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Astaire and Rogers' fourth teaming sees no need to improve on a winning formula and once again charms audiences with the pleasure of watching America's most romantic dancing couple in farcical courtship mode. The story is a delightful set of coincidences and the music (in 30's parlance) is 'simply divine' - every Irving Berlin tune is a romantic winner.
Top Hat isn't the kind of movie that other studios should try at home. There's no arguing with near-perfection; the show is as fresh and charming today as when it became one of the biggest hits of the 1930s. It's easy to imagine walking into a theater in a lousy mood and in just a hundred mintues coming out smiling.
The classic Astaire Rogers musicals aren't wall-to-wall songs. Top Hat is basically a romantic comedy that uses its musical numbers for establish character, spark romance and express the feelings of its singing and dancing duo. We're too entertained by the clever dialogue and cute plotting to anticipate every number. When a song comes along, it always seems to be just the one we're waiting for. Sung in a park gazebo, Isn't it a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain? allows reluctant seductee Dale to express her changing feelings toward Jerry's nervy advances. Cheek to Cheek is the film's centerpiece, and it's perfection. The title tune Top Hat is the Astaire-and-chorus number where he mimes shooting the other tuxedoed dancers with his cane.
Writers Allan Scott and Dwight Taylor spin Top Hat's lighter-than-light story line just enough to follow a fated pattern: They meet cute, break up over a misunderstanding, compound the misunderstanding, and finally straighten everything out at the last moment with hugs and kisses. Astaire and Rogers' personalities do most of the work. They're so suited to one another and so complimentary in their attitudes and personality, that they're specific and universal at the same time. Nobody could be as beautiful or poised; yet our identification is instantaneous. Every man would like to dance so well that women fall in love with them on the ballroom floor, and every woman can derive pleasure from imagining herself as elegant as Rogers, doing flying dance steps in a skirt made completely of boa feathers.
There's no casting against type here. Edward Everett Horton is a fussy fool who fancies himself a ladies man, which only makes the several gay-inflected jokes all the more clever. Even more peculiarly 'spirited' is Horton's valet Bates (Eric Blore), the film's jester. Bates starts as comedy relief, and eventually becomes the catalyst for most of Top Hat's comic reversals.
Top Hat is a fantasy of how rich people are supposed to behave, 'taking in the season' here and there with one crowd or another, traveling from European capitol to capitol in chartered planes and staying in fancy hotels. It's such a high-toned fantasy that real-life realities never intrude. Jerry Travers has nothing on his mind except dancing and romance. Dale Tremont is the poor girl circulating on the continent as a living advertisement for designer Alberto Bedini's (Erik Rhodes) fancy gowns. Bedini is the laughingstock character, a silly-ass Italian who speaks exclusively in fractured English.
The fantasy extends to Van Nest Polglase's set of Venice that looks like a full-scale Art Deco Disneyland. White walls swoop around a curvy canal crossed by staircase-arched bridges. It's Venice as an operetta stage show, with plenty of dance space and room for only a few tables. It's an amazing concoction, an immense set for a show that's lighter than a feather.
Warner's DVD of RKO's Top Hat is a handsome presentation. The negatives for all of these 30s musicals were more likely than not printed to death in just a few years, leaving us with fuzzy 16mm prints for television, with audio to match. The transfer here is from reasonable 35mm elements that, a few scratches aside, look very good; dissolves tend to jump to a higher level of grain but most scenes are just fine. The audio cleanup is substantial, allowing us to appreciate the taste and technical abilities of 1935 engineers and mixers.
The commentary is hosted by author Larry Billman and Fred Astaire's daughter Ava Astaire. She warmly shares second-hand memories from her father while Billman shows that he knows just about everything there is to know about the film we're watching. Among other surprises, he points out Lucille Ball in a bit role. There's also an awful lot of reverent plot-talk, redundantly noting screen action we can see for ourselves.
The featurette On Top: Inside the Success of Top Hat carries no creative credits beyond mention of an "in association with Summerland" outside vendor, and allows a number of spokespeople to try and explain the charm of Astaire and Rogers. The closest they come is quoting Katharine Hepburn: "He gave her class and she gave him sex." Some of the critics and authors have interesting facts to relate, but some younger dancers and performers deal mostly in clichés. We're also assured for the umpteenth time that were it not for Astaire and Rogers, America would never have survived the Great Depression. Maybe they're right.
Watch the Birdie is an early comedy short billboarding the then radio star Bob Hope. It's all dialogue-driven, naturally. Page Miss Glory is a grotesque cartoon about a bellboy in a hick hotel who dreams of the big time. Both were presumably chosen as time-capsule samples of what might have accompanied Top Hat in the theaters.
A trailer is also included. Subs for the feature are in English, French and Spanish.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Top Hat rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by Fred Astaire's daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie, and film dance historian Larry Billman; featurette On Top: Inside the Success of Top Hat; Comedy short Watch the Birdie with Bob Hope; cartoon Page Miss Glory; Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 6, 2005