Top Hat (1935): Top Astaire-Rogers Dance Musical

v2ta7d7o3ahWith over $3 million in box-office grosses, Top Hat was RKO’s biggest moneymaker of the decade. Top Hat defines Astaire as a modern American Dancer, even though the film is set in London. The story in fact begins in a stuffy club founded in 1864, the Thackeray, named for a Victorian novelist.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Top Hat
TopHatORGI.jpg

theatrical release poster

The fourth pairing of Astaire and Rogers and the first with a script written specifically for them, “Top Hat” is a quintessential musical of the team, defined by a rather silly plot, pleasant romance, dapper outfits, art deco sets, and wonderful songs and dance numbers.  

Set in London (i.e. Hollywood’s mythical Astaire and Rogers land), the movie’s tale of mistaken identity concerns American song-and-dance man Jerry Travers, who becomes enamored of Dale Tremont. The problems arise, however, when Dale comes to believe that Jerry is the husband (whom she’s never met) of her good friend Madge (Broderick) and yjis rebuff his advances.

Detailed plot

Astaire plays an American dancer, Jerry Travers, who goes to London to star in a show produced by the bumbling Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). While practicing a tap dance routine in his hotel bedroom, he awakens Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) on the floor below. She storms upstairs to complain, whereupon Jerry immediately falls in love with her, and then proceeds to pursue her all over London.

Dale mistakes Jerry for Horace, who is married to her friend Madge (Helen Broderick).  After the success of Jerry’s opening night in London, Jerry follows Dale to Venice, where she is visiting Madge and modeling gowns created by Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes), a dandy Italian fashion designer with penchant for malapropisms.

Jerry proposes to Dale, who, while still believing that Jerry is Horace, is disgusted that her friend’s husband could behave in such a manner and agrees instead to marry Alberto. Fortunately, Bates (Eric Blore), Horace’s meddling English valet, disguises himself as a priest and conducts the ceremony; Horace had sent Bates to keep tabs on Dale.

On a trip in a gondola, Jerry manages to convince Dale and they return to the hotel where the previous confusion is rapidly cleared up. The reconciled couple dance off into the Venetian sunset, to the tune of “The Piccolino.”

This effervescent musical was the perfect panacea for Depression-era audiences, with its whimsical reworking of 1934’s “The Gay Divorcee,” whose leading players are reunited here. The musical offers the most famous Astaire-Rogers duet, “Cheek to Cheek,” wherein the dancers shift from effortless gliding to dazzling exuberance.

Rogers was right about her refusing to change her famous feathered dress–it moves beautifully–even if it created problems for the crew.

Built around Irving Berlin’s hit score, “Top Hat” boasts Astaire’s brilliant solo number, “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.

The supporting cast is uniformly good, even though Rhodes’s Italian caricature so offended Italian officials and Mussolini himself that “Top Hat,” just like “Gay Divorcee,” in which Rhodes played a similar character, was banned in Italy.

DVD

The Astaire-Rogers DVD Collection Volume 1 consists of five terrific films. Four were produced at RKO (“Top Hat,” “Follow the Fleet,” “Swing Time,” and “Shall We Dance”) and one, their very last, “The Barkleys of Broadway,” was made at MGM in 1949.

Cast

Fred Astaire as Jerry Travers

Ginger Rogers as Dale Tremont

Edward Everett Horton as Horace Hardwick

Erik Rhodes as Alberto Beddini

Helen Broderick as Madge Hardwick

Eric Blore as Bates

 

Oscar Nominations and Awards for Astaire-Rogers musicals:

Top Hat

Nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, winning none

Swing Time

Two Oscar nominations, one award for the song, “The Way You Look Tonight,” music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Dorothy Fields. The other nomination is for Hermes Pan’s Dance Direction, a category that existed only for several years

Shall We Dance

One Oscar nomination, Song, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” music George Gershwin, lyrics Ira Gershwin.

Follow the Fleet

No Oscar nominations

The Barkleys of Broadway

One nomination, for Harry Stradling’s color cinematography

Credits:

Directed by Mark Sandrich
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay by Allan Scott, Dwight Taylor, Ben Holmes. Ralph Spence, Károly Nóti (uncredited), based on Scandal in Budapest, 1933 play by Sándor Faragó and A Girl Who Dares 1933 play by Aladar Laszlo
Music by Irving Berlin (songs); Max Steiner (score)
Cinematography David Abel
Edited by William Hamilton

Production and distribution company: RKO Radio Pictures

Release date: August 29, 1935 (Premiere, NYC), September 6, 1935 (US)

Running time: 101 minutes
Budget $609,000
Box office $3.2 million