Sunday, September 6, 2015

At 80 Years Old, "Top Hat" is Still the Perfect Essence of Musical Cinema

Left to right: Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire
In cinema, there are few moments as pure and timeless as one that comes about an hour into director Mark Sandrich's Top Hat. It's one that feels almost spur of the moment, yet choreographed to a perfection. As the eccentric Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) asks Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) to dance, the lyrics to "Cheek to Cheek" begin. What followed is the stuff of legend. In a film where each dance routine felt slightly better than the last, Jerry brings the quintessential as he swirls and spins across the floor for five glorious minutes with Dale. It is bliss, pure happiness embodied in movement. It's almost as if watching Gods move on screen before us. It's romantic. It's beautiful. It's what pure chemistry has been striving for in film all along. Sadly, few are able to beat the magic of Top Hat at 80 years later.

There were many duos of their time that likely bring such nostalgic glee to the cinephile. However, there were few that have withstood time as well as Astaire and Rogers. Top Hat wasn't their first film. It was actually their fourth after Flying to Rio (1933), The Gay Divorcee (1934), and Roberta (1935). They would 10 movies together, though none would compare in legacy to that of Top Hat. While there's a good argument to be made for their later hit Swing Time (1936), there has never been a moment more profound in their career than "Cheek to Cheek." For good reason, too. It embodied the ballroom dancing as an art form set to one of the best love songs of the era. There's a good reason it was nominated for Best Original Song. Astaire pours his heart into it until too exhausted to sing. Then, he dances.

Despite being singularly known for one song, Top Hat is front to back one of the best 30's musicals for several reasons. For starters, Astaire was at his charismatic best. While many would accuse the plot of being a rewrite of The Gay Divorcee, it didn't matter. For a large part, the story didn't matter. We open the film on the insomniac Jerry deciding to tap dance in the middle of the night. He's passionate and lively, setting the stage for more breathtaking numbers like "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails." He is a showman who ceases to entertain. Meanwhile, we're introduced to Dale in a less than stellar way: knocking on Jerry's door and telling him to keep quiet. It's already set the couple at odds, choosing to slowly win them over with witty remarks, some of the least convincing sets of Venice, Italy, and a series of flamboyant supporting players - including Erik Rhodes as Alberto Beddini, a man who makes women's clothes.

The real moment when the film sizzles, going from another madcap musical comedy to one of the finest collaborations in history does way before "Cheek to Cheek." In fact, it's probably one of the best musical numbers about rain. As Dale is eager to leave the park, she hides under a gazebo in lieu of the weather. Meanwhile, Jerry puts on the charm as he jumps into the number "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)." There's thunder clacking and the world is caught in chaos. Even then, it's Jerry who is caught in love as he serenades the reluctant love interest while slowly making his way towards her. 

Astaire has done wonders to work the audience over by this point. Rogers was only beginning. What starts as a standoff between two disagreeing parties slowly finds them giving in to the power of song. It's steamy and romantic. As Dale finally gives in, we see the magic unfold on screen. There's the choreographed dance routine that has a lot of spinning and kicks. It's a spectacle that translates lyrically into that moment when the two finally fall in love. While the romance would continue to be conflicting throughout the film, there has never been that moment caught on film where passion overwhelms the actors, throwing them into an unknown synchronicity, as well as just being entertaining. If "Cheek to Cheek" is the declarative statement of these two as lovers, then the dance in the rain is the thesis: setting up everything that is charming about the duo.

The film does have a few weak spots, specifically in its plot. Jerry mistakes Dale for another woman. Dale marries Alberto, but doesn't. It's a confusing story that essentially pits Alberto as the unsympathetic loser for no reason. It's kind of a bullish move that works in the grace of this madcap comedy. However, it's also just a little too mean for a film built on exploring love through movement. It wasn't just that these two had chemistry. They also had dancing skills the likes of which aren't often seen. You wish for a breakdown just to see what routine they concocted this time. 

Even if the later numbers like "The Piccolino" don't have the immediacy of "Cheek to Cheek," Sandrich knows how to direct choreography.The song is silly and by comparison inessential. However, it's an excuse to show a more elaborate dance, focusing on a crowd constructing a routine elaborate and majestic to the camera. It's the perfect spectacle to end a film that's essentially about the power of dance. Yes, there's a story about entertainers as lovers, but good luck remembering that in comparison to the charisma of Astaire as he gives charming asides and Rogers keeps up with him, proving to be one of the most gifted female comedians of her time. 

If there's one thing to admire about this film, it's that most of its initial charms aren't dated. The dances are still spectacular. The story moves a lot quicker than the average 30's film - a decade fraught with pacing issues. Most of all, the film manages to remain humorous from the first frame, using jokes to progress story in meaningful ways. Sure, the eccentricity of Beddini may serve as a quasi-gay commentary much like other 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein's supporting scientist, but he isn't enough of a caricature to be embarrassing. The film is full of energy, refusing to let any moment bog them down. Even if the story doesn't always work, it's still fun to watch. It may sound like an insult, but serves more as a testament to what makes this film sizzle.

Top Hat is now 80 years old and still manages to shine better than most musicals half its age. While it set the bar for glitz, glamour, and dance, it also solidified the placement of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as one of the most iconic movie couples in the medium's history. It may be one routine that made them famous, but hopefully it's a gateway to future generations to see how to express emotion through movement. It may have lost Best Picture to Mutiny on the Bounty, but it still ranks among the best films period. Good luck finding anything as pure, entertaining, and romantic as this. It's art of the highest caliber and reflects how to make a musical that's great without having a necessarily great story. It's the magic of its stars, dedicated to their craft, that inevitably makes the film work. It's one of those few moments you will understand why cinema was able to last. It's because of moments like "Cheek to Cheek," immortalized for all time with the soaring passion and emotion that all films should strive for.

1 comment:

  1. "There's a good reason it won Best Original Song."
    Actually, "Cheek To Cheek" lost to "Lullaby Of Broadway" from GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935.