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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 of sophisticated elegance. Yet for all the film and his teaming with Rogers did for him, Astaire tried to get out of both.
The two had become a screen team by accident. Astaire had been cast opposite young actress Dorothy Jordan for a big dance number in the musical Flying Down to Rio (1933). Then Jordan married the boss, RKO studio head Merian C. Cooper, and could only make time for their honeymoon by dropping out of the picture. Rogers, who had been hanging around Hollywood for years without being offered a studio contract, stepped in. When their number, "The Carioca," stole the film from nominal stars Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond, Rogers got a contract and a co-star who didn't want her.
Not that Astaire had anything against her. They had even dated briefly in New York when he had come in to help with the dances for the George Gershwin musical Girl Crazy, in which Rogers starred. What he didn't want was another teammate. He had won stardom on stage teamed with his sister Adele. When she retired to marry a British lord, he had a hard time striking out on his own. Now that he was beginning to score in pictures, the last thing he wanted was another teaming that could end up typecasting him. RKO only got him to agree to co-star with Rogers in a film version of his solo stage hit, The Gay Divorce, by offering him a 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. They even incorporated Astaire's suggestions for dance routines with a story modeled on The Gay Divorcee's (a mistaken identity plot with Ginger thinking Fred's her best friend's husband). But when he got the script, he cried foul. He wrote, "I am cast as a straight juvenile, and a rather cocky and arrogant one at that -- a sort of objectionable young man without charm or sympathy or humor...After I go to the Lido -- I dissolve into practically nothing..." To appease him, the studio built up his part and gave him some better jokes, though they refused to cut two scenes in which Rogers was to slap his face when he got too fresh.
It also helped that they gave him a top-notch score by Irving Berlin. The highlight for Astaire was the "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" number, in which he dressed for a party then used his cane to "shoot" dancers dressed like him. He had performed a similar number in the stage hit Smiles in 1930 and had suggested it for The Gay Divorcee. Director Mark Sandrich thought it was a great idea, but wanted to showcase it better than he could have in the earlier film, so he put it on hold until they could write a script around it.
As usual, RKO gave Astaire and Rogers a dazzling production. Comedians Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore returned from The Gay Divorcee, joined by wisecracking Helen Broderick, who made her film debut as Horton's wife and Rogers' best friend. Sandrich had pioneered in the development of pre-recording as a means of making musical numbers flow better on screen. He'd won an Oscar® for an early experiment in that direction, the short film "So This is Harris!" in 1934. He helped keep the dances moving with long takes that captured Astaire and Rogers' grace. The sets were designed by RKO's resident wizard Van Nest Polglase, who had developed what critics called "The Big White Set" for The Gay Divorcee. To make the set in Venice, where Astaire and Rogers danced "Cheek to Cheek" and "The Piccolino," even whiter, he had the water in the canals dyed black.
The one department Astaire had problems with was costuming. When Rogers showed up to film "Cheek to Cheek," she was wearing a dress covered in ostrich feathers that kept flying off and making Astaire sneeze. The star demanded the dress be scrapped, to the consternation of Rogers and her domineering stage mother, then stormed off the set. Studio insiders called it "The Battle of the Feathers." Costume designer Bernard Newman stayed up all night sewing each feather down. Even with that, you can spot some of them flying off and sticking to Astaire's pants legs during the number. After surviving The Battle of the Feathers, Astaire and choreographer Hermes Pan serenaded their leading lady with their own version of the song:
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 the following year in the team's Follow the Fleet, 1936) made it to radio's Your Hit Parade the week of September 20, 1935, the first time a single composer had had that many songs on one show. "Cheek to Cheek" won an Oscar® nomination for Best Song and set a record by staying in the top 10 for 11 weeks. The picture had cost just over $600,000 to make and returned over $3 million in worldwide rentals, making it Astaire and Rogers' top-grossing film and RKO's top grosser for the decade. For the rest of his career, Astaire would be identified with the costume described in another of the film's hit songs: "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails."
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 Aladar Laszlo
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