Combustible Celluloid
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With: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes, Helen Broderick, Eric Blore, Lucille Ball
Written by: Dwight Taylor, Allan Scott, based (uncredited) on a play by Aladar Laszlo, S‡ndor Farag—
Directed by: Mark Sandrich
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 101
Date: 08/30/1935

Top Hat (1935)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Cheek to Cheek

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

According to legend, when Fred Astaire first auditioned for the movies, someone scrawled the following note: "can't sing, can't act, slightly balding, can dance a little." Of course, he went on to change the Hollywood musical forever, with his unassuming charisma, his light frame and his insistence on a certain kind of choreography. He shot each dance sequence, from head to foot, in its entirety, without cutting. That was a unique idea back then, but in today's world of music videos and Moulin Rouge, it's positively outrageous.

Of course, Astaire might have had a good career on his own, but he's forever linked to Ginger Rogers, who has her own legendary line. Reportedly Katharine Hepburn said, "She did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels." Ginger could also really act, as she proved later on in her solo career, winning an Oscar for Kitty Foyle (1940). She had the much harder job in the "Fred and Ginger" formula, pulling away from the lovestruck, pursuing Fred (sometimes involving some kind of mistaken identity or wrong impression). She had to be tough and angry while still remaining alluring, and she had to eventually change her mind and give in. (Some reports indicate that the pair really didn't like each other much off camera, but that's just too horrible to think about. It spoils the illusion.)

First paired up in 1933, Fred and Ginger made ten films together. Warner Home Video -- which owns the old RKO library -- has already released them all in two big box sets, but now a new TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection brings together four of their best films on two, two-sided discs for a bargain price (about $28 retail).

Everyone agrees that their two best films are Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936), and both are included here. Some scholars tend to rank Swing Time higher, based on the fact that it was directed by future Oscar winner George Stevens, but Top Hat usually gets by on pure charm.

Now, some years ago, in college, I worked in a media lab, where we had tons of video equipment, and two video tapes in our permanent library: Top Hat and Swing Time. I watched them both an equal amount of times, at random, and to this day, I have a hard time remembering which is which. Top Hat is the one about a case of mistaken identity; Dale Tremont (Rogers) believes that tap dancer Jerry Travers (Astaire) is married and is appalled that he should be pursuing her. Edward Everett Horton co-stars as the real husband, and the sly Eric Blore plays a valet who strategically gets in the way of it all. Lucille Ball appears as a shop clerk.

Songs by Irving Berlin include "No Strings (I'm Fancy Free)," "Isn't This a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain)?," "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," "Cheek to Cheek," and "The Piccolino." Top Hat received four Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Art Direction, Best Dance Direction, and Best Song ("Cheek to Cheek").

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