Top Hat is the quintessential Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers movie.
Most movie buffs recognise the quote “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little” as the rather brusque evaluation of Fred Astaire’s initial screen test. It’s almost incomprehensible today how anyone in the business of judging talent at MGM could get it so wrong about Hollywood’s greatest dancer of all time. However, on reflection, what would this apparently ignorant talent judge have actually seen whilst watching that short strip of film? A slightly built man with a high forehead and overly large hands. A face that was too narrow and sporting enormous ears. Softly spoken and seemingly shy with absolutely no sex appeal. Mr Fred Astaire would certainly not have fit the 1930s Hollywood mould for a potential leading man. His extraordinary dancing ability was not immediately recognised. This was because the big spectacular, Busby Berkley-type movie productions – which were in vogue at the time – consisted mainly of a high-kicking all female chorus line. No single male danced on his own in those early Hollywood musicals. Fred Astaire’s ability to dance at speed with great dexterity and his incredible tap-dancing skills made him completely unique as a pioneer of dance. As Gene Kelly would state some years later “The history of dance on film began with Astaire”. Unfortunately for MGM they didn’t identify that, but RKO did, and signed Fred to a contract. There he met Ginger Rogers where their partnership would make movie history.
Top Hat (1935) marked the fourth teaming of Fred and Ginger and is considered by many to be their finest collaboration. The screwball comedy plot is essentially the same as their previous film The Gay Divorcee (1934). This basically involved an initial attraction and flirtation, a mistaken identity, a marital misunderstanding that results in rejection, all happily resolved by the final scene. But what was markedly different from the couple’s three previous outings, was that each of the peerless song and dance numbers in Top Hat were used to advance the plot. This integration was due to an entire score of new Irving Berlin songs specifically written for the film. Top Hat was the celebrated composer’s first Hollywood musical and by using the script, Berlin was able to consummately tailor the songs to perfectly fit the narrative of the film. The songs also sat comfortably within Astaire’s vocal range which allowed him to talk/sing and then dance them in his own inimitable style. This was especially highlighted with the number Top Hat, White Tie and Tails which remains one of Astaire’s finest solo performances.
The dance routines to accompany each song were choreographed by RKO’s dance director, Hermes Pan and an uncredited Fred Astaire. A sound stage was set aside and for five weeks from early morning to late afternoon Pan and Astaire worked out the five dance sequences which ranged from precision tapping to gliding fox-trots. There then followed a further month of rehearsals with Fred’s partner, Ginger. Astaire was the ultimate perfectionist and insisted on regular rehearsals each morning before filming began. Ginger would get through several pairs of shoes because the strenuous dancing caused her feet to bleed and her stained shoes kept being picked up by the camera.
But the end result was pure movie magic. Their first duet number Isn’t it a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain) is simplicity itself yet perfectly showcases the outstanding talent of both stars. Their second duet number is the unforgettable Cheek to Cheek. The sequence begins with Fred softly singing “Heaven…. I’m in heaven/And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak/…. When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.” As Astaire finishes his singing the couple now begin a grand sweeping dance of elegance, grace and sophistication. A truly classic movie moment which is probably the most intensely romantic of all the Astaire/Rogers musical numbers.
However, the Cheek to Cheek routine caused quite a stir onset because of Ginger’s insistence on wearing a feathered blue dress that she had designed herself. The problem was that it shed feathers when she danced in it. Fred became frustrated and angry by the feathers getting in his eyes, up his nose and sticking to his black tuxedo. He was also concerned on how the falling feathers would look against the film set’s shiny white floor. Tensions were high during the dance sequence but fortunately the rushes demonstrated that the flying feathers were virtually imperceptible onscreen.
Top Hat was also enhanced by the supporting cast who were all masters of comedic expressions and witty innuendos. The appropriately droll and sardonic Helen Broderick played Ginger’s best friend Madge. Scene stealer, Eric Blore (who would appear in five Astaire/Rogers films), played the equally droll butler, Bates. Foppish Erik Rhodes played Ginger’s would-be suitor. And Edward Everett Horton played Madge’s husband, Horace, whose character causes most of the plot’s misunderstandings and subsequent confusion. Horton was the master of facial double-takes, amply demonstrated in a scene where he continues a conversation until he realises what his companion had actually said a minute or so before. Also, in one of her last “unbilled” roles, one can spot Lucille Ball (I Love Lucy) portraying a flower shop clerk. All of their performances seemed to elevate the lightweight material into what could probably have been a good screwball comedy without the musical numbers. But it was Fred and Ginger’s flawless dancing that movie audiences came to see. The couple simply radiated elegance and charm as they glided across the classy chic ambience of the lavish Art Deco sets. In 1935, Depression-era moviegoers could experience, just for an hour or so, an enchanted and luxurious world of make believe, allowing them a brief escape from the harsh reality of their lives.
Top Hat became an immediate smash hit at the box-office earning more than $3.2million (which equates to $59 million today) in film rentals. It became the most profitable RKO motion picture of the 1930s. It was also nominated for four Academy Awards and secured a top position for both Astaire and Rogers placing them in fourth position of the list of top box-office stars where they remained for the next three years.
The enduring appeal of Astaire and Rogers lives on in popular culture through successive generations of moviegoers who watch and continue to enjoy the couple-centred musicals on television and DVDs. Furthermore, decades after its initial release Top Hat is still nostalgically referred to in many modern films today including The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985); The English Patient (1996); The Green Mile (1999) and La La Land (2016).