The great movie musical institution, otherwise known as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, sprinkled its box office gold dust over ten pictures, and that which arguably received the lion’s share was 1935’s Top Hat. It heralded the start of the stronger middle section of their career together, with the critically-acclaimed Swing Time still to come, and included the best mix of supporting actors, production crew and music that the pair had enjoyed so far – a winning recipe that, by and large, they stuck to in later pictures. Along with King Kong, it was also responsible for saving RKO Pictures from the black hole of bankruptcy.
Despite being their fourth musical dancing together, it was actually the first that was written for the two of them specifically. Rehashing similar themes and casting from the previous year’s The Gay Divorcee, the first to see Fred and Ginger alone in tentpole position, Top Hat provided the perfect mix of light screwball comedy confusion with lashings of dance to music that would become standard classic fare in the great American songbook. Irving Berlin was on board for the first time with the pair, and it is songs and routines from this film, like “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” and “Cheek to Cheek”, which not only set the standard for all of the duo’s films together but went on to become seminal performances in film history. Fred Astaire is always best recognised for his white tie get-up, complete with cane, and Ginger’s ostrich-feather dress for “Cheek to Cheek” is not only her most iconic costume but also the alleged subject of an infamous on-set argument (the feathers were a last-minute introduction, got up Fred’s nose – and temper – repeatedly, and resulted in an apology gold feather charm and the nickname “Feathers” for Ginger).
Plot-wise, Top Hat sees Fred Astaire play hoofer Jerry Travers (never one to stray far from type) starring in a London show produced by his pal Horace Hardwick (bumbling Astaire and Rogers stalwart Edward Everett Horton). Whilst in Horace’s hotel room one night he practices lively tap routines, much to the ire of the guest in the room below, Dale Tremont (Ginger), who wastes no time in voicing her displeasure – thus, boy meets unimpressed girl, falls in love, and unimpressed girl mistakes him for Horace Hardwick… who is married to her friend Madge (the estimable Helen Broderick in one of the best sarcastic wife performances in 1930s cinema). Jerry duly follows Dale to Venice, where she is visiting Madge and modelling gowns for the Italian designer Alberto Beddini (this stereotypical ranting Italian provides a dated low point for the otherwise-classic movie). When Jerry proposes, Dale is appalled at his apparent abandonment of Madge and so agrees to marry Beddini instead. Luckily, Horace Hardwick’s valet Bates (another regular in the Astaire and Rogers canon, Eric Blore, who also stuck to this role type) has been interfering in the background, with dubious and comic consequences thus far until he performs a sham marriage ceremony for Dale and Beddini, and Jerry is given the chance to sort everything out before dancing the big production number of the picture, “The Piccolino” (well, of course).
The acting in Top Hat, in fairness as with many other comedies from the 1930s, can be a little gauche at times, and some of the lines rather cheesy, but when this film provides as much of Fred and Ginger dancing together as it does (the most of any of their films, and eight routines overall), it rather seems to pale into insignificance. Ginger enjoys quite a rare singing solo with the lyrics to “The Piccolino” (only because Fred wasn’t keen on it) and, although neither of the pair were exceptional singers, they always did a professional – and precise – job (and when did it ever matter when they can dance as they do?). Indeed, the legendary screen-test comments from MGM in early 1933 for Fred Astaire (“Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little”) have always seemed grossly unfair – and unfounded – when composers such as Berlin, Jerome Kern and the Gershwins happily created some of their best-known work for Astaire to originate on screen. Ginger too, who had never really danced with a partner until she was paired with Fred, did their partnership a great service through her ability to act as if it really was ‘heaven’ when they danced (in reality, her shoes were usually filled with blood) – a famous quotation, often attributed to Katharine Hepburn, seems to sum up the balance of their partnership well: “He gives her class, she gives him sex”. Indeed, Ginger’s dramatic prowess would go on to see her win the 1940 Best Actress Academy Award for Kitty Foyle.
So, to see the poetry in motion, as it is often described, of the brilliantly matched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (and the fantastic work of choreographer Hermes Pan, often the ‘rehearsal Ginger’), seek out Top Hat, not only a classic Astaire and Rogers musical, but a classic musical of the last 80 years – and if you like that, follow it with Swing Time, Follow the Fleet, The Gay Divorcee… every performance, whether it’s tap dancing on rollerskates to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in Shall We Dance or introducing America to “Carioca” in Flying Down to Rio, provides something you’ve not seen from them before with their usual consummate touch of making it look so easy – it really isn’t.