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William A. Seiter
Showman Jerry Travers is working for producer Horace Hardwick in London. Jerry demonstrates his new dance steps late one night in Horace's hotel, much to the annoyance of sleeping Dale Tremont below. She goes upstairs to complain and the two are immediately attracted to each other. Complications arise when Dale mistakes Jerry for Horace. Written by
TOP HAT (RKO Radio, 1935), directed by Mark Sandrich, marks the fourth teaming of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and considered by many to be their best collaboration. A reworking in plot from their earlier outing of "The Gay Divorcée" (1934), TOP HAT, in fact, the most admired of the two, could easily pass as a partial remake, rehash or possibly a sequel, mainly due to the sameness in the casting of Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore from "The Gay Divorcée" also directed by Mark Sandrich. Stepping in for Alice Brady is Helen Broderick, whose deadpan humor and dry-wit personality proved more amusing than Brady's dim-witted character. Also similar to "The Gay Divorcée" is Ginger Rogers singing one song near its conclusion while Astaire provides most of the vocalization.
The story opens in London. Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) is an American dancer (what else!) who is to perform in one of Horace Hardwick's (Edward Everett Horton) upcoming musical shows. They share a hotel suite together where Jerry has an urge to sing and dance. His tap dancing disturbs a sleeping patron in the room below. Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers), the upset hotel guest in question, comes up to the room above to register her complaint. After Jerry meets his complainer, he immediately falls in love with her, and decides to soft-shoe her to sleep by dancing on sand after she returns to her room. During his stay in London, he pursues Dale whenever he can, and sweeps her off her feet by dancing with her in the gazebo in the park during a rain storm. Because she doesn't know his name, she affectionately calls him "Adam." Dale, who is to later meet with her best friend, Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick) in Venice, Italy, discovers she's playing matchmaker, hoping to pair her with her husband's friend, Jerry, while, in turn, Dale believes Jerry to be Horace. Things get really complex as Dale mistakingly believes Made to be pushing "her husband" over to her while poor Horace, the innocent bystander, is being being threatened by Dale's dressmaker, Alberto Bedini (Erik Rhodes) and given a black eye by Madge for no apparent reason. Also adding to the confusion is Bates (Eric Blore), Horace's faithful servant, assigned by him to follow Dale Tremont and find out more about this "gold digger" out to trap Jerry, and ....
Aside from TOP HAT being long on laughs and complications becoming more confusing and the story moves on, the film takes time for five classic dance numbers composed by the legendary Irving Berlin: "No Strings, I'm Fancy Free" (sung and danced by Fred Astaire); "Isn't It a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain" (sung by Astaire/ danced by Astaire and Ginger Rogers); "Top Hat" (sung by Astaire); "Cheek to Cheek" (sung by Astaire/ danced by Astaire and Rogers); and "The Piccolino" (sung by Ginger Rogers and chorus/ danced by Astaire and Rogers); and "The Piccolino" (reprise, finale). Of those numbers, "Cheek to Cheek" remains a true highlight, a scene clipped in many documentaries pertaining to movie musicals or Astaire and Rogers themselves. "Cheek to Cheek" was nominated for best song of 1935. Although it didn't win, it remains as memorable as the Astaire and Rogers dance itself.
Any similarities between THE GAY Divorcée and TOP HAT are purely coincidental, but in many ways an improvement. Both films are not only the most famous and televised of the Astaire and Rogers musicals, but each presents itself like a stage play. The only twist here is that TOP HAT, which borrows from "The Gay Divorcée" is actually an original screenplay (by Dwight Taylor), written especially for the leading pair. Other than the horse and buggy ride on the London streets, the focal point remains mostly in the hotel suites, lobbies, dining areas and a brief ride on the gondola. TOP HAT gives the impression to be the most lavishly scaled musical ever released by RKO. It does. Even Ginger Rogers' dresses are glittering and rich in appearance, right down to her sleeping attire. A musical fantasy by way of costumes (how many women sleep with nightgowns flashier than a dinner dress?), TOP HAT has Astaire singing and dancing during portions of the plot, a common practice musical stage shows, though the title tune, "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" is the only one given the production number treatment played to a theater audience on screen.
TOP HAT, available on video cassette and/or DVD, and formerly shown on American Movie Classics, most commonly found on Turner Classic Movies, is fortunate to have certain cut scenes restored. During the years of commercial television back in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the sequence involving Bates (Eric Blore) insulting an Italian police official whom he believes doesn't speak a word of English, leading to his arrest, was among the missing. Whether seeing TOP HAT at 100 minutes, or in shorter reissue 93 minute prints, the movie itself is entertaining from start to finish. And if the blonde flower clerk in the London sequence early in the story looks familiar, look again. That's Lucille Ball, the future "queen of television." (****)
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