Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.
TOP HAT (1935)
Top Hat is a movie about a showbiz type enduring a series of complications in order to further a romantic relationship and there’s songs and dances and holy balls, how many more musicals are going to follow this formula? Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, let’s go.
I want very much to shout, “What story?!” but that isn’t entirely fair. I guess I just hate “oops, a series of coincidences and misunderstandings keep two lovers apart but then, big surprise, they get together” movies. In my mind, I reduce the whole plot to, “They gonna bone? Probably. Yup.” And it feels like I barely watched anything happen.
Somebody blow something up!
What makes Top Hat especially boring is that there’s no B story to accompany the romantic A story. Whereas The Broadway Melody and Gold Diggers of 1933 are about trying to get a Broadway career off the ground in addition to finding love, Top Hat is just, “Hey. I like you.” Aggressively so. And the second half is the same thing, but with mistaken identity shenanigans.
“I can’t be with you because I think you’re–” *farrrt* I don’t care.
You may wonder why my story critiques for this and Gold Diggers of 1933 summarize very little of the plot, but a “will they, won’t they” dynamic hindered by mistaken identity wackiness just doesn’t feel like a story to me. If I summarize it, I am ruining the fun part of what I don’t even consider to be fun. To me, a narrative shouldn’t be built upon the premise that two romantically compatible people don’t call each other by name for several hours. If this analysis comes up short for you, please know that I’ve already typed more words than the entirety of Top Hat‘s plot synopsis on Wikipedia. Nothing happens in this movie.
Oh. More… this. Again.
I’m sorry, but Fred Astaire’s Jerry Travers is a stone-cold creep. Some of this is the script’s fault (at one point he impersonates Ginger Rogers’ carriage driver, charmingly taking both of their lives into his hands just to chat her up), but he also has a constant and very disconcerting leer that doesn’t make him too likable after he’s been told to fuck off half a dozen times.
He’s the women’s-bathroom-invading Maverick of tap dance movies.
Ginger Rogers, who I loved in GD33, is really hard to read as Dale Tremont. Maybe I just don’t know how awful courting was in the ’30s (assumption: fucking awful), but she quickly fluctuates between really hating Jerry and then suddenly he’s the gosh-darned best. Eh. I don’t like it. Don’t give in to his shit, Dale.
Spoiler alert: his shit is given in to.
Edward Everett Horton plays Jerry’s producer and Helen Broderick plays Dale’s best friend. These two characters are married, for maximum tomfoolery. They’re not memorable enough to get a screenshot. Next!
Comic relief comes in the form of Dale’s flamboyantly Italian fashion designer friend Alberto Beddini, played by Erik Rhodes…
…and Eric Blore as the Britishly British butler Bates. Honestly, they weren’t a laugh riot, but they’re the best sidekick characters I’ve encountered in my musical journey thus far and I wish they had their own movie.
Beddini & Bates in Tea Shirt.
THE SONGS AND DANCES:
While the story left me deeply underwhelmed, the Irving Berlin tunes and Fred and Ginger’s tap dancing are definitely the highlights of the movie. The first number out of the gate is “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free),” which Jerry sings to his producer to show that he’s a wild spirit before tap dancing his brains out like a psychopath. The noise wakes up Dale downstairs and she complains, so he lays down some sand and soft-shoes her to sleep. It’s a sweet bit of musical character development that in no way sets up Jerry’s stalkerish behavior later.
You know bros, always crooning to each other.
Later, Jerry and Dale are caught in a thunderstorm and Jerry sings “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain),” a somewhat forgettable tune about being stuck in bad weather with a cutie in the same vein as “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” but without the date rape drugs. The duo perform a nice little tap dance that I’m pretty sure symbolizes them porking in a gazebo.
And now I’m rethinking “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”
Oh, yeah, I mentioned Jerry is a Broadway star, right? So, of course, we stop all plot other than “this character does shows sometimes” for a stage performance of “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.” The song is mostly just the title being repeated a lot, but the accompanying dance involves machine gunning a bunch of classy gentlemen to death with the power of tap, so thumbs up from me.
Were my pleas for more action finally answered?
And then, the song you might have heard before, “Cheek to Cheek.” It’s a fine tune, and Jerry and Dale give the tapping a rest for some classic ballroom. To be honest, the song is rendered a bit disturbing by the fact that Dale thinks Jerry is cheating on his wife, but context schmontext, just enjoy the lovely dancing, right?
Shut up, brain, it’s pretty.
And finally, the movie ends on a wedding dance called “The Piccolino.” The dance is big and cinematic and the closest thing Top Hat has to grand spectacle on the level of Busby Berkeley. The song is a bunch of lame rhymes that end in “-ino.”
“Dog Day Afternoon starred Al Pacino…”
OTHER (SPOILERY) STUFF:
- My favorite scene is when the producer character requests meat to put on a bruise and Bates jams a hot steak in his eye. But even that gag is funnier conceptually than in execution.
- At one point I was so bored that I kept wondering why there’s a creepy painting of a clown with a banjo in the bridal suite of a hotel.
“Aww yeah, baby, that gets me going.”
I THINK THIS LINE’S MOSTLY FILLER:
I wanted to count the entirety of the rhyme-packed “Piccolino” as this week’s filler lyrics, but I actually think that honor goes to “Cheek to Cheek,” in which a man romantically proclaims that dancing with his lady is more thrilling than hiking or fishing just because those activities help him rhyme with “cheek.”
“Oh, I love to climb a mountain, and to reach the highest peak,
but it doesn’t thrill me half as much as dancing cheek to cheek.
Oh, I love to go out fishing, in a river or a creek,
but I don’t enjoy it half as much, dancing cheek to cheek.”
Even casting aside how sick I’m getting of old timey love stories, Top Hat as a standalone film did very little for me. Sure, tell me it’s a classic, but the story was thin and dragged out, the lead character is irritating, the comedy rarely made me laugh, and the songs didn’t stick with me. Really, it’s all about the dancing. If you cut together just the toe-tappin’ sequences, I’d watch that, but otherwise, back on the shelf with you, Top Hat.
The Great Ziegfeld (1936)