The well-worn legend goes that an RKO screen test report on Fred Astaire read "Can't sing. Can't act. Can dance a little....” However true the legend may be, such an assessment of Astaire is simply not true, and this is easily proved with Top Hat. Despite being nearly 80 years old, this film is still breathlessly exciting and thoroughly charming fun, as well as being a perfect vehicle for the astounding, seemingly effortless talents of Astaire and his most famous on screen partner, Ginger Rogers. It is also interesting to see the film as part of the early ongoing development and increasing complexity of cinema as a medium.
American superstar dancer, Jerry Travers, played by Astaire, is in London to star in a show, and falls hopelessly in love with Dale Tremont (Rogers), the woman in the hotel room below him. Unfortunately, she is under the misapprehension that Travers is actually her best friend’s husband, Horace Hardwick, the producer of his show (whom she has seemingly never met). Can Jerry rectify the identity crisis before Tremont does something rash – like marry another man?
Astaire’s dancing looks astonishing, not least because he makes it look so effortless, and spontaneous, no mean feat considering how much rehearsal and preparation he must have undergone. It is also interesting that the routines do not just explore the movement of the human body, but also the fascination with the sound and rhythms of tap dancing, rhythms that sometimes sound like a machine gun.
What is equally astonishing is finding a second person who can match him move for move, and Ginger Rogers is more than up to the task. At times during their routines, they seem to hit a bewildering, supernatural level of synchronisation, and when combined with the joyous music, and the smiles of sheer joy on their faces, it is almost impossible not to get caught up in the euphoria.
Obviously, the dancing cannot last forever, and while the plot does not stand up to much scrutiny, the screwball elements and dry, witty dialogue (“have you any objections if I scare your husband so that he'll never look at another woman?” “No husband is ever too scared to look”) keep the energy and interest going between dance numbers. The fact that there is a plot is significant in itself as only a few years earlier, music and narrative were still often kept apart with the likes of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 consisting largely of a static camera pointing at a staged-based variety show, and while some, such as The Broadway Melody had a plot of sorts, it was still a revue format cutting between several characters. Top Hat helped to show that you could focus on two main characters, base a story arc around them, and still incorporate musical numbers that were not irrelevant.
The stars clearly have chemistry on the dance floor, but away from it, you would be hard pushed to claim it is a tumultuous sexual or romantic one. Fred Astaire is no alpha male and Ginger Rogers is wonderfully bold and brassy, making for a much more balanced dynamic than you usually see in films of the day.
Astaire has never struck me, as natural leading man material (and perhaps the originator of the mythical note had similar thoughts) but his unique looks, voice and unimpeachable dancing skills are precisely what has made him so memorable. His singing may lack the drama and coolness of a crooner like Sinatra, but it has a simplicity, and clarity, along with impeccable timing that make it both a companion and a counterpoint to his dancing, as well as delightful to listen to.
Another, equally significant way that Top Hat shows the increasing complexity of cinema during the 1930s is the shooting style, and while it may not be particularly sophisticated in itself, like the plot, the fact that it is there is what makes it inherently significant. The dance sequences are shot in an unfussy, straightforward style that allows the skills of Astaire and Rogers to shine through, with the camera tracking from left to right with their movements. This may not sound like much, but it is the first flowerings of the realisation that by focusing on very specific people or things, filmmakers can direct and manipulate the view and attention of an audience in a way that the theatre cannot, and you can see a similar style being used years later by the other great pioneer of male cinematic dance, Gene Kelly, in films like Singin' in the Rain.
Of course, aside from the technical innovations, the films of Fred Astaire were also successful enough to establish the musical as a distinct genre, one that, like any genre, ebbs and flows in popularity, but always seems eventually to come back into fashion.