Friday, February 27, 2009
Movie Time: Rewind: Top Hat
Welcome to the February edition of The Rewind, where we place the spotlight on great movies of the past, specifically before the year of my birth, 1976. As this month was Valentine’s Day, I thought we should choose something lighthearted and fun, with romance, a feel-good movie. For me, that means picking out a musical and if you’re going to pick out a romantic musical, you can’t go wrong with one of the most successful on screen couples of all time, the impeccable Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Rogers and Astaire are the pre-emanate pairing, really becoming the first on screen man and woman team in the 1930’s, really since the dawn of talkies. First teaming up for cameo roles in RKO studios in 1933’s Down to Rio, they went on to make a total of 10 films as a couple. First teaming up in the Gay Divorcee, an adaptation of a Broadway play that Astaire had done in the 20’s, then onto the first picture wrote specifically with them in mind, this month’s pick Top Hat, directed by Mark Sandrich.
It is said that in cinema, dance begins with Fred Astaire. Classically trained in many styles, including ballet and tap, Astaire revolutionized dance in cinema by insisting in single takes as much as possible, and keeping the dancing always in full frame. By seeing the entirety of the dancer, instead of relying on close ups, you got to appreciate the art of the dance better. He also choreographed much of his own dance with the help of Hermes Pan, this way to better highlight both himself and his partner.
Ginger Rogers wasn’t as trained as Astaire, but is credited with being a quick learner. She adapted to Astaire in a way that made any other partner dancing with him at the time not look quite right. Primarily a singer, studio execs saw something in that first pairing that they believed would catch fire, and they were right. RKO actress Katherine Hepburn said of the pairing, Astaire gives her class, Rogers gives him sex appeal. While I don’t know if that was meant as a compliment, it certainly came true.
Top Hat, produced in 1935 was the second highest grossing film of the year bringing in over three million at the box office, a huge number at the time (especially in Depression-Era America). The third picture they had made as a team, it was the first made with both actors in mind. By many classic cinema watchers, it is also considered one of the finest examples of their work together. By the same coincidence, this feature also has the most dance numbers with them as a couple, dancing 5 times together along with individual performances for each.
It stars Astaire as an American dancer name Jerry Travers who is traveling to England to star in his friend Horace’s show (played by the wonderfully inept Edward Everet Horton). While practicing a tap routine in his hotel room one night, he accidentally awakens Dale Tremont (played by Rogers) who storms up to complain. Jerry falls hopelessly in love and pursues her all over England.
In this time Dale mistakes Jerry for his friend Horace, who happens to be married to a friend of hers named Madge (played by Helen Broderick). Dale leaves for Venice to model gowns for her friend Alberto, an Italian dandy. When Jerry learns of this after the success of his opening night show, he heads for Venice with Horace. Jerry professes his love for Dale, but she is disgusted by the behavior of what she believes to be a married man. She agrees to marry Alberto. Fortunately Horace’s valet Bates (character actor Eric Blore) has been tailing Dale at Jerry’s request and disguises himself as the minister.
When Jerry finally convinces Dale to take a gondola ride with him, he manages to clear up the confusion of the situation, and the two agree to marry, dancing off into the sunset with a final huge production number.
It’s a simple movie of mistaken identification, very similar to the couples previous hit, The Gay Divorcee. Audiences really responded to the film though, thanks to the chemistry between Astaire and Rogers and the wonderful music of Irving Berlin. The choreography wasn’t bad either.
This is the film that established many of the trademarks of an Astaire and Rodgers film. First with the costuming. Astaire became synonymous wearing the tuxedo. White shirt and tie, with a top hat, cane, and tails on his jacket. Rodgers throughout there pictures wears wonderfully elaborate dresses, the crown of which is the ostrich feather garment she wears in the duos main dance together. It established the spectacle that became such a part of these musicals. Not a spectacle like Busby Berkley’s Follies, where it was huge shots of dancers in glitter and lighters, but the spectacle of two people in finely crafted attire dancing together like no other combination.
The dancing itself is great to. The first film completely arranged musically by Irving Berlin since the late 20’s, he created a friendship that Astaire held throughout the entirety of their life. The final dance scene where Astaire and Rodgers dance throughout the canals and waterways of Venice is awesome. The stage took up two lots at the time, unheard of for a musical production, and they use every element of it.
Though they teamed up several more times throughout the 1930’s Astaire went into an early retirement by the early 40’s, believing that his time as an actor was drawing to a close with diminishing returns on his films. Rodgers continued to act with RKO and was one of their biggest stars of the 40’s. Astaire came out of retirement in 1949 to co-star once again with Rodgers, and continued to make films into the late 50’s, filling in for an injured Gene Kelley in his biggest hit, Easter Parade, and acting with Audrey Hepburn in a highly re-written version of one of his Broadway hits of the 20‘s Funny Face in 1957.
Astaire and Rodgers have been the sum of parts of dance in movies for the better part of nearly 80 years. Treat yourself to a really fun and relaxing movie, lighthearted and wonderfully romantic. A picture from a much simpler time. RKO’s 1935classic, Top Hat.