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The Big Idea
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 Top Hat

The Big Idea Behind TOP HAT

Friday August, 23 2019 at 08:00 PM
Sunday September, 1 2019 at 02:00 PM

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If the story of Top Hat appears to bear a striking resemblance to the first film in which Astaire and Rogers got star dual billing, The Gay 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 mistaken identity. Top Hat could almost be considered a remake ­ one year later! The earlier film was such an instant hit, the studio wanted to stick with the winning formula, refining the elements somewhat but tampering very little with the 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 involved in the movie version of The Gay Divorce, his work on Top Hat began to incorporate more and more elements from the film adaptation of his theater story, as well as familiar details from Astaire and Rogers' third film, Roberta (1935). Even the cast is almost identical; besides the two leads, Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore all return, with Helen Broderick stepping into virtually the same role Alice Brady had taken in The Gay Divorcee.

Irving Berlin was brought into the project before a script was completed and composed a few songs for the soundtrack. After a series of conferences with Astaire and director Mark Sandrich, it was Taylor's task to devise an original screenplay, working into it 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 in the process) did to integrate the musical numbers into the screenplay is evident in the final shooting script. Setting up the rain-soaked "Isn't This a Lovely Day?" number, the script reads: "The thunder is really a tympani effect and the lightning is a glissando which starts the music."

Taylor's initial treatment contains many elements that made it directly onto the screen, as when Astaire wakes Rogers with loud tap-dancing and a piece of plaster falls from her ceiling as she's telephoning him. Taylor can be given much of the credit for establishing the tone of the Astaire-Rogers pictures early in the series. (Top Hat was Allan Scott's first major assignment and the first of many films he would make with Mark Sandrich.)

Not all the songs in Top Hat made it into the script as originally envisioned. "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" was supposed to be introduced toward the middle of the film, when Astaire is in Venice and accepts an invitation to a fancy party on the Lido. It was eventually changed to a number he performs during his London stage show. The songs that were a perfect fit from the very beginning were "No Strings" (during which Fred's dancing wakes Ginger) 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 number later 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, floating on the water in a gondola. But the idea was dropped as being too suggestive to pass the 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 was actually written by Berlin to be about a song, not a dance, with the words "Come to 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 was never made.

When discussing writing credits for Top Hat, the names Aladar Laszlo 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 provided a key plot element in which Rogers, seeing Astaire with Horton's briefcase, mistakes him 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 expected to believe that somehow, through courtship and a more-than-fleeting acquaintanceship, Rogers has never actually asked Astaire his name or heard it mentioned by anyone else.

by Rob Nixon

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