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Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) is an American dancer in London, a high-spirited, dapperman with a penchant for breaking into dance whenever the urge strikes him. Havingalready disrupted the stuffy men's club where he has gone to meet his friend Horace (Edward Everett Horton), Jerry next disturbs the sleep of fashion model Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) by tap dancing in the hotel room above hers. Dale storms up to complain, and Jerry falls for her. Over the course of a few days, during which the two dance under a park gazebo in a heavy downpour, she begins to fall for him too. But a letter she receives from her friend Madge (Helen Broderick) convinces her that Jerry (whose name she doesn't know) is really Horace, Madge's husband, so Dale takes off for Venice with her Italian dress designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes). Romantic complications ensue until Horace and Madge set everything right and unite the two young lovers.
Director: Mark Sandrich
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: Dwight Taylor, Allan Scott, based on the play by Alexander Farago andAladar Laszlo
Cinematography: David Abel
Editing: William Hamilton
Art Direction/Set Design: Van Nest Polglase, Carroll Clark, Thomas Little
Music: Irving Berlin
Choreography: Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire (uncredited)
Cast: Fred Astaire (Jerry Travers), Ginger Rogers (Dale Tremont), Edward EverettHorton (Horace Hardwick), Helen Broderick (Madge Hardwick), Erik Rhodes (AlbertoBeddini), Eric Blore (Bates).
Why TOP HAT is Essential
While America was in the throes of the Great Depression, Fred Astaire and GingerRogers were doing what they did best inside movie theatres, serving up a glittering,tuneful helping of witty, debonair, escapist fun. It was a formula for great commercialsuccess not just in those tough times but one that would carry their appeal to thisday and into movie history flitting from London to Venice, from New York to Paris;done up in Top Hat, white tie and tails and over-the-top eveninggowns; introducing one hit song after another by some of the country's finest composers;and, of course, dancing through impossibly elaborate and romantic Art Deco sets.
Those would be the fairly consistent hallmarks of the nine movies the duo made atRKO in the 30s (they teamed once more, in 1949, for The Barkleys of Broadwayat MGM). Critics and fans are divided about which of their films is their personalfavorite, but just about everyone agrees that Top Hat is certainlythe most characteristic, the most memorable, and the one that set the tone for theseries. In fact, it set the tone for an entire era of movie musicals. Not only didit fully capture and develop all the elements audiences would come to expect froman Astaire-Rogers picture, it firmly established them as one of the great movie dance teams of all time.
As with so many great Hollywood stories, however, this inspired pairing almost neverhappened. It was not a likely teaming in the first place. Rogers was an ambitiousDepression era actress who worked her way up from vaudeville with aspirations towardgreat dramatic parts, not frothy musicals. Astaire was one of Broadway's biggeststars in the 1920s, but when he made his debut in what was virtually a walk-on (orat least "dance-on") part in the Joan Crawford-Clark Gable vehicle DancingLady (1933), his physical features were criticized by some critics whosaid he was too skinny and slightly balding to be a leading man. New YorkTimes film critic Bosley Crowther said Astaire's face resembled a happyStan Laurel. MGM didn't know what to do with him after that brief appearance, soRKO picked him up for his next film Flying Down to Rio (1933).Many people think of that as an Astaire-Rogers picture, but the actual stars wereDolores del Rio and Gene Raymond (Rogers and Astaire were billed fourth and fifth,respectively, behind the now-forgotten Raul Roulien). Furthermore, Rogers wouldn'thave been paired with Astaire if Dorothy Jordan, who was cast in the role, hadn'tdropped out to marry producer Merian C. Cooper. So the two got together after all,and by the time of their pairing in Top Hat, their early imperfectionswere working in their favor. A quote attributed to Katharine Hepburn defined thebenefit of their teaming - he gave her class, and she gave him sex appeal.
For all the romance associated with their movies, the two actually never kissed until well into the series. Yet most audiences probably remember a more passionateon-screen connection between the two. That's because Astaire preferred to play outthe romance and sexuality in dance. In picture after picture, the elegant, smoothFred found himself smitten with the generally scornful Ginger and always managedto break down her resistance in at least one perfectly seductive dance number. TopHat has such a number ("Cheek to Cheek"), but the sexiest momentoccurs with the two in completely different rooms. He has just woken her up withloud tap dancing in the hotel room above hers. After a stormy confrontation, shereturns to her bed, he sprinkles sand on the floor and dances on it with soft, caressingmovements as she snuggles back to sleep.
Movies like Top Hat proved an instant hit, and exhibitors begandemanding more pictures featuring the duo. After Rio, producer Pandro Berman put together The Gay Divorcee (1934), a film version of Astaire's stage hit, The Gay Divorce, a title the censors found more offensive for some reason. Astaire initially objected to the choice of Rogers as his costar and gave in only when Berman offered him ten percent of the profits.
Stories like that probably gave rise to the rumors that Astaire and Rogers hatedeach other and rarely spoke off camera. Both stars spent years denying that impression,but it has persisted. Although they were never close friends and had their shareof difficulties (see "Behind the Camera"), the two seemed to respect eachother's talents and often shared moments of joy and satisfaction in working together.Any animosity between them generally arose from career concerns. Rogers had an increasingly busy career at RKO apart from Astaire, and often had less time to work out dance numbers the way her perfectionist co-star would have preferred. And she often complained about being seen merely as his dance partner. As for Astaire, he didn't object to Rogers so much as the idea of being part of a team. He had been coupled on stagewith his own sister Adele for many years, and as he explained to his agent, LelandHayward, "I'd rather not make any more pictures for Radio [RKO] if I have tobe teamed with one of those movie 'queens.' ...If I'm ever to get anywhere on thescreen it will be as one not as two."
Nevertheless, Astaire couldn't argue with the success the pairing brought to bothof them, and because he had a great deal of control over the pictures' quality (hedid most of the choreography, uncredited, with the assistance of Hermes Pan and insisted on shooting all the dance numbers full-on with a minimum of cuts), he wasable to come to terms, at least for a while, with being part of a team. TopHat was the first film written specifically for the pair, and the titlesong and costume would become Astaire's signature.
by Rob Nixon
Top Hat (1935)
During the week of September 20, 1935, all five Irving Berlin songs from TopHat ("Cheek to Cheek," "No Strings," "Isn't Thisa Lovely Day?" "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,"and "The Piccolino") were featured in the nation's top 15 song hits onthe popular radio show "Your Hit Parade," the first time a single composerhad that many songs on one show. "Cheek to Cheek" set a record for stayingin the top ten for eleven weeks.
Two Irving Berlin songs from Top Hat, "Cheek to Cheek"and "No Strings (I'm Fancy Free)," were used in Kenneth Branagh's musicalversion of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost (2000).
"Cheek to Cheek" (sung by Fred Astaire) was also featured in TheEnglish Patient (1996) and in The Green Mile (1999).
"Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" (as performed by Astaire)was featured in Billy Elliot (2000).
The title was spoofed in the comic short Top Flat (1935), with Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly.
Some of the film's dance numbers were spoofed in other releases around the same time. Near the beginning of the movie, Astaire awakens a furious Rogers by dancingloudly around the hotel room above hers. After she complains and returns to her bed, he lulls her to sleep with a soft-shoe on sand. Buster Keaton parodied thisin his comic short Grand Slam Opera (1936). He tap dances overfurniture, even the mantel, of his seedy rooming house accommodations waking thewoman in the room below. When she complains, he lulls her to sleep by dancing onthe spilled fillings of a fire bucket (minus a chewed-up cigar). The gazebo danceto "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)" is also referencedin Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937). Eleanor Powell and George Murphy dance on a covered bandwagon to escape a rainstorm, but at the end they leave their shelter and frolic in puddles.
by Rob Nixon
Top Hat (1935)
Lucille Ball appears in a bit part as the flower shop clerk in Top Hat.Then merely a contract player with RKO, Ball would later own the studio after hersuccess as a top TV star of the 1950s and 60s.
Italian officials were highly offended by Erik Rhodes' caricature of the dress designerBeddini, and for a time Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee (1934), in which Rhodes played a similar character, were banned in Italy.
Erik Rhodes' line about the motto of the House of Beddini "For the women the kiss, for the men the sword" was originally supposed to have been "Forthe men the sword, for the women the whip." It was changed after Hays Officecensors objected.
Eric Blore, Erik Rhodes and Edward Everett Horton were all featured in the documentaryfilm The Celluloid Closet (1995) as examples of the kind of "coded"homosexual who often appeared as comic supporting characters. Regarding Rhodes' character in Top Hat, the Hays Office warned RKO "to avoidany idea of his being 'pansy' in character." Oddly enough, the censors didn'traise objections to the relationship between Rogers and Rhodes in the film, whichwas rather freewheeling for its time. Reviewing the film in England, Graham Greenewas delighted British censors hadn't noticed the movie was "quite earnestlybawdy."
Horton made his stage debut in a drag role while a student at Columbia University.
Irving Berlin contributed songs to six Fred Astaire movies, more than any other composer. "He's a real inspiration for a writer. I'd never have written TopHat without him. He makes you feel secure," Berlin said of the manhe called his "closest and best friend." Although Astaire had danced toBerlin tunes as early as 1915, the two did not meet until they began work on TopHat.
Early drafts of the script called for additional songs by Irving Berlin, but theyweren't used in the final version. One of these songs, "Get Thee Behind Me Satan" (intended for Ginger Rogers) was used in the next Astaire-Rogers picture,Follow the Fleet (1936), but it was sung by Harriet Hilliard who married bandleader Ozzie Nelson and formed the radio and TV duo "Ozzie and Harriet".
According to scriptwriter Allan Scott, it was on the set of this film that Berlinserenaded the cast and crew with a song he was working on and which Scott describedas "wonderful" but unusable for the story. It turned out to be perhapsBerlin's best-loved and most popular song, "White Christmas."
In the 1930 Ziegfeld Follies stage show Smiles, Astaire performed a number called"Say, Young Man of Manhattan" (coincidentally also the title, without the "Say," of the first feature film in which Rogers had a substantialpart in 1930). The number featured Astaire dancing in a Top Hat in frontof a line of top-hatted men; he then shoots them down one by one with his cane. The show was a flop, but Astaire liked the routine so much, he wanted to try it in movies. It was revived for Irving Berlin's rhythmically inventive title tune in Top Hat.
The script originally called for Astaire to spirit Rogers away on a carriage rideto the zoo. Berlin heard a dialogue exchange between the two (Astaire: "Isn'tit a lovely day?" Rogers: "To be caught in the rain.") and decidedto base a song on the lyrics. The scene was then changed to a gazebo in Hyde Parkwith the two creating one of their most memorable routines during a downpour.
Berlin could not read or write music notation. He picked out tunes in his head ona specially built piano that transposed keys automatically, and he had to dependon others, such as the five music arrangers employed on this picture, to put hissongs down on paper.
According to Ginger Rogers, the song "The Piccolino" was originally intendedto be sung by Astaire, but she claimed that when he heard it he told producer PandroBerman, "I hate that song, give it to Ginger."
The dress Rogers wears in "The Piccolino" number was given to the SmithsonianInstitution in May 1984.
In her autobiography Ginger, My Story (Harper Collins, 1991),Rogers said her agent, Leland Hayward, arranged for her to record songs from TopHat for Decca records, which she agreed to with the stipulation she couldhave the recordings destroyed if she didn't like them. Although Decca begrudginglyagreed to honor her wishes when Rogers decided she didn't approve of the qualityof the final takes, she found out later the masters had been shipped to England and released there on another label.
Screenwriter Dwight Taylor was the son of occasional silent-film actress and stagestar Laurette Taylor (who originated the role of Amanda in Tennessee Williams' playThe Glass Menagerie) and playwright/producer Charles Taylor. Noel Coward is said to have based characters in his comic play Hay Fever on Laurette Taylor, her second husband, playwright J. Hartley Manners, and Dwight Taylor, who is depicted as the messy young dilettante Simon Bliss. Dwight had a long and fruitful career, following up this project with the script for the Astaire-Rogers film Follow the Fleet (1936) and thirty years later scripting episodes of the campTV series Batman.
Comic actress Helen Broderick started in vaudeville with her husband Lester Crawford.Their son was actor Broderick Crawford, Academy Award winner for Best Actor in All the King's Men (1949).
Choreographer Hermes Pan worked with Fred Astaire on 17 pictures altogether, including all ten of the films Astaire made with Ginger Rogers. Pandro Berman produced seven of the nine films Astaire and Rogers made at RKO. Mark Sandrich directed five Astaire-Rogers pictures which many feel are their best efforts: The Gay Divorcee(1934), Follow the Fleet (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), and Top Hat. He also helmed the Fred Astaire-Bing Crosby-Irving Berlin musical Holiday Inn (1942), which introduced the song "White Christmas." His promising career was cut short at the age of 44 by his death of a heart attack in 1945, nine days into the filming of another Astaire-Crosby-Berlin film, Blue Skies (1946). He was the father of noted TV director Jay Sandrich.
Famous Quotes from TOP HAT
Jerry (Fred Astaire): "I think I feel an attack coming on. There's only one thing that canstop me."
Dale (Ginger Rogers): "Why, you must tell me what it is!"
Jerry: "My nurses always put their arms around me."
Dale: "I dropped up from the room below where I've been trying to get some sleep!"
Jerry: "Oh, I'm sorry- I didn't realize I was disturbing you. You see, everyonce in a while I suddenly find myself...dancing."
Dale: "Oh. I suppose it's some kind of an affliction."
Compiled by Rob Nixon
Top Hat (1935)
If the story of Top Hat appears to bear a striking resemblanceto the first film in which Astaire and Rogers got star dual billing, TheGay Divorcee (1934), that's no accident or mere coincidence; in fact, the two are very similar, especially with both plots hinging on a case of mistakenidentity. Top Hat could almost be considered a remake one yearlater! The earlier film was such an instant hit, the studio wanted to stick withthe winning formula, refining the elements somewhat but tampering very little withthe basic premise. And Dwight Taylor, the writer brought in early on to develop the story of Top Hat, was the author of The Gay Divorce,the play on which the earlier film had been based. Even though Taylor was not involvedin the movie version of The Gay Divorce, his work on TopHat began to incorporate more and more elements from the film adaptationof his theater story, as well as familiar details from Astaire and Rogers' thirdfilm, Roberta (1935). Even the cast is almost identical; besidesthe two leads, Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore all return, withHelen Broderick stepping into virtually the same role Alice Brady had taken in TheGay Divorcee.
Irving Berlin was brought into the project before a script was completed and composeda few songs for the soundtrack. After a series of conferences with Astaire and directorMark Sandrich, it was Taylor's task to devise an original screenplay, working intoit the numbers Berlin had already written and suggesting ideas for further ones.The work Taylor and Allan Scott (who was brought in to polish the script later inthe process) did to integrate the musical numbers into the screenplay is evidentin the final shooting script. Setting up the rain-soaked "Isn't This a LovelyDay?" number, the script reads: "The thunder is really a tympani effectand the lightning is a glissando which starts the music."
Taylor's initial treatment contains many elements that made it directly onto thescreen, as when Astaire wakes Rogers with loud tap-dancing and a piece of plasterfalls from her ceiling as she's telephoning him. Taylor can be given much of thecredit for establishing the tone of the Astaire-Rogers pictures early in the series.(Top Hat was Allan Scott's first major assignment and the firstof many films he would make with Mark Sandrich.)
Not all the songs in Top Hat made it into the script as originallyenvisioned. "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" was supposedto be introduced toward the middle of the film, when Astaire is in Venice and acceptsan invitation to a fancy party on the Lido. It was eventually changed to a numberhe performs during his London stage show. The songs that were a perfect fit fromthe very beginning were "No Strings" (during which Fred's dancing wakesGinger) and "Cheek to Cheek," the big romantic duet between the stars.But in the first version of the script there was another even more romantic numberlater in the film called "You're the Cause," a song Berlin never published.That song was to have ended with the couple spending the night together, floatingon the water in a gondola. But the idea was dropped as being too suggestive to passthe Code's strict standards.
"The Piccolino" almost didn't make the final cut, either. Designed to be a big production number to introduce a new dance, as "The Carioca" and "The Continental" had been in earlier Astaire-Rogers movies, it wasactually written by Berlin to be about a song, not a dance, with the words "Cometo the Casino/And hear them play the Piccolino." When choreographer Hermes Pan complained about it, Berlin suggested changing the lyrics to "Come and do the Lido/It's very good for your libido." Needless to say, that change wasnever made.
When discussing writing credits for Top Hat, the names AladarLaszlo and Alexander Farago are often mentioned. The two were listed on credit certificates(although not on the main titles) because a Hungarian play they had written provideda key plot element in which Rogers, seeing Astaire with Horton's briefcase, mistakeshim for her best friend's husband. It is a mark of the film's charm that no one seems to mind much that this device is carried way beyond plausibility. We are expectedto believe that somehow, through courtship and a more-than-fleeting acquaintanceship,Rogers has never actually asked Astaire his name or heard it mentioned by anyoneelse.
by Rob Nixon
Top Hat (1935)
Probably the most famous off-camera Rogers-Astaire anecdote about Top Hatis the infamous story of "The Dress." Rumors of the dancing team's hostilitytoward each other probably stem from this incident. And as always, the truth dependson who's telling the story.
Ginger Rogers gives the most complete account, placing opposition to the costumewell before the feathers started flying. In her autobiography, Ginger: My Story (HarperCollins), she describes how she told costume designer Bernard Newman to make her a dress of pure blue, "like the blue you find inpaintings of Monet ...with myriads of ostrich feathers." When the completeddress was brought to the set, the actress wrote, director Mark Sandrich came to her dressing room with the suggestion that she wear the "much, much prettier"white dress she wore in The Gay Divorcee (1934). Rogers was certainthat this 'request' also reflected Fred Astaire's opinion. She immediately telephonedher mother, Lela Rogers, a tough, legendary stage mama, who stormed to the studioto her daughter's defense. Mother and daughter stood firm, and when Ginger threatenedto walk off the picture if she couldn't use the gown, Sandrich allowed her to rehearsein it, despite the fact that she would have to pretend to be wowed by a love songsung by her openly hostile co-star. Matters grew worse when, during the dance, feathersbegan to detach and fly all over the place, sticking to Astaire's skin and clothes.(Despite all-night work by the wardrobe department to reinforce each feather individually, you can still see errant feathers floating through still shots from the scene.) Rogers' book insisted only a few stray feathers came loose and that Sandrich andAstaire aloofly but eventually conceded the dress's beauty and appropriateness forthe scene. Four days after the shoot, she said, Astaire sent her a gold feather for her charm bracelet and a note that read "Dear feathers, I love ya! Fred."
Astaire told the story a little differently in his autobiography, Stepsin Time (Cooper Square Press). According to him, he thought the look ofthe dress was "very nice" until the first time they rehearsed the dancewith Ginger in it. "Feathers started to fly as if a chicken had been attackedby a coyote. ... They were floating around like millions of moths." Astairewrote that despite the hassle, the rushes revealed very little problem, everyonehad a good laugh about it, and it became a running joke among the cast and crew.He and Hermes Pan even made up joke lyrics to the tune of "Cheek to Cheek":"Feathers, I hate feathers/And I hate them so that I can hardly speak/And Inever find the happiness I seek/With those chicken feathers dancing cheek to cheek."
Despite downplaying his annoyance over the dress, Astaire was known to be a perfectionist and not averse to taking charge of certain aspects of the filming; he always lay down the law when he believed he was right. Although officially uncredited, it isuniversally acknowledged he was the principal choreographer for the entire film series. Hermes Pan was in charge of big production numbers, and when he and Astaireworked out the other dances, Pan played Ginger. When the routine was all set, theyshowed it to Rogers. Beyond the actual steps, however, Astaire also supervised everyother aspect of the development of a dance number from orchestration through finalshooting and editing. He was particularly adamant about how a number should be filmed.He disliked interrupting the flow of the dance with unusual camera angles, cuts to the face or feet of the dancer, or reaction shots of people watching. In thisfilm and throughout his career, he insisted on keeping the camera at eye level withfew changes in angles to focus attention on the dance rather than on camera technique.The dances were rarely broken up into segments that could be filmed in small bitsat a time; as a result, multiple takes became arduous affairs that often lasted well into the night. At times Rogers' shoes had to be changed frequently becausethey would become stained with blood.
Astaire could also be a stickler where scripts were concerned. He hated the initialdraft of Top Hat, complaining to producer Pandro Berman that there was no real story or plot. "As this book is supposed to have been writtenfor me with the intention of giving me a chance to do things that are more suitedto me I cannot see that my part embodies any of the necessary elements, exceptto dance, dance, dance." He also strongly objected to two moments in the scriptwhere Rogers was called upon to slap him in the face.
In an interview with Lee Server for the book Screenwriter: Words BecomePictures (Main Street Press, 1987), screenwriter Allan Scott said Astairewas "a helluva snob" who could be "perturbed very easily by the wrongreference." Scott said he would deliberately put in "wrong" linesfor Astaire to spot and carp about in order to distract him from lines the writersdid not want to lose.
Allan Scott was not any kinder in his assessment of Ginger Rogers' script-analysisabilities. He told Server he preferred to write for "stage actresses who tooktheir art seriously," such as Claudette Colbert or Greer Garson, and would rewrite to accommodate their ideas and concerns. "There was a time with Ginger,on the other hand, where it got to be a joke," Scott said. "She would say, 'There's something radically wrong.' And you had to go down and see what youcould do." What Scott usually found was that Rogers was having trouble witha line simply because she didn't get it, hadn't studied it, and she'd usually beenout "dancing and whatnot" the night before. Scott used the term "radicallywrong" to refer to Ginger for some time.
Astaire and Rogers frequently denied any major rivalry between them. But becauseso much of the praise and attention for the quality of the pictures has been focusedon him, she was quick to point out she had plenty of input into the dance routinesand was known as the "button finder," a show biz term for the person whocan come up with just the right last word or finishing touch on a scene or number.She also wasn't innocent of telling a deflating story or two about her co-star. As she relates in her autobiography, Sandrich wanted a little something extra tocap the film and told his two stars to break into a dance as they descended the stairs at the end. They grumbled, preferring never just to start dancing withoutrehearsal, but they tried it anyway. And as Fred pivoted Ginger around him, his Top Hat came off and nearly plunged into the "canal"built on the Venice set. Rogers said he yelled "no, no, no!" and kickedthe wall of the set hard - twice a reaction she thought uncharacteristically heated of him until she realized the cause of his anger. He had neglected to puthis toupee on under the hat.
The elegant dances and sharp, funny script weren't all that made Top Hata hit with audiences and a blueprint for future Fred and Ginger pictures. A lot of credit must also go to the spectacular Art Deco sets with their exaggerated perspectivesand gleaming, buffed dance floors. The BWS (Big White Set), as these concoctionsbecame known, was the work of RKO's much-praised art department, under the guidanceof Van Nest Polglase. For the Venice set, the studio decided to go farther out thanever, adjoining two large sound stages with floors sheathed in red bakelite, windinga canal through them, and spanning the whole thing with bridges. To make the whitesets look even brighter the water was dyed black. The interiors were equally incredible,with heavily satined hotel rooms the size of train stations. Although credited forthe work and nominated for an Oscar, Polglase did not personally design the TopHat set. In fact, he was probably credited with work on a lot of RKO filmssimply because of his title. He developed a serious drinking problem during his tenure at RKO and the studio finally replaced him in the early forties. Carroll Clark is probably the designer most responsible for the look of Top Hatand subsequent Astaire-Rogers films, but Van Nest Polglase has become the name associated with that gleaming, over-the-top Deco image for which RKO was known in the 1930s.
As director of Top Hat and four other films in the series, MarkSandrich was another important force behind the camera, although he is rarely discussedin the pantheon of American directors today. Screenwriter Allan Scott claimed Sandrich"revolutionized the musical," changing it from the backstage type favoredin the early 30s by Warner Brothers (in which numbers are performed only as partof a rehearsal or stage show) into a more integrated form, in which the songs arepart of the storyline. "If you look at the directors of musicals, his contributionto the form is very underestimated," Scott said. On the set, however, GingerRogers found him rather cold and cruel. She related the story of how he snapped at her on the set one day to "take some dancing, singing, and acting lessons."She said she finally had to have producer Pandro Berman intercede on her behalf,but that Sandrich never accepted or liked her.
by Rob Nixon
Top Hat (1935)
"Top Hat is a Thirties' romance of the Twenties, the sinsof the decade wiped clean by a flow of lyrical optimism, all innocence regained in the exhilaration of 'stepping out, my dear, to breathe an atmosphere that simplyreeks of class,' as the title song puts it. Top Hat is essentiallyan innocent film; its satire (of continental manners, of Venice as a kind of celestialpowder room) is semi-wish-fulfillment." Arlene Croce, The Fred Astaire andGinger Rogers Book (Galahad, 1972).
"Top Hat has a special quality which goes beyond the excellenceof the dancing, singing, and acting. It lies in the affinity of the screen personalitiesof Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Neither technical proficiency nor talent aloneis enough for a film performer to reach audiences successfully. In both Astaire and Rogers we find not only talent but also a distinctive screen presence. Togetherthey create a style and a mood which is still remembered and, many would say, unequaled." Julia Johnson, Magill's Survey of the Cinema (Salem Press, 1980).
"There has been so much justifiable enthusiasm for the genuine brilliance ofMr. Astaire's work that by comparison Miss Rogers has been neglected. ... She hasgrace and attractiveness and comedy skill, and just the proper amount of romanticgaiety. In addition, she is the best listener since George M. Cohan. She can evensimulate attention to the lines of a song when a new melody is being tossed at heramorously." Richard Watts, Jr., New York Herald Tribune,August 1935.
"When Top Hat is letting Mr. Astaire perform his incomparablemagic or teaming him with the increasingly dexterous Miss Rogers, it is providingthe most urbane fun that you will find anywhere on the screen. If the comedy itselfis a little on the thin side, it is sprightly enough to plug those inevitable gapsbetween the shimmeringly gay dances." Andre Sennwald, Variety,August 30, 1935.
"All the dances of Astaire and Rogers are fabulous, but perhaps the most memorableis the 'Cheek to Cheek' number. I love the way they will dance quickly only to slowdown so we catch them in some lovely position.... It is terrific how they changespeeds so often it is one of their trademarks; but they do it for audience appreciation,not to catch their breaths. The film ends with them spinning off the screen at fullspeed, and it is exhilarating." Danny Peary, Cult Movies(Dell, 1981).
"(Getting the top Broadway songwriters) in particular sets RKO's dance musicalapart from other musical cycles of the 1930s. ... RKO offered more Berlin and wenton to inveigle scores from [Jerome] Kern and Dorothy Fields and from the Gershwins.Moreover, RKO's musical arrangements are ingenious at matching sound to action." Ethan Mordden, The Hollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age ofthe Movies (Knopf, 1988).
"Astaire and Rogers were among the first to bring eloquent physical movementto moving pictures. To watch Top Hat is to know that they remainthe greatest." - Carrie Rickey, The A List: 100 Essential Films(Da Capo Press).
"This scintillating, zestful, and professional musical is one of the classicsof the Thirties and the best of the famous series that Astaire and Rogers made together."- Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Films (University of CaliforniaPress).
"Marvellous Astaire-Rogers musical, with a more or less realistic London supplantedby a totally artificial Venice, and show stopping numbers in a style which is nomore, separated by amusing plot complications lightly handled by a team of deft farceurs." - Halliwell's Film & Video Guide (HarperPerennial).
"Although the plot is run of the mill and displays the usual "boy meetsgirl" twists of most of the Astaire-Rogers films, the score is one of the bestthey ever worked with...The grace and symmetry of their bodies, set against the sleek black-and-white Art Deco set created by Carroll Clark (under the titular directionof Van Nest Polglase), were perfect expressions of the music." - Patricia KingHanson The International Dictionary of Films & Filmmakers(Perigee).
AWARDS & HONORS
Top Hat cost only $620,000 to produce but brought in more than$3 million at the box office. It was the second-highest grossing film of 1935 (afterMutiny on the Bounty) and was RKO studio's biggest moneymaker of the decade.
Top Hat won Oscar® nominations for Best Picture, Art Direction/InteriorDecoration, Choreography, and Best Song for "Cheek to Cheek."This is the only Astaire-Rogers film chosen as a "National Treasure" a list of 25 films picked every year for the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. The film was ranked number 17 in the top 30 films chosen by members of the BritishFilm Institute in 1983.
Compiled by Rob Nixon & Jeff Stafford
Top Hat (1935)
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers scored their biggest hit ever with Top Hat, the 1935 film which also helped cement Astaire's image as the height ofsophisticated elegance. Yet for all the film and his teaming with Rogersdid for him, Astaire tried to get out of both.
The two had become a screen team by accident. Astaire had been castopposite young actress Dorothy Jordan for a big dance number in the musicalFlying Down to Rio (1933). Then Jordan married the boss, RKO studiohead Merian C. Cooper, and could only make time for their honeymoon bydropping out of the picture. Rogers, who had been hanging around Hollywoodfor years without being offered a studio contract, stepped in. When theirnumber, "The Carioca," stole the film from nominal stars Dolores Del Rioand Gene Raymond, Rogers got a contract and a co-star who didn't wanther.
Not that Astaire had anything against her. They had even dated briefly inNew York when he had come in to help with the dances for the GeorgeGershwin musical Girl Crazy, in which Rogers starred. What hedidn't want was another teammate. He had won stardom on stage teamed withhis sister Adele. When she retired to marry a British lord, he had a hardtime striking out on his own. Now that he was beginning to score inpictures, the last thing he wanted was another teaming that could end uptypecasting him. RKO only got him to agree to co-star with Rogers in afilm version of his solo stage hit, The Gay Divorce, by offering hima percentage of the profits for what was now called The Gay Divorcee(1934, to appease the censors).
The team followed that film with another stage adaptation, Roberta(1935). Then the studio had a new vehicle written just for them. Theyeven incorporated Astaire's suggestions for dance routines with a storymodeled on The Gay Divorcee's (a mistaken identity plotwith Ginger thinking Fred's her best friend's husband). But when he got thescript, he cried foul. He wrote, "I am cast as a straight juvenile,and a rather cocky and arrogant one at that -- a sort of objectionableyoung man without charm or sympathy or humor...After I go to the Lido -- Idissolve into practically nothing..." To appease him, the studiobuilt up his part and gave him some better jokes, though they refused tocut two scenes in which Rogers was to slap his face when he got toofresh.
It also helped that they gave him a top-notch score by Irving Berlin. Thehighlight for Astaire was the "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" number, inwhich he dressed for a party then used his cane to "shoot" dancers dressedlike him. He had performed a similar number in the stage hit Smilesin 1930 and had suggested it for The Gay Divorcee. Director MarkSandrich thought it was a great idea, but wanted to showcase it better thanhe could have in the earlier film, so he put it on hold until they couldwrite a script around it.
As usual, RKO gave Astaire and Rogers a dazzling production. ComediansEdward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore returned from The GayDivorcee, joined by wisecracking Helen Broderick, who made her filmdebut as Horton's wife and Rogers' best friend. Sandrich had pioneered inthe development of pre-recording as a means of making musical numbers flowbetter on screen. He'd won an Oscar® for an early experiment in thatdirection, the short film "So This is Harris!" in 1934. He helped keep thedances moving with long takes that captured Astaire and Rogers' grace. Thesets were designed by RKO's resident wizard Van Nest Polglase, who haddeveloped what critics called "The Big White Set" for The GayDivorcee. To make the set in Venice, where Astaire and Rogers danced"Cheek to Cheek" and "The Piccolino," even whiter, he had the water in thecanals dyed black.
The one department Astaire had problems with was costuming. When Rogersshowed up to film "Cheek to Cheek," she was wearing a dress covered inostrich feathers that kept flying off and making Astaire sneeze. The stardemanded the dress be scrapped, to the consternation of Rogers and herdomineering stage mother, then stormed off the set. Studio insiders calledit "The Battle of the Feathers." Costume designer Bernard Newman stayed upall night sewing each feather down. Even with that, you can spot some ofthem flying off and sticking to Astaire's pants legs during the number.After surviving The Battle of the Feathers, Astaire and choreographerHermes Pan serenaded their leading lady with their own version of thesong:
Feathers -- I hate feathers --
And I hate them so that I can hardly speak.
And I never find the happiness I seek
With those chicken feathers dancing
Cheek to cheek.
Top Hat opened to rave reviews. All five of Irving Berlin's songs(three others were cut, with "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan" turning up thefollowing year in the team's Follow the Fleet, 1936) made it to radio'sYour Hit Parade the week of September 20, 1935, the first time asingle composer had had that many songs on one show. "Cheek to Cheek" wonan Oscar® nomination for Best Song and set a record by staying in thetop 10 for 11 weeks. The picture had cost just over $600,000 to make andreturned over $3 million in worldwide rentals, making it Astaire andRogers' top-grossing film and RKO's top grosser for the decade. For therest of his career, Astaire would be identified with the costume describedin another of the film's hit songs: "Top Hat, White Tie andTails."
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: Mark Sandrich
Screenplay: Dwight Taylor, Allan Scott
Based on the Play The Gay Divorce by Dwight Taylor and Cole Porter,from the play The Girl Who Dares by Alexander Farago and AladarLaszlo
Cinematography: David Abel, Vernon L. Walker
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Irving Berlin
Principal Cast: Fred Astaire (Jerry Travers), Ginger Rogers (Dale Tremont),Edward Everett Horton (Horace Hardwick), Helen Broderick (Madge Hardwick),Erik Rhodes (Alberto Beddini), Eric Blore (Bates, Butler), Lucille Ball(Flower Clerk), Dennis O'Keefe (Elevator Passenger).
BW-100m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Frank Miller