Top Hat


1h 45m 1935
Top Hat

Brief Synopsis

A woman thinks the man who loves her is her best friend's husband.

Film Details

Genre
Comedy
Musical
Romantic Comedy
Classic Hollywood
Release Date
Sep 6, 1935
Premiere Information
New York opening: week of 29 Aug 1935
Production Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the play The Girl Who Dared (or A Scandal in Budapest ) by Alexander Faragó and Aladar Laszlo (1911).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 45m
Sound
Mono (RCA Sound System)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
11 reels

Synopsis

While staying in a London hotel with his English theatrical backer, Horace Hardwick, American musical revue star Jerry Travers wakes up Dale Tremont, Horace's downstairs neighbor, with his compulsive tap dancing. Upon seeing the furious Dale, Jerry falls instantly in love and, in spite of her snubbing, daily sends flowers to her room. Then, while posing as a hansom cab driver, Jerry delivers Dale to her riding lesson in the park and romances her in a pavilion during a rain storm. Dale's loving bliss is shattered, however, when she incorrectly deduces that Jerry, whose name she has never heard, is actually the husband of her matchmaking friend, Madge Hardwick. In spite of her desire to return to America, Dale is convinced by Alberto Beddini, her adoring, ambitious Italian dressmaker, to accept Madge's invitation to join her in Italy. Before leaving, Dale encounters Jerry in the hotel and slaps him without explanation. Worried that the slap will cause a scandal, the hotel management admonishes a confused Horace, who in turn blames the incident on Bates, his quarrelsome valet. After Horace orders Bates to follow Dale, he receives a telegram from Madge saying that Dale is on her way to the Lido in Venice. Overjoyed, Jerry rushes through his London revue and flies to Venice with Horace, unaware that Dale has confessed to Madge in their hotel room that her husband has made illicit advances toward her. In Italy, Jerry continues to be baffled by Dale's emotional vacilations, while Horace is equally baffled by Alberto's threats of bodily violence. At the hotel nightclub, Dale dances with Jerry at the urging of Madge, who is unaware that Dale has mistaken Jerry, the man that she is trying to get Dale to marry, for Horace. When Jerry then proposes to Dale, she slaps him again, while Madge, who had taken Dale's initial revelations about Horace with good humor, punches her husband in the eye. Depressed and heartsick, Dale succumbs to the affections of Alberto and accepts his marriage proposal. The next day, Jerry learns that Dale has married and, by tap dancing as he did in London, connives to see her alone. Although Dale finally learns Jerry's true identity while cruising with him in a gondola, the revenge-hungry Alberto pursues the couple across the canals. Eventually Bates reveals that, while following Dale and Alberto, he had impersonated a clergyman and performed their marriage ceremony. Legally single, Dale now accepts Jerry's proposal and, back in the nightclub, dances happily with him across the floor.

Film Details

Genre
Comedy
Musical
Romantic Comedy
Classic Hollywood
Release Date
Sep 6, 1935
Premiere Information
New York opening: week of 29 Aug 1935
Production Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the play The Girl Who Dared (or A Scandal in Budapest ) by Alexander Faragó and Aladar Laszlo (1911).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 45m
Sound
Mono (RCA Sound System)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
11 reels

Award Nominations

Best Art Direction

1935

Best Dance Direction

1936

Best Picture

1935

Best Song

1935

Articles

Top Hat: The Essentials


SYNOPSIS

Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) is an American dancer in London, a high-spirited, dapper man with a penchant for breaking into dance whenever the urge strikes him. Having already 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 and Aladar 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 Everett Horton (Horace Hardwick), Helen Broderick (Madge Hardwick), Erik Rhodes (Alberto Beddini), Eric Blore (Bates).
BW-101m.

Why TOP HAT is Essential

While America was in the throes of the Great Depression, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers 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 commercial success not just in those tough times but one that would carry their appeal to this day 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 evening gowns; 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 at RKO in the 30s (they teamed once more, in 1949, for The Barkleys of Broadway at MGM). Critics and fans are divided about which of their films is their personal favorite, but just about everyone agrees that Top Hat is certainly the most characteristic, the most memorable, and the one that set the tone for the series. In fact, it set the tone for an entire era of movie musicals. Not only did it fully capture and develop all the elements audiences would come to expect from an 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 never happened. It was not a likely teaming in the first place. Rogers was an ambitious Depression era actress who worked her way up from vaudeville with aspirations toward great dramatic parts, not frothy musicals. Astaire was one of Broadway's biggest stars in the 1920s, but when he made his debut in what was virtually a walk-on (or at least "dance-on") part in the Joan Crawford-Clark Gable vehicle Dancing Lady (1933), his physical features were criticized by some critics who said he was too skinny and slightly balding to be a leading man. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther said Astaire's face resembled a happy Stan Laurel. MGM didn't know what to do with him after that brief appearance, so RKO 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 were Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond (Rogers and Astaire were billed fourth and fifth, respectively, behind the now-forgotten Raul Roulien). Furthermore, Rogers wouldn't have been paired with Astaire if Dorothy Jordan, who was cast in the role, hadn't dropped 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 imperfections were working in their favor. A quote attributed to Katharine Hepburn defined the benefit 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 passionate on-screen connection between the two. That's because Astaire preferred to play out the romance and sexuality in dance. In picture after picture, the elegant, smooth Fred found himself smitten with the generally scornful Ginger and always managed to break down her resistance in at least one perfectly seductive dance number. Top Hat has such a number ("Cheek to Cheek"), but the sexiest moment occurs with the two in completely different rooms. He has just woken her up with loud tap dancing in the hotel room above hers. After a stormy confrontation, she returns to her bed, he sprinkles sand on the floor and dances on it with soft, caressing movements as she snuggles back to sleep.

Movies like Top Hat proved an instant hit, and exhibitors began demanding 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 hated each 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 share of difficulties (see "Behind the Camera"), the two seemed to respect each other'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 stage with his own sister Adele for many years, and as he explained to his agent, Leland Hayward, "I'd rather not make any more pictures for Radio [RKO] if I have to be teamed with one of those movie 'queens.' ...If I'm ever to get anywhere on the screen it will be as one not as two."

Nevertheless, Astaire couldn't argue with the success the pairing brought to both of them, and because he had a great deal of control over the pictures' quality (he did 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 was able to come to terms, at least for a while, with being part of a team. Top Hat was the first film written specifically for the pair, and the title song ­ and costume ­ would become Astaire's signature.

by Rob Nixon
Top Hat: The Essentials

Top Hat: The Essentials

SYNOPSIS Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) is an American dancer in London, a high-spirited, dapper man with a penchant for breaking into dance whenever the urge strikes him. Having already 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 and Aladar 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 Everett Horton (Horace Hardwick), Helen Broderick (Madge Hardwick), Erik Rhodes (Alberto Beddini), Eric Blore (Bates). BW-101m. Why TOP HAT is Essential While America was in the throes of the Great Depression, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers 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 commercial success not just in those tough times but one that would carry their appeal to this day 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 evening gowns; 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 at RKO in the 30s (they teamed once more, in 1949, for The Barkleys of Broadway at MGM). Critics and fans are divided about which of their films is their personal favorite, but just about everyone agrees that Top Hat is certainly the most characteristic, the most memorable, and the one that set the tone for the series. In fact, it set the tone for an entire era of movie musicals. Not only did it fully capture and develop all the elements audiences would come to expect from an 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 never happened. It was not a likely teaming in the first place. Rogers was an ambitious Depression era actress who worked her way up from vaudeville with aspirations toward great dramatic parts, not frothy musicals. Astaire was one of Broadway's biggest stars in the 1920s, but when he made his debut in what was virtually a walk-on (or at least "dance-on") part in the Joan Crawford-Clark Gable vehicle Dancing Lady (1933), his physical features were criticized by some critics who said he was too skinny and slightly balding to be a leading man. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther said Astaire's face resembled a happy Stan Laurel. MGM didn't know what to do with him after that brief appearance, so RKO 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 were Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond (Rogers and Astaire were billed fourth and fifth, respectively, behind the now-forgotten Raul Roulien). Furthermore, Rogers wouldn't have been paired with Astaire if Dorothy Jordan, who was cast in the role, hadn't dropped 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 imperfections were working in their favor. A quote attributed to Katharine Hepburn defined the benefit 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 passionate on-screen connection between the two. That's because Astaire preferred to play out the romance and sexuality in dance. In picture after picture, the elegant, smooth Fred found himself smitten with the generally scornful Ginger and always managed to break down her resistance in at least one perfectly seductive dance number. Top Hat has such a number ("Cheek to Cheek"), but the sexiest moment occurs with the two in completely different rooms. He has just woken her up with loud tap dancing in the hotel room above hers. After a stormy confrontation, she returns to her bed, he sprinkles sand on the floor and dances on it with soft, caressing movements as she snuggles back to sleep. Movies like Top Hat proved an instant hit, and exhibitors began demanding 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 hated each 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 share of difficulties (see "Behind the Camera"), the two seemed to respect each other'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 stage with his own sister Adele for many years, and as he explained to his agent, Leland Hayward, "I'd rather not make any more pictures for Radio [RKO] if I have to be teamed with one of those movie 'queens.' ...If I'm ever to get anywhere on the screen it will be as one not as two." Nevertheless, Astaire couldn't argue with the success the pairing brought to both of them, and because he had a great deal of control over the pictures' quality (he did 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 was able to come to terms, at least for a while, with being part of a team. Top Hat was the first film written specifically for the pair, and the title song ­ and costume ­ would become Astaire's signature. by Rob Nixon

Pop Culture 101: TOP HAT


During the week of September 20, 1935, all five Irving Berlin songs from Top Hat ("Cheek to Cheek," "No Strings," "Isn't This a Lovely Day?" "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," and "The Piccolino") were featured in the nation's top 15 song hits on the popular radio show "Your Hit Parade," the first time a single composer had that many songs on one show. "Cheek to Cheek" set a record for staying in 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 musical version of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost (2000).

"Cheek to Cheek" (sung by Fred Astaire) was also featured in The English 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 dancing loudly 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 this in his comic short Grand Slam Opera (1936). He tap dances over furniture, even the mantel, of his seedy rooming house accommodations waking the woman in the room below. When she complains, he lulls her to sleep by dancing on the spilled fillings of a fire bucket (minus a chewed-up cigar). The gazebo dance to "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)" is also referenced in 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

Pop Culture 101: TOP HAT

During the week of September 20, 1935, all five Irving Berlin songs from Top Hat ("Cheek to Cheek," "No Strings," "Isn't This a Lovely Day?" "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," and "The Piccolino") were featured in the nation's top 15 song hits on the popular radio show "Your Hit Parade," the first time a single composer had that many songs on one show. "Cheek to Cheek" set a record for staying in 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 musical version of Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost (2000). "Cheek to Cheek" (sung by Fred Astaire) was also featured in The English 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 dancing loudly 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 this in his comic short Grand Slam Opera (1936). He tap dances over furniture, even the mantel, of his seedy rooming house accommodations waking the woman in the room below. When she complains, he lulls her to sleep by dancing on the spilled fillings of a fire bucket (minus a chewed-up cigar). The gazebo dance to "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)" is also referenced in 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

Trivia & Fun Facts on TOP HAT


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 her success as a top TV star of the 1950s and 60s.

Italian officials were highly offended by Erik Rhodes' caricature of the dress designer Beddini, 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 "For the men the sword, for the women the whip." It was changed after Hays Office censors objected.

Eric Blore, Erik Rhodes and Edward Everett Horton were all featured in the documentary film 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 avoid any idea of his being 'pansy' in character." Oddly enough, the censors didn't raise objections to the relationship between Rogers and Rhodes in the film, which was rather freewheeling for its time. Reviewing the film in England, Graham Greene was delighted British censors hadn't noticed the movie was "quite earnestly bawdy."

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 Top Hat without him. He makes you feel secure," Berlin said of the man he called his "closest and best friend." Although Astaire had danced to Berlin tunes as early as 1915, the two did not meet until they began work on Top Hat.

Early drafts of the script called for additional songs by Irving Berlin, but they weren'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 Berlin serenaded the cast and crew with a song he was working on and which Scott described as "wonderful" but unusable for the story. It turned out to be perhaps Berlin'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 substantial part in 1930). The number featured Astaire dancing in a Top Hat in front of 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 ride to the zoo. Berlin heard a dialogue exchange between the two (Astaire: "Isn't it a lovely day?" Rogers: "To be caught in the rain.") and decided to base a song on the lyrics. The scene was then changed to a gazebo in Hyde Park with 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 on a specially built piano that transposed keys automatically, and he had to depend on others, such as the five music arrangers employed on this picture, to put his songs down on paper.

According to Ginger Rogers, the song "The Piccolino" was originally intended to be sung by Astaire, but she claimed that when he heard it he told producer Pandro Berman, "I hate that song, give it to Ginger."

The dress Rogers wears in "The Piccolino" number was given to the Smithsonian Institution 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 Top Hat for Decca records, which she agreed to with the stipulation she could have the recordings destroyed if she didn't like them. Although Decca begrudgingly agreed to honor her wishes when Rogers decided she didn't approve of the quality of 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 stage star Laurette Taylor (who originated the role of Amanda in Tennessee Williams' play The 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 camp TV 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 can stop 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, every once in a while I suddenly find myself...dancing."
Dale: "Oh. I suppose it's some kind of an affliction."

Compiled by Rob Nixon

Trivia & Fun Facts on TOP HAT

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 her success as a top TV star of the 1950s and 60s. Italian officials were highly offended by Erik Rhodes' caricature of the dress designer Beddini, 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 "For the men the sword, for the women the whip." It was changed after Hays Office censors objected. Eric Blore, Erik Rhodes and Edward Everett Horton were all featured in the documentary film 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 avoid any idea of his being 'pansy' in character." Oddly enough, the censors didn't raise objections to the relationship between Rogers and Rhodes in the film, which was rather freewheeling for its time. Reviewing the film in England, Graham Greene was delighted British censors hadn't noticed the movie was "quite earnestly bawdy." 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 Top Hat without him. He makes you feel secure," Berlin said of the man he called his "closest and best friend." Although Astaire had danced to Berlin tunes as early as 1915, the two did not meet until they began work on Top Hat. Early drafts of the script called for additional songs by Irving Berlin, but they weren'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 Berlin serenaded the cast and crew with a song he was working on and which Scott described as "wonderful" but unusable for the story. It turned out to be perhaps Berlin'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 substantial part in 1930). The number featured Astaire dancing in a Top Hat in front of 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 ride to the zoo. Berlin heard a dialogue exchange between the two (Astaire: "Isn't it a lovely day?" Rogers: "To be caught in the rain.") and decided to base a song on the lyrics. The scene was then changed to a gazebo in Hyde Park with 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 on a specially built piano that transposed keys automatically, and he had to depend on others, such as the five music arrangers employed on this picture, to put his songs down on paper. According to Ginger Rogers, the song "The Piccolino" was originally intended to be sung by Astaire, but she claimed that when he heard it he told producer Pandro Berman, "I hate that song, give it to Ginger." The dress Rogers wears in "The Piccolino" number was given to the Smithsonian Institution 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 Top Hat for Decca records, which she agreed to with the stipulation she could have the recordings destroyed if she didn't like them. Although Decca begrudgingly agreed to honor her wishes when Rogers decided she didn't approve of the quality of 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 stage star Laurette Taylor (who originated the role of Amanda in Tennessee Williams' play The 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 camp TV 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 can stop 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, every once in a while I suddenly find myself...dancing." Dale: "Oh. I suppose it's some kind of an affliction." Compiled by Rob Nixon

The Big Idea


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

The Big Idea

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

Behind the Camera


Probably the most famous off-camera Rogers-Astaire anecdote about Top Hat is the infamous story of "The Dress." Rumors of the dancing team's hostility toward each other probably stem from this incident. And as always, the truth depends on who's telling the story.

Ginger Rogers gives the most complete account, placing opposition to the costume well 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 in paintings of Monet ...with myriads of ostrich feathers." When the completed dress 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 certain that this 'request' also reflected Fred Astaire's opinion. She immediately telephoned her mother, Lela Rogers, a tough, legendary stage mama, who stormed to the studio to her daughter's defense. Mother and daughter stood firm, and when Ginger threatened to walk off the picture if she couldn't use the gown, Sandrich allowed her to rehearse in it, despite the fact that she would have to pretend to be wowed by a love song sung by her openly hostile co-star. Matters grew worse when, during the dance, feathers began 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 and Astaire aloofly but eventually conceded the dress's beauty and appropriateness for the 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, Steps in Time (Cooper Square Press). According to him, he thought the look of the dress was "very nice" until the first time they rehearsed the dance with Ginger in it. "Feathers started to fly as if a chicken had been attacked by a coyote. ... They were floating around like millions of moths." Astaire wrote that despite the hassle, the rushes revealed very little problem, everyone had 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 I never 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 is universally acknowledged he was the principal choreographer for the entire film series. Hermes Pan was in charge of big production numbers, and when he and Astaire worked out the other dances, Pan played Ginger. When the routine was all set, they showed it to Rogers. Beyond the actual steps, however, Astaire also supervised every other aspect of the development of a dance number from orchestration through final shooting 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 this film and throughout his career, he insisted on keeping the camera at eye level with few 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 bits at 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 because they would become stained with blood.

Astaire could also be a stickler where scripts were concerned. He hated the initial draft of Top Hat, complaining to producer Pandro Berman that there was no real story or plot. "As this book is supposed to have been written for me with the intention of giving me a chance to do things that are more suited to me ­ I cannot see that my part embodies any of the necessary elements, except to dance, dance, dance." He also strongly objected to two moments in the script where Rogers was called upon to slap him in the face.

In an interview with Lee Server for the book Screenwriter: Words Become Pictures (Main Street Press, 1987), screenwriter Allan Scott said Astaire was "a helluva snob" who could be "perturbed very easily by the wrong reference." Scott said he would deliberately put in "wrong" lines for Astaire to spot and carp about in order to distract him from lines the writers did not want to lose.

Allan Scott was not any kinder in his assessment of Ginger Rogers' script-analysis abilities. He told Server he preferred to write for "stage actresses who took their 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 you could do." What Scott usually found was that Rogers was having trouble with a line simply because she didn't get it, hadn't studied it, and she'd usually been out "dancing and whatnot" the night before. Scott used the term "radically wrong" to refer to Ginger for some time.

Astaire and Rogers frequently denied any major rivalry between them. But because so much of the praise and attention for the quality of the pictures has been focused on him, she was quick to point out she had plenty of input into the dance routines and was known as the "button finder," a show biz term for the person who can 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 to cap 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 without rehearsal, 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 kicked the 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 put his toupee on under the hat.

The elegant dances and sharp, funny script weren't all that made Top Hat a 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 perspectives and gleaming, buffed dance floors. The BWS (Big White Set), as these concoctions became known, was the work of RKO's much-praised art department, under the guidance of Van Nest Polglase. For the Venice set, the studio decided to go farther out than ever, adjoining two large sound stages with floors sheathed in red bakelite, winding a canal through them, and spanning the whole thing with bridges. To make the white sets 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 for the work and nominated for an Oscar, Polglase did not personally design the Top Hat set. In fact, he was probably credited with work on a lot of RKO films simply 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 Hat and 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, Mark Sandrich was another important force behind the camera, although he is rarely discussed in the pantheon of American directors today. Screenwriter Allan Scott claimed Sandrich "revolutionized the musical," changing it from the backstage type favored in the early 30s by Warner Brothers (in which numbers are performed only as part of a rehearsal or stage show) into a more integrated form, in which the songs are part of the storyline. "If you look at the directors of musicals, his contribution to the form is very underestimated," Scott said. On the set, however, Ginger Rogers 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

Behind the Camera

Probably the most famous off-camera Rogers-Astaire anecdote about Top Hat is the infamous story of "The Dress." Rumors of the dancing team's hostility toward each other probably stem from this incident. And as always, the truth depends on who's telling the story. Ginger Rogers gives the most complete account, placing opposition to the costume well 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 in paintings of Monet ...with myriads of ostrich feathers." When the completed dress 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 certain that this 'request' also reflected Fred Astaire's opinion. She immediately telephoned her mother, Lela Rogers, a tough, legendary stage mama, who stormed to the studio to her daughter's defense. Mother and daughter stood firm, and when Ginger threatened to walk off the picture if she couldn't use the gown, Sandrich allowed her to rehearse in it, despite the fact that she would have to pretend to be wowed by a love song sung by her openly hostile co-star. Matters grew worse when, during the dance, feathers began 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 and Astaire aloofly but eventually conceded the dress's beauty and appropriateness for the 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, Steps in Time (Cooper Square Press). According to him, he thought the look of the dress was "very nice" until the first time they rehearsed the dance with Ginger in it. "Feathers started to fly as if a chicken had been attacked by a coyote. ... They were floating around like millions of moths." Astaire wrote that despite the hassle, the rushes revealed very little problem, everyone had 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 I never 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 is universally acknowledged he was the principal choreographer for the entire film series. Hermes Pan was in charge of big production numbers, and when he and Astaire worked out the other dances, Pan played Ginger. When the routine was all set, they showed it to Rogers. Beyond the actual steps, however, Astaire also supervised every other aspect of the development of a dance number from orchestration through final shooting 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 this film and throughout his career, he insisted on keeping the camera at eye level with few 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 bits at 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 because they would become stained with blood. Astaire could also be a stickler where scripts were concerned. He hated the initial draft of Top Hat, complaining to producer Pandro Berman that there was no real story or plot. "As this book is supposed to have been written for me with the intention of giving me a chance to do things that are more suited to me ­ I cannot see that my part embodies any of the necessary elements, except to dance, dance, dance." He also strongly objected to two moments in the script where Rogers was called upon to slap him in the face. In an interview with Lee Server for the book Screenwriter: Words Become Pictures (Main Street Press, 1987), screenwriter Allan Scott said Astaire was "a helluva snob" who could be "perturbed very easily by the wrong reference." Scott said he would deliberately put in "wrong" lines for Astaire to spot and carp about in order to distract him from lines the writers did not want to lose. Allan Scott was not any kinder in his assessment of Ginger Rogers' script-analysis abilities. He told Server he preferred to write for "stage actresses who took their 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 you could do." What Scott usually found was that Rogers was having trouble with a line simply because she didn't get it, hadn't studied it, and she'd usually been out "dancing and whatnot" the night before. Scott used the term "radically wrong" to refer to Ginger for some time. Astaire and Rogers frequently denied any major rivalry between them. But because so much of the praise and attention for the quality of the pictures has been focused on him, she was quick to point out she had plenty of input into the dance routines and was known as the "button finder," a show biz term for the person who can 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 to cap 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 without rehearsal, 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 kicked the 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 put his toupee on under the hat. The elegant dances and sharp, funny script weren't all that made Top Hat a 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 perspectives and gleaming, buffed dance floors. The BWS (Big White Set), as these concoctions became known, was the work of RKO's much-praised art department, under the guidance of Van Nest Polglase. For the Venice set, the studio decided to go farther out than ever, adjoining two large sound stages with floors sheathed in red bakelite, winding a canal through them, and spanning the whole thing with bridges. To make the white sets 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 for the work and nominated for an Oscar, Polglase did not personally design the Top Hat set. In fact, he was probably credited with work on a lot of RKO films simply 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 Hat and 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, Mark Sandrich was another important force behind the camera, although he is rarely discussed in the pantheon of American directors today. Screenwriter Allan Scott claimed Sandrich "revolutionized the musical," changing it from the backstage type favored in the early 30s by Warner Brothers (in which numbers are performed only as part of a rehearsal or stage show) into a more integrated form, in which the songs are part of the storyline. "If you look at the directors of musicals, his contribution to the form is very underestimated," Scott said. On the set, however, Ginger Rogers 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

The Critics Corner: TOP HAT


"Top Hat is a Thirties' romance of the Twenties, the sins of 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 simply reeks of class,' as the title song puts it. Top Hat is essentially an innocent film; its satire (of continental manners, of Venice as a kind of celestial powder room) is semi-wish-fulfillment." ­ Arlene Croce, The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book (Galahad, 1972).

"Top Hat has a special quality which goes beyond the excellence of the dancing, singing, and acting. It lies in the affinity of the screen personalities of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Neither technical proficiency nor talent alone is 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. Together they 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 of Mr. Astaire's work that by comparison Miss Rogers has been neglected. ... She has grace and attractiveness and comedy skill, and just the proper amount of romantic gaiety. In addition, she is the best listener since George M. Cohan. She can even simulate attention to the lines of a song when a new melody is being tossed at her amorously." ­ Richard Watts, Jr., New York Herald Tribune, August 1935.

"When Top Hat is letting Mr. Astaire perform his incomparable magic or teaming him with the increasingly dexterous Miss Rogers, it is providing the most urbane fun that you will find anywhere on the screen. If the comedy itself is a little on the thin side, it is sprightly enough to plug those inevitable gaps between the shimmeringly gay dances." ­ Andre Sennwald, Variety, August 30, 1935.

"All the dances of Astaire and Rogers are fabulous, but perhaps the most memorable is the 'Cheek to Cheek' number. I love the way they will dance quickly only to slow down so we catch them in some lovely position.... It is terrific how they change speeds 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 full speed, and it is exhilarating." ­ Danny Peary, Cult Movies (Dell, 1981).

"(Getting the top Broadway songwriters) in particular sets RKO's dance musical apart from other musical cycles of the 1930s. ... RKO offered more Berlin and went on 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 of the Movies (Knopf, 1988).

"Astaire and Rogers were among the first to bring eloquent physical movement to moving pictures. To watch Top Hat is to know that they remain the greatest." - Carrie Rickey, The A List: 100 Essential Films (Da Capo Press).

"This scintillating, zestful, and professional musical is one of the classics of the Thirties and the best of the famous series that Astaire and Rogers made together." - Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Films (University of California Press).

"Marvellous Astaire-Rogers musical, with a more or less realistic London supplanted by a totally artificial Venice, and show stopping numbers in a style which is no more, 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 meets girl" twists of most of the Astaire-Rogers films, the score is one of the best they 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 direction of Van Nest Polglase), were perfect expressions of the music." - Patricia King Hanson 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 (after Mutiny on the Bounty) and was RKO studio's biggest moneymaker of the decade.

Top Hat won Oscar® nominations for Best Picture, Art Direction/Interior Decoration, 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 British Film Institute in 1983.

Compiled by Rob Nixon & Jeff Stafford

The Critics Corner: TOP HAT

"Top Hat is a Thirties' romance of the Twenties, the sins of 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 simply reeks of class,' as the title song puts it. Top Hat is essentially an innocent film; its satire (of continental manners, of Venice as a kind of celestial powder room) is semi-wish-fulfillment." ­ Arlene Croce, The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book (Galahad, 1972). "Top Hat has a special quality which goes beyond the excellence of the dancing, singing, and acting. It lies in the affinity of the screen personalities of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Neither technical proficiency nor talent alone is 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. Together they 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 of Mr. Astaire's work that by comparison Miss Rogers has been neglected. ... She has grace and attractiveness and comedy skill, and just the proper amount of romantic gaiety. In addition, she is the best listener since George M. Cohan. She can even simulate attention to the lines of a song when a new melody is being tossed at her amorously." ­ Richard Watts, Jr., New York Herald Tribune, August 1935. "When Top Hat is letting Mr. Astaire perform his incomparable magic or teaming him with the increasingly dexterous Miss Rogers, it is providing the most urbane fun that you will find anywhere on the screen. If the comedy itself is a little on the thin side, it is sprightly enough to plug those inevitable gaps between the shimmeringly gay dances." ­ Andre Sennwald, Variety, August 30, 1935. "All the dances of Astaire and Rogers are fabulous, but perhaps the most memorable is the 'Cheek to Cheek' number. I love the way they will dance quickly only to slow down so we catch them in some lovely position.... It is terrific how they change speeds 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 full speed, and it is exhilarating." ­ Danny Peary, Cult Movies (Dell, 1981). "(Getting the top Broadway songwriters) in particular sets RKO's dance musical apart from other musical cycles of the 1930s. ... RKO offered more Berlin and went on 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 of the Movies (Knopf, 1988). "Astaire and Rogers were among the first to bring eloquent physical movement to moving pictures. To watch Top Hat is to know that they remain the greatest." - Carrie Rickey, The A List: 100 Essential Films (Da Capo Press). "This scintillating, zestful, and professional musical is one of the classics of the Thirties and the best of the famous series that Astaire and Rogers made together." - Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Films (University of California Press). "Marvellous Astaire-Rogers musical, with a more or less realistic London supplanted by a totally artificial Venice, and show stopping numbers in a style which is no more, 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 meets girl" twists of most of the Astaire-Rogers films, the score is one of the best they 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 direction of Van Nest Polglase), were perfect expressions of the music." - Patricia King Hanson 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 (after Mutiny on the Bounty) and was RKO studio's biggest moneymaker of the decade. Top Hat won Oscar® nominations for Best Picture, Art Direction/Interior Decoration, 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 British Film Institute in 1983. Compiled by Rob Nixon & Jeff Stafford

Top Hat - Top Hat


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

Top Hat - Top Hat

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

Top Hat on DVD


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.

For more information about Top Hat, visit Warner Video. To order Top Hat, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman

Top Hat on DVD

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. For more information about Top Hat, visit Warner Video. To order Top Hat, go to TCM Shopping. by Paul Sherman

Quotes

What is this strange power you have over horses?
- Dale Tremont
Horsepower?
- Jerry Travers
How could I have ever fallen in love with a man like you!
- Dale Tremont
She loves me.
- Jerry Travers
I think I feel an attack coming on. There's only one thing that can stop me.
- Jerry Travers
Why, you must tell me what it is!
- Dale Tremont
My nurses always put their arms around me.
- Jerry Travers
I dropped up from the room below where I've been trying to get some sleep!
- Dale Tremont
Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't realize I was disturbing you. You see, every once in a while I suddenly find myself... dancing.
- Jerry Travers
Oh, I suppose it's some kind of an affliction.
- Dale Tremont
We are Jones, sir.
- Bates

Trivia

Early drafts of the script called for 'Berlin, Irving' songs "Wild About You," "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan" (to be sung by Ginger Rogers) and "You're the Cause," but they were not used in the final version.

Beddini's motto was originally, "For the men the sword, for the women the whip." The script was changed to "For the women the kiss, for the men the sword" after the Hollywood censors objected.

For contrast to the "Big White Set" of the Lido, the water in the canals was dyed black.

During "Cheek to Cheek," Rogers' gown shed its feathers, exasperating Fred Astaire and causing delays in order to sew the feathers down. Rogers earned the nickname "Feathers" from Astaire as a result.

The end portion film was trimmed down after a preview audience complained of the length. Small parts by Donald Meek and Florence Roberts were cut. One of the last scenes to go, in which Eric Blore insults a policeman, is still present in some prints (including the RKO Collection videotape version from Turner Home Entertainment).

Notes

Because the film script used very little from the Aladar Laszlo-Alexander Faragó play, RKO chose not to give screen credit to the playwrights. However, in reviews and other credit sources, the play is acknowledged. The play was made into a film in Hungary and was distributed in the United States in 1934 as Romance in Budapest. Modern sources state that the only piece of the stage play that was retained in Top Hat was a bit of action involving "Jerry" carrying "Horace's" briefcase. Hollywood Reporter news items and production charts add Frank Mayo and Evelyn Mulhall to the cast, but their participation in the final film has not been confirmed. Although listed in some reviews as appearing in the film, Donald Meek and Florence Roberts were not spotted in the viewed print, nor were their parts included in the film's cutting continuity. Modern sources add Frank Mills (Toledo waiter) and Edgar Norton (London hotel manager) to the cast list. Mel Berns (Makeup artist) and John Miehle (Still photographer) are added to the crew by modern sources. Contemporary news items in Hollywood Reporter and New York Times estimate the film's budget at between $500,000 and $750,000. Modern sources list the budget as $620,000 and $650,000. Top Hat was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture but lost to M-G-M-'s Mutiny on the Bounty. Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark were nominated for Best Art Direction but lost to Richard Day; Hermes Pan was nominated for Best Dance Direction for "The Piccolino" and "Top Hat" numbers but lost to Dave Gould; and Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" lost in the Best Song category to "Lullaby of Broadway" from Gold Diggers of 1935. Film Daily included Top Hat in its list of the ten best pictures of 1935. By the end of 1935, Rogers and Astaire were ranked the fourth most popular movie stars in the country in an Motion Picture Herald poll.
In his autobiography, Astaire explained that the "Top Hat" number evolved out of a number from a Broadway show in which he starred called Smiles. Astaire pitched the idea of the number to Irving Berlin, who then wrote the film's title song. Also in his autobiography, Astaire described the difficulties he and Rogers encountered with Rogers' feathered dress in the "Cheek to Cheek" routine: "Everything went well through the song, but when we did the first movement of the dance, feathers started to fly as if a chicken had been attacked by a coyote....I knew we were in trouble and that the feathers would never stop flying off that dress in dance movement, and we had plenty coming up. ...The cameraman stopped us, saying he couldn't photograph the number that way, and also that the floor was covered with feathers. This went on again and again....It got to be funny after a while. The news went all over the lot that there was a blizzard on the Top Hat set....Finally, the fallout had run its main course. With just a minimum amount flying, the cameraman decided he would take a chance and photograph the number....When we finished shooting for the day, Hermes Pan and I sang a little parody on "Cheek to Cheek" to Ginger. It went..."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." According to Astaire, only a few of the flying feathers were visible on the film, and because the floor was glossy white, none of the fallen feathers were seen. Astaire also mentioned that Jimmy Cagney showed up on the set during the filming of the "Top Hat" number and offered Astaire advice on which "take" of a certain shot, in which the dancer improvised a pantomine bit, was the best.
Modern sources add the following information about the production of Top Hat: In order to facilitate a blending of story and song, Berlin participated in all script conferences. Director Mark Sandrich started work on the production in December 1934, while Astaire spent five weeks in rehearsal. By early January 1935, writer Dwight Taylor delivered to Berlin a rough continuity, and a month later produced a first draft of the screenplay. Writer Allan Scott was brought in immediately to re-write Taylor's draft, and throughout the writing process, Scott and Taylor submitted separate versions of the script to Sandrich, who passed them on with notes to Berman and Berlin. In a letter to producer Pandro S. Berman, Astaire complained about aspects of the developing screenplay, including its lack of plot, its similarity to The Gay Divorcee, and its main juvenile role, which he saw as unsympathetic, repetitive and lacking in humor. In early April 1935, a final draft of the script, which was a compilation of Taylor and Scott's efforts, was completed. While shooting was already under way, Scott and Sandrich continued to polish the screenplay, and a final shooting script was not submitted until early May. As per orders from Berman, who wanted a big dance number in the same vein as "The Continental" (The Gay Divorcee) and "The Carioca" (Flying Down to Rio) for the film, Berlin composed "The Piccolino." Perfecting "The Piccolino" required 125 hours of rehearsal time. Writer Taylor devised the idea for Astaire's "sandman-soft shoe" dance at the beginning of the story. (Modern sources contend that, in a 1936 short film called Grand Slam Opera, Buster Keaton parodies this sequence, using sand from a fire bucket.) The "Isn't It a Lovely Day" sequence was originally set at the zoo but was moved to a park setting to accomodate Berlin's lyrics. In the first draft of the script, the "Top Hat" number was to take place in Venice but was moved up to blend with a story point. One of Berlin's numbers-"Get Thee Behind Me Satan"-which was to be sung by Rogers after "The Piccolino," was removed from the film, but was sung by Harriet Hilliard in the next Astaire-Rogers' film, Follow the Fleet. In addition, a sidewalk dance between Astaire and a black youth, which was included in the script, was never shot. Orchestrations of the musical numbers were done by arranger Edward Powell.
In one of the picture's scenes, inclusion of the word "dam" (as in a horse) was deemed unacceptable by the censors and was covered over by a slamming door. As with his Italian character in The Gay Divorcee, Erik Rhodes's ethnically broad "Beddini" character in Top Hat caused the film to be banned in Italy. American censors warned RKO against portraying "Beddini" as blatantly effeminate and actually excised two of his racier spoken observations from the script. RKO's legal office fretted over a somewhat derogatory reference in the film to poet Gertrude Stein, but no legal action against the studio was ever taken.
Top Hat had its first previews in July 1935. A Santa Barbara preview audience gave the picture a cool reception and complained that the ending was too long. Subsequent cuts, such as the deletion of the Donald Meek character and the shortening of the carnival sequence, were made, totaling approximately ten minutes of screen time. After the Santa Barbara preview, Berlin reportedly became despondent but was reassured about the film's potential after a second, successful preview in another city. The film broke attendance records at Radio City Music Hall, accumulating $350,000 in ticket sales for its first three weeks, and netted RKO $3,202,000 in rental profits. Through his percentage deal with RKO, Berlin earned $285,000 from the film. By September 28, 1935, three songs from Top Hat-"Cheek to Cheek," "Top Hat" and "Isn't This a Lovely Day"-were ranked first, second and fourth on the "Your Hit Parade" radio program. Prints of the film vary in the inclusion of a scene in which Eric Blore's character is arrested for impersonating a gondolier. (The viewed print did not have this scene.) Top Hat was shortened by approximately twenty minutes and was re-issued in the late 1940s. In May 1976, a restored, uncut version of the film was shown in theaters for the first time.
In a contemporary article about Fred Astaire, a New York Times journalist described Astaire's overall film technique: "...he gets the general idea of the next show he is going to be in from the producer. Sometimes he gets the music, too. Then he sets about thinking up original and snappy dance ideas. Occasionally he finds he can use some embryonic creation which has been knocking around in his head for years; occasionally, even, he suggests ideas for his script writers and composers to work on. The idea for the title dance in Top Hat-the dance in which he used his cane to 'shoot' down a line of tail-coated chorus boys-came to him one morning about 5 o'clock, while he was tossing restlessly in his bed. He jumped up, grabbed an umbrella out of his closet, made a few exploratory passes with it to test the idea out and then crawled sheepishly back into bed....Mostly, however, Mr. Astaire-when in the throes of conception-just goes into his rehearsal room on the RKO lot, tells his pianist to start playing and then stands in the middle of the room, letting his feet ramble idly, until a notion begins to take shape. Then he kicks it around for a while, experimenting and feeling it out. Hermes Pan, a dance director, stands by to remember the details-and thus-slowly, are his routines devised. After he has his dance created, Mr. Astaire devotes days, even weeks, to perfecting it, smoothing it out and getting it so that it rolls off as easy as pie."
Modern sources describe other general production techniques of the Astaire-Rogers' films: During the rehearsal period of the pictures, Astaire would demand a "closed set." Only Pan and musician/arranger Hal Borne were allowed to participate in the working out of the numbers. Rogers was called in when she was needed, but directors and producers had to wait until the numbers were nearly ready for filming before viewing the actual routines. The choreography was created in small sections. As Borne played, Astaire and Pan would experiment with different steps and rhythms, using either the script, songs or an abstract idea as a basis. The three collaborators worked off one another until their improvisations took a clear shape that satisfied Astaire. Frequently the score and the script were still being written during the rehearsal period and sometimes accomodated ideas that Astaire or Pan might have concocted while creating the numbers, although Astaire generally worked from the screenplay and kept within the studio's production limitations. After they had made sketches of the film's various musical themes, music directors such as Max Steiner, Victor Baravalle and Nathaniel Shilkret instructed studio arrangers to actually compose and/or orchestrate the score. Hal Borne's piano arrangements were used to orchestrate the song-and-dance numbers, and the dances themselves were usually shot against piano tracks recorded by Borne. Occasionally pre-recorded orchestral playbacks were used instead of the piano tracks. Astaire requested specific orchestral effects, such as sudden increases and decreases in volume, to complement the choreography. To bring out the sound of the taps, which were recorded live during principal photography on the same track as the music, Astaire and Borne often dubbed effects in post-production. Astaire dubbed his own taps, while Borne tapped for Rogers. In general, the dances were shot in a series of single takes. The choreography was designed for head-to-foot framing and, with few exceptions, for only three camera angles: head-on, medium right angle and medium left angle. Reaction shots were not included. For the first few films, three cameras filmed the dances simultaneously. Later pictures used a single-camera set-up for which a special device, referred to as the "Astaire dolly," was created. This dolly, rigged so that the camera lens was about two feet off the ground, enabled the camera operator and focus puller to film continuous, tight shots of the dance with a 40-millimeter lens. Many of the dance floors used during filming were made of wood and were overlaid with shiny bakelite. As bakelite is relatively delicate, scars left by the dancers had to be removed with Energine between takes. Writers Allan Scott and Dwight Taylor, composer Irving Berlin, choreographer Hermes Pan, director Mark Sandrich, and various actors such as Eric Blore, Erik Rhodes, Helen Broderick and Edward Everett Horton were employed in more than one Astaire-Rogers' picture. Modern sources estimate that the Astaire-Rogers pictures earned RKO more than eighteen million dollars.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1935

Released in United States March 1985

Released in United States on Video September 12, 1990

Re-released in United States on Video April 20, 1994

Selected in 1990 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

Released in United States 1935

Released in United States March 1985 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (All Night Champagne) March 14-31, 1985.)

Re-released in United States on Video April 20, 1994

Released in United States on Video September 12, 1990