Saturday, December 29, 2007

This Month on TCM: Top Hat (1935)

On Monday, December 31st, TCM is showing several Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers films, including the Mark Sandrich classic Top Hat, their first "starring" vehicle (following their successful teaming in Flying Down to Rio).

Every Astaire-Rogers film opens great, but Top Hat has the best (albeit simple) opening titles and fanfare of them all, brilliantly juxtaposed with the first scene (a quiet sitting room at a men’s club). Astaire’s disruptive tap at the end of this scene is a memorable laugh. There's a delightful first song (and tap dance) for Fred (“I’m fancy free and free for anything fannnncy”) that includes a terrific “pan” down to the room below introducing Ginger in bed, woken up by the activity, followed by a clever soft-shoe (Astaire’s character uses sand from an ash can).

The film is about an American dance man named Jerry Travers in London falling for a young lady named Dale Tremont, who, after falling for him, believes she has discovered that he’s a married man. Following the mistaken-identity, Ginger gives Fred a slap— and his reaction is priceless. Astaire and Rogers give among their best performances in this film and they are brilliant in a scene where each pretends to have met the other in Paris (first Dale has the upper hand, then Jerry). “Cheek to Cheek” is possibly the greatest song in any Astaire-Rogers film (even if it did manage to lose the Oscar). Their subsequent dance (memorable for Rogers’ feather dress [see photo]) is superb, particularly in light of the way their characters are feeling about each other at the time. Other top-notch sequences include the gazebo scene (where Dale falls for Jerry), which is sweet and irresistible (“Isn’t this a lovely day to be caught in the rain?”) and serves as the perfect dance interpretation of a courtship: each showing off for the other, the occasional misstep, then perfect sync. Handsome cab sequence with corny jokes (“What is this strange power you have over horses?”/ “Horsepower.”) that precedes it, is, thankfully, short. “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” tune and dance, with tuxedoed back-up dancers, is classic, integrated into the movie as part of Jerry’s stage show (especially fun is Astaire’s tapping as gun fire, using his cane as a rifle to “shoot” down the other dancers).

The supporting actors are always fun to watch in the Astaire-Rogers movies. Edward Everett Horton (as Horace Hardwick, the producer of Astaire’s show) and Eric Blore (as his valet) are hilarious in their tete-a-tetes. Helen Broderick (as Horace’s wife Madge), appearing in the film’s second half, is particularly funny in her scene where Ginger tells her of her husband’s supposed infidelity (“He chased me in the park.”/ “Really, I didn’t know Horace was capable of that much activity… Did he catch you?”/ “Yes.”/ “Good for Horace!”). Final third of the movie offers a little too much explanation, slowing the film down, but it’s rescued by “The Piccolino” number (“By the Adriatic waters, Venetian sons and daughters are strumming a new tune upon their guitars…”).

Top Hat (1935): Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers give their finest performances among their vehicles, evidenced best by their dancing and acting in the show stopping "Cheek to Cheek"; several other top notch Irving Berlin songs ("Isn't This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)," "The Piccolino," "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails") and the usual funny supporting actors make this one of the team's most outstanding films, if its final third drags a bit.

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