WYSW: Top Hat (1935)


Another Why You Should Watch post! And this time, we'll be talking about the greatest film ever made one of my favourite films ever (but it's really a musical), the fourth from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' paired filmography, Top Hat! Directed by Mark Sandrich and released in 1935, this was nominated for several Oscars including Best Picture, became RKO's (it's production house) best box-office hit in the 30s, and was the most successful of all Astaire-Rogers films together. It's a very charming movie, with a pleasantly funny and simple plot, amazing dance numbers and swellegant performances from Fred and Ginger. For all you musical lovers, Top Hat is definitely a must-watch!

1. Fred's puttin' on his top hat, tyin' up his white tie, dancin' in his tails

"I'm steppin' out, my dear, to breathe an atmosphere that simply reeks with class!" What lines. It's rare to find quotes like this originating today. I salute Mr. Irving Berlin for creating the most wonderful lyrics and music. His collaboration with Fred was definitely one of the best things that ever happened; one of the most cherished too! Toss in the Gershwins and Mr. Porter, and I'm a perfectly happy girl reminiscing about the past and the Golden Age of Hollywood.

The first thing that makes Top Hat such a good movie is because of this musical segment:

It has everything a Fred Astaire fan would ever dream of. Creatively choreographed, finely sung and ultimately very memorable, Top Hat, White Tie and Tails is a song that showcases Astaire's excellent ability as a dancer, a singer and a choreographer; everyone knows that almost in every musicals he made he was always the main choreographer. He engages very well here with the audience, as you can see from the beginning to the end, and his charm shows from his expression, his voice and the overall carrying of his dancing... Now let's all talk less and watch more.

2. Great introductory film to the Astaire-Rogers collaboration

Although Fred and Ginger danced finer choreographed numbers in films like Swing Time and Follow the Fleet, Top Hat is, in my opinion, the best introductory film to the duo. It's just perfect to introduce you to Fred Astaire's casual yet powerful charm, stylish elegance and extraordinary talent as an actor, a dancer and a singer, and to Ginger Roger's beautiful on-screen persona, amazing chemistry with Fred, comedic abilities and polished talent as Fred's dancing partner and a professional actress. If not this, I suggest you try watching Swing Time (1936), The Gay Divorcee (1934), or Flying Down To Rio (1933) as an introduction to the duo's partnership.

3. Considered to be the best Astaire-Rogers film together?

Well, not exactly because of the plot, or even the dancing. I think what makes this their most famous film is because of the performances and the songs. Plus, every minute of Top Hat shows delightful acting from Fred, Ginger, and the rest of the cast at their best, as you can see in this one particular scene. This film is like the epitome of the Astaire-Rogers pairing.

4. Mistaken identities. I love this kind of plot!

And I love it because it is so... Fred and Ginger, you know? The dialogue is always very smart and hilarious, the acting so perfect, and as a whole the film's really refreshing, simple, funny but still mesmerizing. Briefly, Top Hat tells the story of Jerry Travers (Fred), who falls in love with Dale Tremont (Ginger), but unfortunately she mistakes him as her friend's husband, and from here love and comedy ensue, all in the form of a great musical.

I should note that at one point Fred complained because he thought the Top Hat script had no real story or plot, and hated the initial draft. "As this book is supposed to have been written for me with the intention of giving me a chance to do things that are more suited to me ­ I cannot see that my part embodies any of the necessary elements, except to dance, dance, dance." He also objected the similarities between the story of Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee, and would often discuss alteration with the scriptwriter.

Like any other movies at the time, Top Hat aimed to greatly amuse their audience, to distract them from the dark times that was the Great Depression, and it succeeded in doing so. The extravagant dances, the light-hearted comedy that supports the musical numbers, the elegant dresses and suits and the charming performances in Top Hat make for a great mood booster for practically anyone.

5. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Ginger’s dress!

The title was a reference to the Top Hat crew's initial reaction to Ginger Roger's dress for the 'Cheek to Cheek' dance sequence.

Now here's a behind-the-scene story about Top Hat that is interesting enough to make you want to at least google the film. The infamous "Feathers" incident that followed during filming of Top Hat was so talked about that the news exaggerated it as 'a blizzard on the set'... as Fred described in his autobiography. Now, I realize that this isn't really a point that positively promotes the film, but it's nevertheless an interesting point that I feel is in need of discussion, because it shows how things were off-screen for the cast and crew, and more importantly, how it depicts the relationship between Fred and Ginger as two different people.

The dress, designed by Bernard Newman and Ginger herself, was a vision of Rogers' dream dress. Ethereal with a figure-hugging shape, high front and low back, Ginger wanted it to be blue, like "the blue in Monet paintings", using satin as the main fabric and ostrich feathers from the shoulders and from the hips and downwards. It was an amazing dress indeed (it showed Ginger's rather eccentric fashion style) but when worn the ostrich feathers shed to an extreme extent that it caused disturbance to filming (the feathers were falling practically everywhere and it was clearly visible through the camera), drowned Fred in it (from his autobiography he recalled, "I had feathers in my eyes, my ears, my mouth, all over the front of my suit...") and ultimately created a Ginger Rogers vs. the entire team of Top Hat production match.

Supported only by her mother, Ginger had to fight for the dress because no one approved of her wearing it; at one point Fred lost his temper and yelled at her because the falling feathers stalled filming, at another point Mark Sandrich, the director, suggested she opt for using a dress worn already in The Gay Divorcee, and at another point she walked out the set in order to show her persistence of wearing the dress. Ginger won, in the end, and got to keep the dress, but the price she paid was high, as she received cold treatment from her fellow actors and film crew afterwards. Of course this displeased her, but ultimately Fred was the first one to make up with Ginger, giving her a gold feather charm for her bracelet with a note that read, "Dear Feathers, I love ya! Fred." And from then he nicknamed her 'Feathers'.

Lots of articles and books describe this incident in a more detailed manner than my brief summary, like this one, this one, this one and this one. A simple googling on this subject will lead you to a very fascinating story about Top Hat and the events that happened off-screen. I think, after talking about this, off-screen incidents in any movie made are far more interesting to know about than on-screen stories, don't you agree? Sometimes they just give you the complete opposite accounts on how actors behave and treat their respectful fellows when not under the rolling camera.

6. A Best Picture nominee!

And Dance Direction, Art Direction, and of course, Original Song for 'Cheek to Cheek'! There are more awards and legacies out there presented for Top Hat from the year it was released up until now, plus, it is already selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being 'culturally, historically and aesthetically significant'. Yes, I copied that sentence precisely from Wikipedia. Ha.

7. The charming supporting actors

Edward Everett Horton, Helen Broderick and Erik Rhodes were constant cast who played in more than two of the Astaire-Rogers collaboration films. Most notably are Erik Blore, who played in five out of Fred and Ginger's ten films, and Edward Everett Horton, who starred in three. Why are they charming? Because their actings are true to their comedic roles, and they highlight the pairing of Fred and Ginger perfectly in every scene. Horton is like the perfect friend to Astaire as Broderick is to Rogers and Blore creates a balanced and funny relationship between them with his intervening acts. Erik Rhodes just shines in his own way as Beddini, the man Rogers is interested to marry in the movie.

8. They're off together dancing cheek to cheek

I want to show you the 'Cheek to Cheek' segment from the film, because it is such an amazing dance segment that contributed a lot to the film's huge success. Not only is it perfect in any way (from Fred and Ginger's exquisite dancing, the setting, the feather dress, and the freakin' music), it is also considered a standard in the Great American Songbook -- this accomplishment gets two thumbs up from me. The 'Cheek to Cheek' dance segment has been featured and referred to in many films such as The Green Mile, Rain Man and Love's Labour's Lost and has been covered by artists like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, Billie Holiday and many more. You can easily Youtube them all.

9. Extra: There's Lucy in it!

It was such a delight to spot Lucille Ball in Top Hat (her role was as a flower shop clerk and she had only two lines: 'What can he say?' and 'Really?')! A distant maternal cousin to Ginger, in her early years in Hollywood Lucy performed many small roles, and also contributed as a supporting actress in some of the Astaire-Rogers films like Roberta and Follow the Fleet before she finally hit it big with her show I Love Lucy many years later and became known as one of the world's greatest comediennes. Talk about a great star in the making!

Fred and Lucy!

So there you have it, the WYSWs of Top Hat, a fine musical. I realize that this film might not be the perfect Sunday movie for everyone, but since it's so happy and lovely and iconic (and you know just how much I ADORE it), it's something that you really should check out in your free time. Like, now.


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