Top Hat

US (1935) Dir. Mark Sandrich

Jumping to conclusions, as the aphorism goes, is the only way some people get exercise, yet can be quite harmful when an issue is contested without possession of the full facts. Embarrassment and humiliation as well as collateral damage are the usual results, all of which could be avoided by asking simple pertinent questions.

American dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) arrives in London to star in a new show by hapless producer Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). When showing off his tap dancing in Hardwick’s hotel room, Travers disturbs the sleep of Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) in the room directly below his. Dale goes up to complain as Hardwick leaves the room, and meets Travers, who falls in love with Dale.

Travers pursues Dale all over London, eventually winning her over, until Dale receives a telegram from her old friend Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick), telling Dale she should meet with her husband in the hotel. When Dale finds out Hardwick’s room is the one above hers, she assumes Jerry is Hardwick and dumps him, then flies to Venice to warn Madge of her of her husband’s infidelity, with Jerry and Hardwick following her.

Hopefully, there is no need to introduce the legendary dancing duo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to you, even if you’ve never seen their films. But, for the uninitiated, the incredible alchemy of their partnership set the standard for dancing in Hollywood. Astaire was a Broadway performer, moving into films in 1932 with an RKO screen test earning the infamous summary: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little”.

Rogers worked with Astaire for the first time in Flying Down To Rio in 1933 in side roles, stole the show, and you know the rest. Regarding her role in the partnership, Rogers famously quipped that she did everything Astaire did only backwards and in high heels! Top Hat from 1935, was their third film and their most successful as well as one of their most fondly remembered.

Based on a 1911 play A Girl Who Dares and a remake of a German film comedy Scandal in Budapest, this essentially a farcical comedy punctuated by dance numbers and songs by Irving Berlin. It opens with a scene right out of a Laurel & Hardy film, as Hardwick and Travers meet at an exclusive club where silence is golden; Travers trying gingerly to turn the pages of his newspaper to avoid making a sound screams Stan Laurel.

We are barely ten minutes into the film before Travers bursts into song and shows off his tap dancing skills which leads to an interesting occurrence. In musicals, songs tend to be invisibly diegetic in that we all know they happen yet are never acknowledged. Yet here, the dancing keeping Dale awake is the catalyst for the pivotal meet cute; in essence, we ignore the song as usual but not the dancing.

In order to set the mistaken identity farce rolling, Dale at first rings the hotel front desk to complain who in turn call Hardwick but he can’t hear over Travers’ foot tapping so he pays them a visit in person. When she and Travers meet, only Dale introduces herself, sufficient information for Travers to bombard her with flowers the next day in lieu of wooing her, which he cheekily charges to Hardwick’s room.

Of course, it is so stupidly simple yet intrinsically clever at the same time as all farces in how efficiently they ensure the many moving pieces intertwine at the wrong points for maximum confusion. There also needs to be a fall guy antagonist to counter the fall guy protagonist, the latter is Hardwick, the former is Italian fashion designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes), for whom Dale is modelling.

Naturally, Beddini is also in love with Dale but she won’t cross that line, whilst he sees Hardwick as a threat once the confusion starts unaware Travers is his true rival. There is also another spanner in the works in Madge, taking Dale’s news of Hardwick’s infidelity with a resigned sigh, almost phlegmatic in her outlook, providing the humour with much needed pathos to give weight to the flimsy premise.

Credit where it’s due, the script does a good job of keeping the truth out of reach for so long, building on the various contrivances for the near misses as Dale avoids Travers and Madge gets her wires crossed about Hardwick. However, viewed through a cynical modern eye, it is hard to imagine this mistake could go as far as it does when surely at one point Dale could have called Travers “Hardwick” and solved the problem, but then we wouldn’t have a film.

Farcical comedy requires a lot of running about, of which there are almost no incidents, leaving the mess to bloom via the dialogue, with plenty of witty one-liners and amusing exchanges to keep the main conceit alive. Plus, hiding in plain sight is Hardwick’s droll, put upon servant Bates (Eric Blore), a scene stealer in waiting on the comedy front to shoulder the burden under Astaire’s amiable lead and Horton’s bumbling side kick.

Since this is a Fred and Ginger film, we can’t ignore the dance routines which was the main draw. Not necessarily being a fan of this medium, I usually zone out (West Side Story and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers accepted), but in this instance they are used to further the narrative and do so perfectly. Rather than just there to dazzle, there is a lyrical content to the stories being told through their movements and the choreography, as well as reaffirming the magic of this legendry combination.

Very much a product of its time, the great thing about Top Hat is you don’t have to be a dancing fan to enjoy it. The story and script is amusing enough, played out with good natured comic gusto that one can put up with the musical interludes and still have a fun time with it.

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