The dancing and choreography are amazing.  The music is charming.  You might even appreciate the costumes and the sets.  And yet, with a plot that seems to exist merely as an excuse to create dance numbers, Top Hat fails to hold up as a great film today.  Astaire and Rogers use their bodies as instruments to great effect, playing the floor like a drum.  But that’s as much credit as it deserves.

The Players:

  • Director: Mark Sandrich
  • Writer: Dwight Taylor, Allan Scott
  • Cast:  Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Eric Rhodes, Eric Blore, Helen Broderick

Notes:

Jerry (Fred Astaire) goes to London to star in a show and falls in love with Dale (Ginger Rogers).  As Jerry puts on his charm and tries to sweep Dale off her feet, Dale mistakes Jerry for the husband of her friend Madge (Helen Broderick).  Many attempts at hilarity ensue as Dale gives up Jerry and decides to marry Alberto (Erik Rhodes).

It is said that a musical is the hardest type of film to pull off.  Not only are actors required to act, they must also sing and dance.  In the realm of music and dance, Top Hat is worthy of praise, although it is still inferior to the more intricate choreography in Swing Time.  Astaire is his typical great dancing self, and Rogers is as striking and engaging as we could expect.  But so much of the magic here, if not all of it, is credited to the unbroken takes that showcase the endurance and charm required in a great dance sequence.  The script fails them.  When dance numbers aren’t taking place, a great film must have characters with whom we can relate.  The entire story hinges on a mistaken identity that doesn’t hold up in a believable way.  Does Dale not have peripheral vision?  How does she not see that two men walk in opposite directions from behind the chandelier that we are expected to believe blocked her view.  And, if she is so intrigued by Jerry, why does she not go a step further to confirm his identity by simply asking him one or two simple questions?

The Alberto character (Erik Rhodes) is an Italian designer who insists on marrying Dale.  His Italian accent is so exaggerated that it seems just plain silly today, a distraction that feels more like a parody of itself.  There was a time when the Italian government tried to ban this film due to Alberto’s  portrayal of an Italian man as being effete.  The intended comedy relief, as with Swing Time, feels forced and odd.  There is nice snappy dialogue throughout the film, but mainly between Astaire and Rogers.  But even then, when Astaire speaks metaphorically about a storm and relays it to a relationship, it feels weak and corny.  I suspect that much of Top Hat‘s success is due to the fact that a handful of its songs have become American classics, and it is easy to be distracted by their ability to create a sense of nostalgia and amusement.  But the songs are the songs.  The film itself should be more than a medium through which classic songs and great dancing can be enjoyed.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:

This was the first film written specifically for Astaire and Rogers, and it feels completely formulaic, artificial, and contrived as a dancing vehicle.  Director Mark Sandrich is said to have created charts and graphs to monitor some of the story elements, including the amount of time allowed between dance numbers.  No wonder the plot feels like a forced setup.  As with their other films, Astaire and Rogers play into a formula, though it is not effective.   Mr. Ebert, you refer to this as being an “idiot plot”, but you then state that “there are times when nothing but an Idiot Plot will do, and we are happy to play along.”  I can acknowledge the talented dancing without feeling the need to play along with the plot.  You excuse the weak plot by pointing to the goofy playfulness of the actors, perhaps implying that we shouldn’t take the plot seriously.  But since the goofiness is neither memorable, endearing or even goofy, it seems hard to view this film as anything more than just a succession of frames in which awkward performances and some great dancing occasionally occurs.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  BAD

Do you like Top Hat?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?

Next week’s review:  Solaris

Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 354 films.  Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  By taking on Mark Sandrich’s Top Hat this week, he now has 294 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.