With the nation in the midst of economic ruin, who were better at lifting our spirits and making us smile? Why, Fred and Ginger, of course. I've got a feeling we'd better start watching their old movies again.
Is Top Hat better than Swing Time? People have been staking out their positions for years. Me, I think both represent the height of the Astaire-Rogers magic, all wrapped up in some of the greatest songs ever written for Hollywood movies and with incomparable choreography and dancing. So I just flip a coin to decide...but I make sure I always use the coin with a head on each side.
The story in Top Hat is inconsequential. It's all about Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) an American dancing star in London who meets Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers), the girl who charms him. It's love at first sight for Jerry, but not for Dale. There are misunderstandings, reconciliation, comedy relief and...well, who cares? The point is that in Top Hat both Astaire and Rogers have classic Astaire and Rogers characters to play, he classy and without a major worry in the world, she down to earth and a little hard to get. The plot is light, sophisticated and moves quickly. The comedy relief, provided by Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes and Helen Broderick, often is genuinely amusing ("We are Bates!") ("I will never allow women to wear my dresses again!") and doesn't become tiresome. The songs by Irving Berlin are among the best he ever wrote, and are so spotted within the movie that it seems we keep moving from exhilaration to exhilaration. That said, the point of an Astaire-Rogers film is the dancing, and then the way things happen through the dances and the songs...
"No Strings" introduces us to Jerry in one of those wonderful all white art deco hotel suites where sophisticated people hang out. He tells us in song just the kind of free-spirited guy he is..."no strings and no connections, no ties to my affections..." and then moves into a fast and complicated tap dance all over the room. Just watch how Astaire perfectly picks out a counter rhythm with hand slaps against a shelf while he taps.
"Isn't This a Lovely Day to Be Caught in the Rain" is a total charmer. In a gazebo, Jerry tries to woo Dale. After singing the song, he does a few steps and she, hands in her pockets in her riding breeches, surprises him by taking him on. A little challenge dance starts...and then we're off into one of those great wooing dances that only Astaire could create. The longer they dance the more we see how taken with each other they're becoming. They move from an easy-going beginning into a mutual and happy recognition that something serious may be happening. Then the rain and the thunder start and we're off again. When the dance is over we all know something seriously happy really has taken place. I think this number also is a fine example of how Berlin could craft a great song where the lyrics are so conversational it's too easy to overlook the skill he had in placing them into the music.
Isn't this a lovely day to be caught in the rain?
You were going on your way,
Now you've got to remain.
Just as you were going,
Leaving me all at sea,
The clouds broke, they broke,
And oh what a break for me.
I can see the sun up high,
Though we're caught in a storm.
I can see where you and I could be cozy and warm.
Let the rain pitter patter,
But it really doesn't matter
If the skies are grey.
Long as I can be with you,
It's a lovely day
"Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" is a classic Astaire stage number, a marvelous song impeccably delivered. Watch how he gives his head a little shake of sheer joi de vivre as he gives us that inimitable Astaire walk. Then it's on to all those 20 chorus boys in tuxes being mowed down by Astaire and his cane. The dance shifts from light to dark to light again. And watch how Astaire slows down the dancing and, unexpectedly, strikes several poses in silhouette. Great stuff.
"Cheek to Cheek" is simply, in my opinion, one of the finest love sequences set on film. Astaire sings the song, then the two of them launch into one of the great dance duets where the song, the dancers and the choreography come as close to romantic perfection as you're likely to see. Even the feathers on Rogers' gown cooperate.
"The Piccolino" is the big production closer, an attempt to match the craze the Carioca, in Flying Down to Rio, set off. For sheer Hollywood sound stage spectacle -- a Berlin hit song, at least 30 dancing couples, a singing chorus, gondolas on canals, a dish of veal that rhymes with piccolino, and everyone in gowns and tuxes -- it's hard to beat.
The Top Hat DVD looks first rate. There are several extras, including a commentary by Ava Astaire McKenzie, Astaire's daughter, and Larry Billman, identified as a film historian. Fans of Astaire will find invaluable Arlene Croce's The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book and John Mueller's Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films.