Tuesday, October 2, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #49 - Top Hat (1935, dir. Mark Sandrich)

            The fourth Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers pairing is justifiably the most famous, because it’s their best. But today, in this age of “romantic comedy” being used as a term of dismissal and contempt by cinephiles and the movie musical barely alive as a popular form, it may be a hard sell. But I would hope that watching the first few scenes of the film would convince even the most cynical viewer otherwise. After a credit sequence introduces us to Astaire and Rogers’ feet and legs dancing as their names appear on screen, the action moves to a silent and stuffy London smoking parlor where American dance star Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) is waiting for his show-producing friend Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), who’s running late. And from this mostly wordless opening scene of Astaire thumbing his nose at the stuffed shirts we can see the subtlety and humor that Astaire brings to the performance with his discreet looks and movements – both of which extend to his dancing as well as to the film’s dialogue and situational humor.
            The next scene finds him dancing a tap routine in his friend’s hotel room and awakening the downstairs neighbor Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) and then apologizing with a shuffling lullaby, followed the next day by a room full of flowers, a stolen cart taking her to ride horses, and a dance in the rain. And it’s here, with the dance during “Isn’t It A Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain),” that the famous Astaire-Rogers chemistry – evident from their first scene together – enters its full blossom. It’s also where the plot – an extended riff of mistaken identity – takes off, as she mistakes Astaire for the husband of her best friend Madge (Helen Broderick), who happens, in fact, to be married to Jerry’s manager Horace. And though the plot seems absurd, the cast makes the most of it; knowing full well that they’re skirting the edge of ridiculous, they have fun with it rather than trying to sell the audience on the dramatic tension. And they’re free to do this because they know that they’re all in a musical comedy-romance, after all. And like the best musicals, the songs and dances emerge from the narrative, even if they are really just there to be extravagant set pieces.
            And luckily they’ve got the finest on all counts helping bring this fantasy to life. Choreographer Hermes Pan, who worked with Astaire throughout his career and on all 10 Rogers-Astaire collaborations, helped the star to bring to life all his ideas here and elsewhere; designer Carroll Clark put his visual flair to use designing gorgeous Art Deco sets that, like the plot, never work too hard to be taken seriously, but still look just great; composer Irving Berlin, one of the most renowned composers of popular American song, contributed a fine batch of songs, most notably the indelible classic “Cheek To Cheek,” a song that would long be associated with Astaire; screenwriter Allan Scott, whose sharp dialogue is humorous and quippy in the way of many of the best films of the early sound-film era of the 1930’s; director Mark Sandrich fell in with the team on their previous collaboration The Gay Divorcee and fit so well with Astaire’s ideas that he continued on to make several more films with him. And of course tying it all together is Astaire, a star given nearly complete creative control, who worked tightly with director, cameraman, and scriptwriters to help decide the overall flow of the film. It was Astaire who decided to make dancers the stars of his films, encouraging longer takes taking in the whole scene and having the camera follow the dancer, not performing some sleight of lens with quick cutting that makes anyone look like a good dancer. Even when there are Busby Berkeley-esque geometric patterns of dancers in “The Piccolino” it’s never taken to the abstract level that Berkeley is known for, the dance ensemble is shown in full bodied shots. And of course it’s Ginger Rogers, keeping pace with him tap for tap and nuance for nuance, joke for joke, making sure that acting remained at the fore of what the couple did to hold the audience with their romantic travails. And of course it’s also the supporting players - Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick are both superb comic foils to the leads, while even the third string players here – Erik Rhodes as dress designer Alberto Beddini and Eric Blore as first-person-plural manservant Bates – get their scene-stealing moments. And then again it all comes back to Astaire and Rogers – to their dance in the rain, however preposterous the circumstances that put them there together, to their feather-laden “Cheek to Cheek” dance, to their show-stopping dance emerging from the ensemble of “The Piccolino,” to their simple good humor and grace together. Katherine Hepburn once reportedly said of the pair that “He gives her class and she gives him sex appeal.” Find out here, better than anywhere else, how true that is.
            - Patrick Brown

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