Genre: Romantic Comedy and Musical Running Time: 1 hr. 41 min.
Release Date: September 6th, 1935 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Mark Sandrich Actors: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore, Helen Broderick
t the stuffy London Thackeray Club, Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) can’t quite manage to maintain the absolute silence required by the association’s policies, perpetually fidgeting with his newspaper or clearing his throat. He’s been waiting for a considerable amount of time for Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), a producer who has secured Jerry as the star of his latest show. When they return to Hardwick’s suite to discuss business, Travers provides a sample of his talents, breaking into a song, complete with dancing and a rhythmic interaction with props.
Before a story proper gets underway, “Top Hat” quickly presents its signature appeal: boisterous tap dancing, with music by Irving Berlin. When Travers’ ruckus wakes downstairs neighbor Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers), the picture kicks off its secondary lure: flirtatious feuding that clearly demonstrates a fondness between the mismatched lovers. Romance is in the air, though it will take plenty of persuasion (or stalking) for the right woman to end up with the right man.
As these films go, the desirable damsel-in-distress plays hard-to-get, despite never being too upset at her overly devoted pursuer (she sneaks an amused grin when he’s not looking). Jerry actually follows Dale around for the better part of the day, like a puppy trailing its master (or Pepe Le Pew chasing after his feline conquest), until she relents for a literal singing in the rain – the show’s second big number. From this point onward, a love triangle with clothing designer Alberto Beddini (the over-the-top Erik Rhodes) reveals itself to be nothing; instead, a classic mix-up finds Jerry confused with Horace, who happens to have a wife, Madge (Helen Broderick).
“I hate all men!” A scandal brews, blown out of proportion by additional lies, intended to repair the damage from the original misunderstandings. Kooky valet Bates (Eric Blore) is one of the most hilarious of the participants (at one point tasked with tailing Dale), superbly playing off of Horton, who is equally befuddled regardless of the situation. Both garner laughs every time they appear onscreen. Of course, just as solutions are formulated, “Top Hat” pauses for another song-and-dance number, this time more organically worked into the story through a stage performance of Travers’ show, complete with backup dancers and sets.
“Always remember that the truth has never hurt any man.” Astaire’s fast-footed skills are at the forefront (a routine with Rogers in a feathery dress that seems to be falling apart mid-dance is one of the most romantic of the duo’s career), though “Top Hat” has the rare distinction for an early musical by possessing a wealth of creative humor in its typical screwball comedy premise. The beau conflation keeps things steadily hysterical, broken up only by pauses for additional dance sequences. There are even a few solid one-liners. And when Dale plots an entrapment scheme for the wrong man, the scenario keeps growing more outrageous, with no less than six people trying to interfere with everyone’s real dalliances and false infidelities. “Top Hat” is surely one of the cleverest of the musical comedies of the ’30s, as well as, arguably, Astaire and Rogers’ greatest collaboration.
– Mike Massie