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Top Hat

Top Hat(1935)

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Top Hat is the top dog of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. The 1935 musical comedy classic assumes the leadoff spot in volume one of the five-disc Astaire and Rogers Collection, and rightfully so. Although it was the fourth RKO movie pairing the two stars, Roberta and Flying Down to Rio stuck the two in featured supporting roles and The Gay Divorcee contained only ten minutes of dancing. Top Hat builds on those previous roles, has the most signature songs of any A & R movie and solidifies the team that would make the duo's string of their best vehicles, from Top Hat to Shall We Dance, with Follow the Fleet and Swing Time in between.

Directed by Mark Sandrich, who helmed five of A & R's 10 movies together, Top Hat passes the great musical comedy test. As with Singin' in the Rain, A Hard Day's Night or Love Me Tonight, you could take out the musical production numbers and still have an outstanding comedy. Of course, this doesn't mean those numbers are extraneous to the plot. Far from it. Part of what makes Top Hat so good is the way those numbers usually advance plot and character development.

It's a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back tale, pulsed by its Irving Berlin songs. We learn of the carefree personality of stage star Jerry Travers (Astaire) in the first, "No Strings," which segues out of a late-night conversation he's having with his London show's producer, Horace (Edward Everett Horton), in the latter's ritzy hotel room. When Jerry breaks into dance, his spirited hoofing wakes up Dale Tremont (Rogers), the blonde beauty trying to sleep in the room below. She phones the manager, who calls Horace, and while he goes downstairs to see what the fuss is, she comes upstairs to stop the noise. When she confronts Jerry, two crucial elements of the plot click into place: Jerry is smitten and, because she's gone up to Horace's room and Jerry is the only man she encounters, she assumes he's Horace.

Jerry's pursuit of reluctant Dale - who's being "kept" by an English-challenged clothes designer (Erik Rhodes) for whom she models - plays out in the sly banter the would-be couple trades and in the songs and dances. He woos her during a thunderstorm in "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)"? and again in the elegant "Cheek to Cheek," with Dale's level of involvement in the dances reflecting her level of interest in Jerry at the moment. Dale's mixed reaction to Jerry stems from the fact that even though she's charmed by him (but doesn't let on), she knows Horace's wife, Madge (Helen Broderick), and won't hurt her. This mistaken-identity obstacle to Jerry and Dale's romance gets to be a bit much, requiring Dale and Horace to not meet for most of the movie, despite several near-misses, and causing Madge to introduce Jerry to Dale without stating his name because she suddenly discovers they've met before.

But it isn't so much what Top Hat does. It's how it does it. Jerry is instantly amusing and charming, Dale matches him in witty comebacks, Berlin's melodies are beyond catchy, Astaire shows what a great interpretive singer he is, the character actors are note-perfect (let's not forget A & R regular Eric Blore as Horace's petulant butler) and the dancing is stylish, athletic and exhilarating. (Look also for RKO bit player Lucille Ball in the scene in the hotel florist.) Top Hat was the first A & R movie in which Hermes Pan, who would become Astaire's collaborator for the rest of their lives, oversaw the choreography, with Astaire having creative control of the dances he participated in. Astaire in particular insisted dancers be shown full-figure, in long takes that stressed performance and not editing, and that's a big reason why his and Rogers' numbers are as vibrant today as they ever were. You can still feel their creative energy. In addition to the dances which further Jerry's pursuit of Dale, Top Hat also features the fun and iconic solo number "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," performed at the London opening of Jerry's show and putting Astaire in the formal outfit in which we forever collectively picture him.

The Top Hat DVD is one of Warner's pleasing packages simulating a night out at the movies, circa 1935 this time. There's a cartoon (Page Miss Glory, forgetful but for some art deco imagery) and a two-reeler (the decent Bob Hope short (Watch the Birdie), both Warner Bros. releases (would they have ever been paired with an RKO feature?). There's also the solid, 18-minute documentary short On Top: Inside the Success of Top Hat, which includes most of the A & R experts Warner rounded up for commentary on the boxed set's movies. One of those experts, Larry Billman, does the Top Hat commentary with Ava Astaire McKenzie, Fred's daughter. Billman, who comes off like an eager drama teacher, does most of the talking and knows his stuff. He also adds unintentional humor in his habit of occasionally saying "Thanks for telling us that!" after McKenzie chips in. It sounds as if he's being very sarcastic, but apparently not.

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by Paul Sherman