September 02, 2014

Top Hat

As Top Hat (1935) opens, we're face to face with the entrance of some upper-crust men's club where an imposing sign reads, "SILENCE must be observed in the club rooms." The camera zooms in on this sign, not because it thinks we're not paying attention, but because the camera itself in Top Hat is playing a kind of joke and inviting us to partake. Cut to Fred Astaire, noisily reading the paper and disrupting the well-worn quiet of the otherwise aging gentlemen occupying a very large room full of tall upholstered chairs and warm, cozy fireplaces. A butler treads noiselessly over the carpet with a tray of drinks, but again, Fred Astaire keeps making a mockery of their reverentially quiet room by sneezing, coughing, and turning the pages of his newspaper. Somehow, this irreverent spirit feels completely and delightfully fresh, as though Top Hat had been released yesterday, and even when the movie slips into the occasional poky scenes, there's a vibrant spirit to the comedy and the music numbers that still works. (The film ends up in Venice, but the Venetian set resembles the Small World ride at Disney World more closely, as my friend put it.)

When Fred Astaire makes love to Ginger Rogers, she only half-heartedly turns him away. She doesn't really want him to stop, and it's a lovely kind of movie-going pleasure to see her grin appear, only a little at first, as he sings ridiculous love songs to her and tap dances all around her. The mistaken identity plot--which may feel somewhat weather-worn simply because it's been done so many times since--still amuses, especially with the aid of Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick. Broderick may be one of the most liberated women you'll ever see in a movie, although there were lots of them in the 1930s. It's only in the last 20 or 30 years that we've put women in the movies back in prisons. Top Hat is also a lot smarter and more sophisticated than the Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies that it spawned. They too used to mistake each other for someone else, and although those sudsy love comedies are certainly fun and charming in their own way, Top Hat works on a different level: it's blithely conscious of the fact that it's only a movie. Directed by Mark Sandrich from a script by Allan Scott, Dwight Taylor, Ben Holmes, and Ralph Spence. The songs are of course by Irving Berlin. With Erik Rhodes, and Eric Blore, and Lucille Ball who has a bit part as a flower shop clerk.

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