'Top of the Town' was low-budget Universal Studios' big-budget attempt to make the greatest movie musical of all time. The result? Some aspects of this movie are dazzling, but many other aspects are howlingly bad. Sadly, the bad outweighs the good.
The film opens with an innovative and enjoyable title sequence, which introduces most of the performers (but not Joyce Compton, who has a larger role than several actors shown here). Then the movie plunges into deepest cliché, with a Manhattan street scene accompanied by the hackneyed hustle-bustle music that accompanies the opening shot in so many big-city movies. (Played on a xylophone, to deepen the cliché.) But now Doris Nolan arrives, in a Venus-in-Furs rig that instantly got my undivided attention: in furs and kid-leather gauntlets, she strides across the set wielding a prop that can't decide whether it's a walking-stick or a riding-crop.
Nolan plays Diana Borden, a dilettante heiress who has just visited Russia and who addresses strangers as 'comrades'. She wants to build the biggest poshest nightclub of all time (I guess she got that idea in communist Russia), and she expects her four wealthy uncles to foot the bill.
The cast includes several Hollywood stalwarts whom I don't usually associate with Universal. Obscure actor Ray Mayer gives a very impressive performance as the assistant of bandleader George Murphy. Ella Logan was an important theatre performer (she starred on Broadway in 'Finian's Rainbow') who made very few films, so I'm glad to see her here.
This movie is art-directed to a fare-thee-well. The sets are extremely impressive, but too distracting. The overkill is obvious when Ella Logan steps out of an Art Deco taxi cab. This has got to be the only New York City taxi that doesn't list its rates on the doors; apparently listing the fares would spoil the Art Deco design.
En route to this movie's climax are some astonishing musical numbers. Hugh Herbert warbles 'Fireman, Save My Child' while chorines in pyjamas trapeze overhead. Juvenile tap-dancer Peggy Ryan does a virtuoso imitation of Eleanor Powell, although she doesn't do Powell's signature move (the backbend over her shoulder, touching the floor with her hand). Recurring throughout the film are a speciality act cried the Three Sailors: a trio of gobs, smacking each other and intertwining their bodies to impersonate camels and other unexpected things. The Three Sailors seem to be a cross between the Stooges and the Ritz Brothers, but with more physical discipline than those acts. I was very impressed by a music-hall turn in which the sailors tap-dance while skipping rope.
Diana Borden has no difficulty raising the money to finance her extravaganza, but she has trouble finding performers. (In my experience, it's always just the other way round.) She manages to 'meet cute' -- not once, but twice -- with bandleader Ted Lane (George Murphy, better than usual). He wants to mount a traditional musical revue, but spoilt heiress Diana wants to do something 'meaningful'. She sacks all of Murphy's singers and dancers, but they show up at the nightclub anyway to work as waiters and cigarette girls. (Aren't there union rules against this?)
SPOILERS COMING. The climax takes place on one of the most astonishing film sets I've ever seen: a four-tier nightclub, filled with hundreds of dress extras. This is no miniature, no matte shot. The camera crane dollies from one level to the next, in a 360-degree pan that's even more impressive than the opening sequence in 'Touch of Evil'.
But what's all this dazzlement for? It all builds to a floor show that's *deliberately* bad, with Russian peasants toiling in the salt mines while blackface minstrels pull faces. Mischa Auer, costumed as Hamlet (and looking amazingly like Conrad Veidt) recites the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy with an uncredited actor's dubbed voice. The nightclubbers are getting nasty. George Murphy signals the wait-staff; they swing into a production number that's *meant* to be good (but isn't, very much) and all ends happily. This is one of those movies in which the leading lady learns she that needs a man to do her thinking for her, and this is supposed to be a happy ending.
'Top of the Town' is one of the most unusual movies I've ever seen, but that's not entirely favourable. I'll rate this movie 6 out of 10.
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