Nothing eases Judge Bryan Pope's melancholy like watching Fred and Ginger glide across the floor. Oh, and Bob Hope comedy shorts.
"Heaven. I'm in heaven.
He was a debonair dandy. At times fussy, but always surefooted and fancy free. She was a sassy, apple-cheeked bombshell. Elegant, composed, possessing a quick tongue aided by a razor-sharp wit. Together, spinning and tapping their way through ten—count 'em—light-as-meringue musicals, easing a weary United States through a depression, momentarily taking people's minds off an impending world war, they were pure cinematic magic.
Don your top hat, white tie and tails and break out the bubbly. Fred and Ginger are here at last.
Facts of the Case
Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) is an American hoofer arriving in London to help out his pal, producer Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), with a new song-and-dance show. One evening while in Hardwick's hotel room, Jerry is overcome with the urge to tap madly around the room, much to the annoyance of sleepy downstairs neighbor Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers). Jerry is instantly smitten and sets out to charm Dale's socks off. Not as simple as it sounds, thanks to circumstances right out of your standard screwball comedy. Dale mistakes Jerry for Hardwick, who also happens to be her friend Madge's (Helen Broderick) new husband. It will take some fancy footwork on Jerry's part to convince Dale he's single and sincere, not some philandering playboy.
"You see, once in a while, I suddenly find myself dancing," says an apologetic Jerry upon first meeting the sleepy, obviously irritated Dale. Funny, because watching Fred and Ginger do what they do best has the same effect on me, fickle-footed though I may be.
Top Hat may not stand as Astaire's and Rogers' pinnacle achievement (that honor is typically reserved for Swing Time), but I find myself at a loss as to why. The film contains all the elements audiences have by now come to expect: serviceable but disposable plot (trite mistaken identity romance that could be resolved at a moment's notice if only someone would ask the right questions); sumptuous production design (the massive Art Deco sets must have been spectacular eye candy to audiences starving for escapist entertainment); game supporting cast (it doesn't get any better than Top Hat's Helen Broderick, playing Hardwick's wife with delightful drollness); a lovely score (this time by Irving Berlin); and, of course, Fred and Ginger.
Astaire was paired with a number of dance partners after Rogers hung up her tap shoes. From a technical standpoint, most of them outclassed Rogers in the dance department. But Rogers brought a unique quality to the relationship, one that was missing from Astaire's later partnerships. With his slight frame and elfin features, Astaire must have looked positively otherworldly once his feet took control of the floor. Rogers, with her sturdy, chorus girl build and I-can-do-that attitude, made Astaire accessible to audiences. Suddenly, women throughout the country could see themselves in Astaire's arms, while Rogers was a prize any man would be proud to claim.
The screenplay is nothing more than a series of contrivances sprinkled with some admittedly cute one-liners (frazzled fashion designer Alberto at one point declares "Never again will I allow women to wear my dresses!"), but oh those dance numbers. Astaire's opening, "Fancy Free" is a frenetic exercise in tap and rhythm, but the film doesn't really find its, um, footing until he and Rogers get caught in a rainstorm for "Isn't This a Lovely Day." Here, Rogers shines. Watch how she playfully matches Astaire's footwork, much to his delight. By the end of the number, they're two equals just having a good time. Astaire's next number, "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," is a marvel of inventive choreography (he and longtime collaborator Hermes Pan devised the famous "shooting gallery" finale). "The Piccolino" is a rousing ensemble number, and ends the movie on a high note, but nothing can compare to the sublime, elegant "Cheek to Cheek," featuring Astaire, Rogers and her fabled dress of ostrich feathers (by most accounts, the cause of the only serious dispute the two stars ever had). Watching the two of them glide across the floor, it's easy to understand how this number came to be regarded as an iconic moment in cinematic history.
Top Hat is a certified classic, true. But that's not reason enough to see it. A loopy, infectious piece of cinematic fluff brimming with grace and style, it transports us to a dreamy world where even the most flat-footed of us can laugh, find a little romance, and trip the light fantastic before the credits role. Heaven? Not quite. But it's as close as you're likely to get with both tap shoes on the ground.
Warner Bros. has lavished attention on this gem, and it shows. Top Hat is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and the picture is, in a word, pristine. The picture is sharp, the black-and-white images beautifully preserved. One couldn't ask for a lovelier presentation. The audio follows suit with a strong Dolby 2.0 mono track. For a 70-year-old film, the sound is crisp and clear, with hardly a trace of background static. There's hardly a need for subtitles, but they're included anyway, in English, Spanish and French.
Top Hat comes with an assortment of worthwhile extras, the most substantial being a feature-length commentary track by Astaire's daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie, and film historian Larry Billman. Newcomers to the Astaire/Rogers film universe will find much of interest here. The track covers the expected territory, including the stars' careers and the making of Top Hat. The track is engaging and informative, particularly with McKenzie on hand to lend her personal perspective. Much of the same information is covered on the disc's 18-minute featurette, "On Top: Inside the Success of Top Hat."
Also included is the film's original theatrical trailer, a 1935 Bob Hope short, and a cartoon short. The 18-minute Hope short, "Watch the Birdie," is an amusing diversion about a prankster who winds up on the receiving end of his own jokes while aboard a cruise ship. More interesting is the cartoon short "Page Miss Glory," which is a wonder of highly stylized, Art Deco animation. An appropriate inclusion on this package.
Whether by itself or as part of Warner's boxed set, Top Hat is well worth the money. The package sports a gorgeous transfer, impeccable audio and a hatful of satisfying extras. Highly recommended.
Fred and Ginger charmed the socks right off of me, and I'm still feeling giddy. All charges are dropped.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Fred Astaire's daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie, and film dance historian Larry Billman
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