Top Hat is currently streaming on the BBC iPlayer and will be online for the next year, along with a slate of other Fred’n’Ginger movies and more RKO classics.
If you have never seen a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical before, Top Hat is a great place to start. I would say that if you only see one Fred‘n’Ginger musical you should make it this one, but the thought of only seeing one Fred‘n’Ginger musical is too awful to contemplate.
Top Hat was made in 1935, and it is the fourth film that Astaire and Rogers made together, but the first one that was written especially for them, and it is popularly known as their lightest, brightest film. It became the second biggest box-office hit of the year, RKO’s greatest hit of the decade, and Astaire’s second most profitable film of all time, just behind Easter Parade from 1948.
Top Hat makes the most of the particular opposites-attract chemistry between Rogers and Astaire. Katharine Hepburn famously said of the duo that “he gives her class and she gives him sex appeal”. Well plenty of people have disagreed with Hepburn (though none to her face I’ll bet) and you might even say the positions were reversed here, with Rogers playing a rather pompous socialite, and Astaire the amorous dancer who recklessly pursues her. But this film is all about class and sex. It “simply reeks” with both of them. It’s set in prim and proper London, for the most part, and in this scenario, the class-bound etiquette of the stuffy upper-classes is perpetually undermined by the wandering desires of husbands, lovers, and Americans, as well as a stream of sexual innuendo – both straight and queer. In the same way that Fred’s noisy tap shoes constantly disturb the peace.
If you want to know about class in the movies, it’s always worth looking at the hats. Of course, that’s especially true here. The top hat of the title first shown as the uniform of the toffs who frequent a Mayfair Gentlemen’s Club, but is subsequently seen on a theatre impresario, an American tap dancer, and even a cab driver. When Fred sings about dressing up in top hat and tails for a ritzy party, his lyrics are pre-occupied with class difference and he seems to have a love-hate relationship with a chorus line of smartly-dressed clones behind him. Sometimes he dances in time with them, and eventually he has to destroy them, like a gangster with a gun, like a cupid with a bow and arrow. There’s something very strange about these dress codes.
But let’s get back to our lovely stars. Ginger first. Ginger Rogers’s stage career was launched in 1925 when she won a Charleston contest – she was in her mid-teens at the time. She soon moved up from Vaudeville to Broadway and first appeared in the cinema around 1930, in musical comedy frolics such as Young Man of Manhattan, in which she sang saucy songs like “I Got It” and popularised the snappy come-on line “Cigarette me, big boy”. She was definitely providing more sex appeal than class in these early films. Our story really begins three years later. However, first we should meet Fred.
Fred Astaire, born Frederic Austerlitz, started out at the age of six, in a duo with his sister Adele. His mother gave them the name Astaire, possibly after an uncle. In their first touring act, Fred Astaire wore a top hat and tails for the first half of the show. So prescient! Perhaps not. In the second half of the show he came on dressed head to foot as a lobster. And his mother conceded the top hat was chosen to add a little much-needed height to her diminutive son.
The brother-sister act did well but took a break around the time that Adele found herself three inches taller than Fred, and the child labour laws began to pose a problem. When they were teenagers, the Astaires got back together and started tap-dancing – also Fred began to take charge of the music. In 1916 Astaire met George Gershwin and in 1917, the Astaires first appeared on Broadway, and continued appearing in London and New York throughout the 1920s. By 1930, critic Robert Benchley summed up the consensus by writing: “I don’t think that I will plunge the nation into war by stating that Fred is the greatest tap-dancer in the world.” But the act split in 1932 when Adele got married and Fred started looking for solo work – and for an entry into the movies.
Famously, Astaire didn’t immediately appear to be a Hollywood leading man type. His RKO screen test critique is often misquoted. What the notes really said, according to Astaire, was: “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances.” Producer David O Selznick signed him up regardless, saying “I am uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even on this wretched test.” That’s a pretty big compliment from the notoriously grudging Selznick.
As I said, 1933 is the key year. This is the year that Fred Astaire first appeared in a movie, in Dancing Lady where he led Joan Crawford in a number so frenetic that she wrecked her ankle trying to keep up with him. It’s also the year that Rogers appeared in three films that changed the course of the movie musical for ever. The first two were 42nd Street and The Gold Diggers of 1933, which featured the kaleidoscopic dance routines choreographed by Busby Berkeley. The third was Flying Down to Rio, which paired Rogers with Astaire for the first time.
Astaire and Rogers don’t have top billing in Flying Down to Rio but they danced together in the final number “Carioca”, which was enough to convince the studio to use the two of them in partnership again. After The Gay Divorcee in 1934 and Roberta in 1935, came Top Hat also in 1935. Following this film there was Follow the Fleet and Swing Time (both 1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). Then in 1949 at MGM, The Barkleys of Broadway.
Many dance experts, including choreographer Hermes Pan and Stanley Donen, say that Rogers was the best dance partner Astaire ever had. Several film critics disagree, but what do they know? For dance scholar John Mueller, the magic of the Astaire-Rogers combination is: “not because she was superior to others as a dancer, but because, as a skilled, intuitive actress, she was cagey enough to realize that acting did not stop when dancing began … the reason so many women have fantasized about dancing with Fred Astaire is that Ginger Rogers conveyed the impression that dancing with him is the most thrilling experience imaginable.”
You need look no further for evidence then their first number in Top Hat “Isn’t this a Lovely Day (To be Caught in the Rain)?”, in which Rogers, to mangle a phrase she never uttered, does everything Fred does, but backwards and in jodhpurs. The joy of dancing with Fred is written both on her face and in her graceful movements. It’s not just imitation but a form of conversation, which soon becomes a delicious flirtation. In other words, she doesn’t stop acting when she dances.
It’s often suggested that Astaire and Rogers feuded, which may be traced to the fact that he famously lost his temper with her when they shot this film’s climactic romantic number, the peerless “Cheek to Cheek”. The ostrich fluff from Rogers’ new gown flew in Astaire’s face while they danced. Soon, he was literally spitting feathers. He said his co-star looked: “like a chicken attacked by a coyote”. But Feathers became his pet name for her, and he presented her with a gold feather charm after shooting wrapped. In later years he would say that: “Ginger was brilliantly effective. She made everything work for her. Actually she made things very fine for both of us and she deserves most of the credit for our success.” If they hated each other, I think you will agree that they hide it well.
Fred and Ginger’s films were really just as innovative as what Busby Berkeley was doing at Warner Bros and then MGM. They pioneered the integrated musical, in which the songs arise naturally out of the narrative, and they set a template for elegant musical routines, in which the dancers are filmed head to toe (so you can see their faces, their movements and their footwork all at once) in glamorous locations. The Art Deco style backdrops in Astaire-Rogers films were known as Big White Sets – impossibly vast and the perfect backdrop for two twirling dancers. The Top Hat sets were among their very most expensive, especially the winding canal in the Venice scenes – which manages to be both romantic and utterly absurd all at once.
The songs are all by Irving Berlin, the first of his many collaborations with Astaire and one he felt reinvigorated his writing. They are all wonderful but two have become gold-plated classics, favourites in the American songbook – “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” and “Cheek to Cheek”. Astaire worked on the choreography with Hermes Pan – whom he had met on the set of Flying Down to Rio and would become his regular collaborator. There are two numbers here that showcase Fred’s virtuoso tap moves, “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)” and the legendary “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails”, probably his most famous routine.
There are two romantic numbers: “Isn’t this a Lovely Day (To be Caught in the Rain)?”, and “Cheek to Cheek”, which is one of the most beautiful sequences shot in Hollywood ever, and showcases one of Rogers’s more unusual traits – she had a very flexible back, just look how far down Astaire is able to drop her in a backbend. It’s a pretty intense physical effort, but it looks like a swoon. Watch out too for how much drama and even angst is contained in the music and performance of this famously frothy number.
And then there is the finale, the production number, “The Piccolino”. Berlin wrote this as a kind of pastiche of the finale in Flying Down to Rio with lyrics that revel in its artificiality: “It was written by a Latin/A gondolier who sat in/his home out in Brooklyn.” And the style of photography, and choreography, owes more than a little to the geometric patterns of Busby Berkeley. Just four films in and Fred’n’Ginger were commenting on their own and other people’s musicals, which producing a frothy Venetian fantasy worthy of anyone’s sincerest Hollywood dreams.
There’s more, even, to enjoy here than just Astaire and Rogers, music and dance, love and romance. Top Hat has a first-rate selection of supporting comic players. There’s the imperious comic actor Edward Everett Horton as the impresario Horace (no 1930s comedy without him is worth the ticket price), Helen Broderick as his worldly and world-weary wife Madge, and Eric Blore as Horace’s mutinous valet, whose humble use of the royal we makes him one of the many “plural personalities” that provide so many incidental laughs in this delightful film that is as casually witty as it is nonchalantly elegant.
Screenwriter Dwight Taylor described working on Top Hat as being in “a kind of childlike excitement. The whole style of the picture can be summed up in the word inconsequentiality.” Which is why I haven’t really gone into the plot, and yet, here we are 85 years later, watching it still. Consequentiality is often overrated.