The Hollywood musical has pretty much gone the way of the dinosaur. Contemporary audiences, corn-fed on laser battles with green aliens and tights-wearing, invulnerable superheroes who defy gravity, somehow find the idea of a film in which actors suddenly burst into song as “intolerably unrealistic!”
The genre’s peak era began at the dawn of sound, in the early 1930s, with Busby Berkeley at Warners and RKO’a teaming of the inimitable Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The musical climaxed twenty later, in the 1950s, with the “arty” musicals of Gene Kelly, Vincent Minelli, and Stanley Donan.
Mark Sandrich directed a number of the RKO musicals with Astaire and Rogers. His first teaming with them was The Gay Divorcee (1934). This was followed by Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Shall We Dance (1937) and Carefree (1938). Later, he directed Astaire with Bing Crosby in 1924’s Holiday Inn (which some people still confuse with the inferior 1954 remake, White Christmas) and Blue Skies (1946).
Top Hat is Astaire and Rogers’ at their near-peak, although some revisionists have argued that honor should actually go to the George Stevens directed Swing Time (1936). I’m not siding with the Swing Time revisionists, because I have my own revisionist opinion, which I will cover down a later RKO road. Top Hat is a near-perfect film from Hollywood’s near-perfect decade, and it’s pure class, catapulting Depression-era man from his oppressive environment for 101 minutes of “Heaven, I’m in heaven” (well almost 101 minutes. More on that later). Astaire’s choreography blends seamlessly with the musical direction of the great composer Max Steiner. Steiner fills the film to the brim with some of the best songs Irving Berlin ever wrote, from Astaire’s solo number “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” to the Astaire and Rogers signature song “Cheek to Cheek.”
I don’t care if you have an aversion to musicals, to black and white films, or to any film that was made before your entry into the world—if you’re not smiling ear to ear by “The End,” then you had better check your pulse.
Top Hat literally kicks off in the “smooth, classy and cool” mode. The opening shot is of Fred’s dancing feet, soon joined by Ginger’s feet, a swirl (that’s Bernard Newman’s gown), and then art deco credits over a bird’s eye view of a top hat: “Why ask for anything more? Why ask for anything more!”
It turns out there’s a fella under the credits’ top hat, and he escorts us into a gentleman’s lounge filled with a bunch of constipated “SILENCE!” types. There to mix up the atmosphere a bit is young and dapper Fred; as we can see from the pumps he’s wearing, he is indeed going to create a dancing ruckus. There’s a bit of rusting-newspaper business and the anal old guys huff and puff their ceegars and give Fred the evil eye. When Fred’s business manager Edward Everett Horton shows up (in his typical, perfectly cast role), failing to be quiet as Timothy Churchmouse, Fred is inspired to tap dance his way out of the gentleman’s lounge, upsetting the ceegars!
Back in their luxurious hotel suite, we discover that Ed is trying to get the reluctant Fred married off. In protest, Fred breaks into a song and dance so intense that it literally frees all the loose putty from the walls. Unfortunately, the ceiling putty on the room below also comes falling down–and that room is occupied by none other than lady Ginger. Underneath satin sheets and another Newman gown, Ginger reaches for the telephone to lodge a formal complaint. But you know those hotel types are a tad slow, so Ginger slips into anther silky Newman number and darts up the Grecian stairwell. Phooey on you naysayers who deny love at first sight. Fred is one suave cat. He smiles, lights up a cigarette, says to hell with anti-tobacco lobbyists, and charmingly woos Ginger by sprinkling of sand across the floor and scuff-shoeing her into la-la land, counting the sheep.
A bouquet of roses, a horse and buggy jaunt, a precursor to Singin’ in the Rain, and a side trip to Venice are all part of this classic boy gets girl, boy loses girl, and boy gets girl back quintessential Hollywood musical plot. For the boy loses girl section, mix in miscommunication and mistaken identity to stylishly spice up the brew.
The dance numbers are filmed in crisp black and white. Who the hell needs color? Who the hell needs reality? Astaire’s ability to make it all look easy is his genius, and you’ll be dazzled as he takes his cane and rat-a-tat-tats an entire chorus of top hats to a beautifully artificial set.
The climax arrives with “Cheek to Cheek” and Ginger out graces the graceful Fred in a PETA-unapproved Newman feather gown. There’s even a Busby Berkeley-like number after, but it really doesn’t fit into such an intimate setting. (It seems it was Busby who did Busby best).
Top Hat is probably about fifteen minutes too long, but that complaint amounts to carping. For me, when I depart this mortal coil, I’ll put in a request to St. Peter, or whoever is manning the pearly gates, and ask them to plant me forever in Top Hat, shorn the ten minutes of excess chatter.
This is the first in a series of the extinct Hollywood musical. Next week we will move to Berkeley himself on 42nd Street.