Directed by Mark Sandrich, Top Hat is a screwball musical comedy starring Fred Astaire as Jerry Travers, a dancer newly arrived in London to star in a major show, and Ginger Rogers as Dale Tremont, the woman who Jerry falls desperately in love with.
This post is part of The Second Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Blogathon hosted by Love Letters To Old Hollywood and In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood
Top Hat was the fourth picture Astaire and Rogers made together, having initially been paired in Flying Down To Rio (1933) two years earlier. It was the first screenplay written specifically for the dancing duo, but this tailoring didn’t prevent Astaire from having objections; he believed that the plot strayed too closely to that of The Gay Divorcee (1934), an opinion shared by a number of critics upon the film’s release. However, the minor matter of a similar storyline didn’t stop Top Hat from being a major runaway success, and when all was said and done it was RKO’s most profitable film of the entire decade.
Released amidst the height of the Great Depression, the film is described by Roger Ebert as featuring “characters so rich that even their butlers are gentlemen of leisure”. Indeed, money seems to be of little concern to anyone involved; Jerry and Dale do not worry about how they will pay the bill for their stay in the extravagant hotel as they glamorously twirl around it. Top Hat is pure opulence in everything from costuming to plot, offering a much needed escape for audiences ground down by the drudge of daily life.
Jerry Travers is an internationally acclaimed dancer about to star in a big new production, but that doesn’t matter to Dale Tremont when his hotel room tap dancing practice interrupts her sleep on the floor below. She storms upstairs, ready to give him a piece of her mind, but despite her fury Jerry is taken with her immediately. However, a classic case of mistaken identity means that Dale thinks Jerry is actually Horace Hardwick – the husband of her friend Madge – so is appalled by his increasingly flirtatious behaviour (despite the fact she is falling for him too). Eventually Dale is convinced of Jerry’s true identity and the pair are reunited, dancing together once again.
In a New York Times piece from 2005, John Rockwell argued that the magic of Fred and Ginger was that they “made a new kind of acting — dancing that was acting all by itself”. In a post-Hays Code era which required depictions of sexuality to become increasingly veiled, their dance sequences provided a space for sex and romance in a way which simply wouldn’t have been possible without them. So much is communicated in these scenes, not only through the actor’s physical gestures but also by their costumes, and the way they sparkle and wheel around them as they dance.
One particularly infamous outfit worn in Top Hat is the elaborate feather dress which Ginger Rogers wears during Cheek To Cheek. The actress was passionate about fashion and make up, and had designed a dress which she wanted to wear in the film. It was covered in ostrich feathers, which Rogers had painstakingly sewn to the dress one by one. In her autobiography, Rogers reflected on the costume:
“I was determined to wear this dress, come hell or high water. And why not? It moved beautifully. Obviously, no one in the cast or crew was willing to take sides, particularly not my side. This was all right with me. I’d had to stand alone before.”
The review the dress received from others working on the film – including choreographer Hermes Pan and Astaire himself – was rather less than glowing. In his own autobiographer, Astaire recalled:
“It was like a chicken attacked by a coyote, I never saw so many feathers in my life.”
The dispute was eventually resolved after a team of seamstresses worked through the night to better secure the feathers, although a close viewing of the scene will reveal a number of them detaching and floating to the floor around Rogers as she dances. The incident, although it may have been fractious at the time, led to Astaire’s fond nickname for his frequent co-star: ‘Feathers’.
The five songs contributed by composer Irving Berlin comprised the first complete score that he had produced since 1930, and all became major popular hits, many of which are still widely known today. He spoke warmly of his time working with Astaire, saying that: “He’s a real inspiration for a writer. I’d never have written Top Hat without him.”
When the film opened at New York’s Radio City Music Hall on August 29, 1935, it was an immediate hit. The crowds were record-breaking, and a contemporary New York Times review said that “Top Hat is worth standing in line for. From the appearance of the lobby yesterday afternoon, you probably will have to”. Alongside the substantial profits, Top Hat received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture; it lost out to MGM’s Mutiny On The Bounty (1935).
It is not by chance that Rogers and Astaire are remembered as cinema’s greatest dancers, although it seems it is often Astaire who gets the lion’s share of the credit. However, as John Mueller says in Astaire Dancing – The Musical Films, “the reason so many women have fantasied about dancing with Fred Astaire is that Ginger Rogers conveyed the impression that dancing with him is the most thrilling experience imaginable”. Both are essential to the magic they created together. There are several moments in Top Hat’s dance sequences that are quite literally breathtaking, showing exactly why, in the intervening 84 years, they have yet to be dethroned as Hollywood’s dancing royalty.