Monday, June 2, 2008

Masterpiece Film Series: Top Hat

"Top Hat" **** (out of ****)

If you were to do a random survey and ask fans of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers what they think the team's best film may have been chances are you'll hear "Swing Time" said the most often. I never accepted that as my final answer. "Top Hat" is my all time favorite Fred & Ginger movie. It is one of my desert island films.

Lets assume someone has never seen a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film (which should be your first cue they really aren't a film lover) "Top Hat" uses the formula most successful for the team. The concept of "mistaken identity".

Most Fred and Ginger films could be described as musical-comedies. They had some elements of screwball comedy with the female chasing after the male. Think of "Carefree" or the relationship with Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick. She is clearly the most dominate personalty of the two.

In "Top Hat" Fred plays Jerry Travers. An American tap dancing star who has signed to perform in a production being put on by producer Horace Hardwick (Horton). While working on a dance routine at Horace's apartment late one night, Dale Tremont (Rogers) is awaken on the floor below. It is such a shame at an expensive looking hotel such as this one has such thin walls, ceilings and floors! Dale complains to the manager and walks up the to the floor above to complain. This is where Jerry and Dale meet, and for him, it is love at first sight.

Through a series of mishaps Dale comes to think Jerry is really the married Horace Hardwick, the husband of her friend Madge (Broderick). And as a results wants nothing to do with him. Madge and Jerry do not understand as Madge keeps insisting Dale become more friendly with Jerry, while Dale tells Madge everything "Horace" has said to her. Causing a riff between Madge and the real Horace.

We would see variations of the plot in other Fred and Ginger films such as "The Gay Divorcee" and "Shall We Dance?". It was their most common formula. Here though in "Top Hat" I feel it works best.

The great thing about "Top Hat" is there really is no social message. I suppose you can read into certain elements. Horton was clearly a homosexual and was always presented as being in a loveless marriage. He even has domestic quarrels with his servent, Bates (Eric Blore), which resemble the bickering between a husband and wife. You can also see more conservative morals as compared to today's standard. Dale would not think of being with a married man. How many films can we think of today which deal with affairs?

But "Top Hat" is largely pure Hollywood escapism at its best. It is sheer fluff. The pleasure of the film comes in Fred & Ginger's dancing. The Irving Berlin score, including "Top Hat, White Tie & Tails", "Isn't It A Lovely Day", and perhaps the most memorable number in the film and the one most associated with Fred & Ginger, "Cheek to Cheek". Their dancing in this number is easily one of the most iconic moments in film history. Up there is Gable saying "frankly my dear, I don't give a damn", Brando's "I coulda been a contender" speech and the closing moments of "Casablanca".

Remembering America was still in a depression when this film was released, 1935, "Top Hat" allows the viewer to forget the hardships of daily life as they watch characters stay at fancy hotels and take weekend trips to Italy, as if it is all part of the norm. This is what movies were capable of doing at one time. Make us forget our daily routine and show us, "how the other side" lived.

"Top Hat" was originally a stage play, written by the Hungarian team of Sandor Farago and Aladar Laszlo and Karoly Noti. None of whom unfortunately received screen credit. It was directed by Mark Sandrich. Probably the team's most trusted director. Sandrich would direct 5 Fred & Ginger films in total, including "The Gay Divorcee", "Follow the Fleet", "Carefree" and "Shall We Dance?". The film was nominated for 4 Oscars, "Best Picture" and "Best Song" being two of them. And was one of the highest grossing films of the year. Collecting more than 3 million dollars!

For sheer Hollywood pleasure, Fred & Ginger's dancing, a terrific Irving Berlin score, all done with style and sophistication "Top Hat" is one of the masterpieces of cinema.