part of a collection of vintage movie memorabilia. [↩]
- Fred’s such a big star that apparently he can open a show, take the weekend off, and come back to a sold-out house. [↩]
- It features a train so long she has to carry it in her arms to avoid tripping over it. [↩]
- Ball had a nonspeaking role as a fashion model in Roberta (she’s the blonde wearing the feathery outfit in the final fashion segment, right after Irene Dunne sings “Lovely to Look At” and right before Fred and Ginger dance to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”). She also had a speaking role in the next Astaire/Rogers film, Follow the Fleet. [↩]
- Ginger is particularly charming when she takes advantage of her jodhpurs to parody Fred’s masculine stride, thrusting her hands deep in her pockets and affecting a virile air. Clothes do make the man! [↩]
- Rhodes had previously played the Italian fop/co-respondent Tonetti in The Gay Divorcee. Reportedly, his performance in Top Hat was so over the top that the film was banned in fascist Italy as an insult to Italian manhood. Rhodes, who was on screen almost as much as Astaire and Rogers in Top Hat, must have thought he was headed for the big time. Sadly, he’d both cornered and exhausted the market for Italian sissies. He stayed in films until 1939, but never scored a role half the size of “Beddini.” His next-to-last film was Bachelor Mother, which starred Ginger. His part, as one of Ginger’s dancing partners, was so small he wasn’t even billed. [↩]
- How Ginger, who is apparently a nobody, without celebrity, wealth, family, or career, became the cynosure of the continental smart set is never explained. It’s also not clear if Ginger bothers to tell all of her smart friends that she wears Beddini’s clothes only because he foots her bills. [↩]
- I think that’s what he does. [↩]
- How is it that Ginger has never met her best friend’s husband? Well, Europe is a big place. [↩]
- However, Fred does work up some very effective rhythms by hitting his cane to the floor in counterpoint to his tapping feet. He did the same thing in the famous “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number from Blue Skies (1946). [↩]
- It’s also the first of the “serious” dances in which Ginger dances with as much confidence as Fred. [↩]
- Astaire ungallantly referred to Ginger as “Feathers” for some time after this incident. Supposedly, he made up to her by giving her a little gold feather that would fit on a charm bracelet, which must have set him back all of five dollars. (And which he probably got for free. What Beverly Hills jeweler wouldn’t want to do Fred Astaire a favor? [↩]
- For Astaire’s work in the thirties, remarkably explicit. Astaire himself almost always remained chaste, but he got some heat out of his partners in the forties and fifties. See “Shorty George” in You Were Never Lovelier, featuring the magnificent Rita Hayworth, and “Girl Hunt” in The Band Wagon, featuring the equally magnificent Cyd Charisse. [↩]
- Rogers’ outfit in the “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” number that concludes their next film, Follow the Fleet, was a similarly unplanned, perfect complement to the mood of Astaire’s choreography. [↩]
- Madge is played by Helen Broderick, a wonderful character actress who resembled a middle-aged Betty Boop, staring out at the world with impassive saucer eyes that have seen everything and are shocked by nothing. She was the mother of Broderick Crawford, which must have been a difficult birth. [↩]
- The “Continental” production number for The Gay Divorcee was too much. This is too little. But “The Continental” was a much better tune. [↩]
- The team consisted largely of Astaire, producer Pandro Berman, director Mark Sandrich, and art directors Carroll Clark and Van Nest Polglase. [↩]
- If you’re counting, you’ve noticed that I’ve only named nine movies. The tenth, The Barkleys of Broadway, was a “reunion” and only happened because Judy Garland, who had starred with Fred in Easter Parade, bailed on the picture. Fred, in turn, only appeared in Easter Parade because Gene Kelly broke his ankle skiing. Or did he sprain it playing volleyball? Or was it touch football? These excuses get a little pat. Maybe Gene was getting tired of Judy’s temperament and wanted a break. [↩]