Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Top Hat (1935)

Irving Berlin's overture at the beginning of Top Hat (1935) is a plunging, slightly menacing downward flight of notes punctuated visually with the clack of Gentleman's walking sticks. From this opening the movie creates a wonderful sense of anticipation. The story opens in a London Gentleman's club where a sign tells us that absolute silence is to be observed. As Fred Astaire appears from behind a newspaper and attempts to carry on a conversation through mime with Edward Everett Horton, it seems inevitable that he is going to be violating that sign in some really big way. He does. Just as he's about to exit he lets out a barrage of tap dance that leaves the old boys falling out of their chairs.

That's how I feel after every Fred and Ginger movie I've seen so far. These movies are so good they knock me out of my seat. They move from one spectacular musical set piece to another with a silly comic plot that keeps you pretty much in continuous idiot grin.

Fred and Ginger meet as only Fred and Ginger could. He is tap dancing away in his friend's hotel room and wakes her up. She comes upstairs to give him a piece of her mind and he falls immediately in love. Of course she has the wrong end of the walking stick and thinks that he is Horace Hardwicke (Horton) who is married to her good friend Madge (Helen Broderick). Determined to woo her, he kidnaps her in a handsome cab and stalks her after her riding lesson, which culminates in my favorite dance scene in the movie "Wouldn't it be lovely." This is a beautiful scene that toys with the audience moving from from a laid back swing to a frenetic dazzling tap section

Fred's big solo number is "Top Hat" which is famously choreographed with a stage full of anonymous men in evening dress. Fred blends in and out of crowd and eventually mimes machine gunning them down with his walking stick. I had something really insightful in my head to say about the meaning of this scene in relation to the rise of fascism in Europe, but frankly it just flew out of my head during the sensational "Dancing Cheek to Cheek." This final number takes place on the Venice set which is an impossible fairyland of high bridges over a really long swimming pool. I think that the Venice in Las Vegas is actually based on the Top Hat version rather than the real city. "Dancing Cheek to Cheek" is the point in the movie (and every Fred and Ginger movie has one) where the audience no longer cares about the plot at all because Fred and Ginger have let their love for their dancing completely overshadow everything else. After this the misunderstandings are tidily resolved and the movie comes to a swift and happy conclusion.

7 comments:

Juliette. said...

Thanks for sharing your take on Top Hat...everything in it is gorgeous as usual (one can definitely see the Pandro Bergman touch).

Haha, I agree completely about the plot-- mainly I just wanted to see the costumes, set, and dancing. Cheek to Cheek is great, of course, but my favorite number is The Piccolino, probably because Ginger sings. :)

Irena said...

I feel the same about "Top Hat" - LOVE it and it knocks me out my chair.:)
Actually I never thought about the relationship between the dancing-shooting scene and the rise of fascism in Europe.
The movie was released in 1935 and that is indeed a possibility - an interesting thought, anyway.
I feel a sudden urge to rewatch "Top Hat"... I love every second of it and I think the plot is quite elaborate and funny for a musical and it gives a natural frame to all the dancing routines.

Jennythenipper said...

Juliette, it's funny how everyone has their favorite number in every Astaire/Rogers picture.

Irena, I think the plot is wonderful too. It's a very funny movgie and would almost stand on its own if you took away the music. I was just too lazy to get into to describing in it my review!

Anne said...

Huh, I always figured the machine-gunning a take-off on the popular mobster films of the era. Many levels, oooh! But yeah, really all I care about is the dancing. Don't you feel lighter afterwards yourself?

Juliette. said...

Haha, I do...until I try to dance, and then realize I am no Ginger Rogers.

Jennythenipper said...

Ha, yes Anne, it's kind of like taking off roller skates, you still feel the sensation for a little while afterward. Perhaps we could work out a "diet" whereby you must a certain amount of Astaire/Rogers every day. You may not actually be lighter but you'll feel it.

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