Top Hat

  • Title:  Top Hat
  • Director:  Mark Sandrich
  • Date:  1935
  • Studio:  RKO Radio Pictures
  • Genre:  Musical, Comedy, Romance
  • Cast:  Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore, Helen Broderick
  • Words and Music:  Irving Berlin
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Oh, that call wasn’t for me, it was for you. Somebody has registered a complaint.” – Horace Hardwicke (Edward Everett Horton)
“I know! I’ve just seen the complaint and she’s lovely, she’s delightful, she’s charming, and she wants to sleep.” – Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire)

“May I rescue you?” – Jerry
“No thank you. I prefer to be in distress.” – Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers)

“You want this show to last two nights? Get me a plane, now!” – Jerry
“What kind of plane?” – Horace
“One with wings!” – Jerry

Top Hat  is a a romantic comedy filled with mistaken identities and misunderstandings, and music! Like any farce, it’s the type of plot that would be resolved in five minutes if anyone in the cast actually talked to each other for five minutes, rather than making assumptions. But that’s not really a negative – because it’s light, frothy romance with no harsh realities at all. The sets are marvelously art deco and beautiful – especially the Venice hotel with it’s waterways and boats.

The story begins in London, with Jerry Travers waiting in a very quiet English gentleman’s club for his friend Horace. The club is one where Silence Must Be Observed at all times, and everyone stares at Jerry when he drops something, or turns the page of his newspaper. Horace finds Jerry, starts to talk to him, then realizes where he is, and urges Jerry to leave so they can talk. Just as he’s leaving, Jerry does a quick tap dance on the floor simply to annoy everyone – and as a joke.

Horace takes Jerry to his hotel, Jerry – excited about seeing Horace, and their new show, begins tapping in his hotel room (“No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)”) – waking up the young woman in the hotel suite below. She calls to complain to the manager. Horace takes the call, gets confused, and goes down to the hotel desk to tell the manager he doesn’t want a young woman in his hotel room because it wouldn’t be proper. Meanwhile, Dale goes to the hotel suite and complains. Dale doesn’t introduce herself – and Jerry’s so taken with her, he doesn’t introduce himself either. This proves to actually be a very important part of the plot.

The next day, Jerry goes to the hotel flower shop and orders that all the flowers be sent to Ms. Tremont’s room (by room number) – then charges the very expensive bill to Horace by his room number.

Horace, afraid that Dale might be a “designing woman” sets his valet, Bates, to following her. This is another part of the plot that’s considerably more important than it seems. Horace also warns Jerry off, telling him about a woman he met called Violet who took advantage of him.

Meanwhile, we learn Dale is a social model. A dress designer named Alberto Belleni pays her to wear his dresses, so her friends will see them, ask about them, and he will get more contracts to design dresses and sell more of his designs. But, since he’s financially supporting her – this is something not good for Horace to find out as he’d get the wrong idea. Dale is also close friends with his wife, Madge.

Jerry tries to meet Dale again, she rebuffs him – mentioning she’s going for a ride in the park. Jerry gives her a ride to her lesson in the park, and again tries to get her interested in him without luck. During her ride, Dale gets caught in the rain. She shelters in a gazebo. Jerry arrives and tries to calm her down by telling her a story about clouds. He then sings “Isn’t it a Lovely Day? (To get Caught in the Rain)” to her, and the two dance in partner tap. Ginger is wearing jodphur-pants. Fred and Ginger also mirror each other beautifully when dancing. At the end of their dance the two sit down on the edge of the raised gazebo platform – and shake hands. It’s a gesture between partners.

Later at the hotel, Ginger asks the concierge to point out Horace. The concierge points to “the man with the briefcase and cane” on the walkway. But Horace runs into Jerry and hands him his briefcase and cane – thus making Dale think he’s her friend Madge’s husband. This type of thing continuously happens – Dale keeps thinking that Jerry is Horace, and thus her friend’s husband and a terrible cad to boot.

Jerry is in the middle of his show, changing between acts, when Horace reads his wife’s telegram and finds out she and Dale are heading off to Venice. Jerry insists they hire a charter plane and go to Venice as well.

The production number, part of Jerry’s show, is “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” which has Astaire dancing with a chorus of men in formal wear. During the dance he “shoots” the men with his cane. His short tap dancing routine gets a standing ovation from the audience.

In Venice, Dale meets up with Madge, and they meet the sea plane – but Dale isn’t there when Madge says hello to Jerry – whom Madge actually wants to set-up with Jerry.  The hotel is full – so Horace and Jerry end up sharing the bridal suite, while Madge and Dale share their own suite.

Bellani, thinking that Horace has designs on Dale confronts him, but Horace has no idea what’s going on.

Dale talks to Madge about her husband’s flirting. Madge says she knows he flirts, but it doesn’t mean anything. Dale decides to “teach him a lesson” and goes to his room to throw herself at him – and again runs into Jerry. Jerry turns the tables and flirts back.

Later, at dinner, Madge, Jerry, and Dale meet – but no introductions are made, as Dale insists she knows who Jerry is (she still thinks he’s Madge’s husband Horace). Fred and Ginger dance to “Cheek to Cheek”, with Ginger in the beautiful, floaty, feather dress. It’s ballroom dance that begins with the two in the midst of a crowded dance floor, and moves to the two dancing on a patio that resembles an even bigger version of the gazebo from earlier. There is also some side by side and partner tap, with the two mirroring each other beautifully. But when Jerry proposes – Dale thinks he’s Madge’s husband, and slaps him.

Alberto Belleni flirts with Dale, and proposes to her. She accepts him but insists they must be married immediately.

Jerry, in a last ditch effort to get Dale to listen to him has Horace distract Belleni, and goes to talk to Dale. He takes her on a boat ride on the water – and finally explains who he is.

Meanwhile, Bates reports to Horace that Dale and Jerry are drifting out to sea. Horace, Madge, and Belleni go off in a boat to “rescue” Dale and Jerry.

Dale and Jerry return, happy at last, but concerned about her quick marriage and how to dissolve it. Dale rushes off. Bates tells Jerry that Madge, Horace, and Belleni went off in a boat from which he’d “removed the gasoline” while disguised as a gondolier. The local police arrest Bates for his impersonation.

There is a production number instrumental of “The Piccolino”, which starts with Bugby Berkeley-styled dancers. Then the camera changes to a much happier Dale singing “The Piccolino” to Jerry. Then the perspective switches back to the elaborate production number.

Fred and Ginger dance – tap and ballroom, mirroring each other in tap. Their dance is full frame and uncut. Ginger’s dress is sparkly with a trumpet skirt. They dance back to their table, saluting each other with champagne glasses.

Horace, Madge, and Belleni return. That Horace is Madge’s husband is confirmed, as is the blossoming romance between Dale and Jerry. Just as everyone is wondering what they will do, Bates arrives and states he had been following Dale everywhere, and he had earlier disguised himself as a clergyman by turning his collar around. Belleni states, “But you were the one who married us!” Dale responds, “Then we were never really married!” And she rushes off in Jerry’s arms!

List of Musical Numbers

  • 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
  • The Piccolino

Top Hat  is a simple, romantic comedy – fueled by mistaken identities, coincidences, and misunderstandings, where, of course, in the end – everything works out. But it features some of Irving Berlin’s best songs and Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger’s best dances. The sets, especially the boats in the waterway, are wonderful – and the Art Deco just shines. The dances are filmed full-frame and often without cuts. Certainly, there’s no cuts to faces and feet – which means one can follow the dance and focus on Fred and Ginger’s artistry. There are two ensemble production numbers – Fred’s tap dance with a male chorus, which is part of the show he’s been hired for as a professional dancer; and “The Piccolino”. “The Piccolino” is a wonderful production number – but it seems out of place in Tap Hat. It starts as a elaborate production number, switches to show Ginger singing, switches back to a production number, then switches a fourth time to Fred and Ginger dancing. The production part is full of fast cuts, and elaborate patterns, using ribbons. In short, it looks like a Bugsy Berkeley musical. But when “The Piccolino” focuses on Fred and Ginger dancing together, it becomes one of their signature-style dances – shown full frame, in a single shot without cuts, with Fred and Ginger both tap dancing (briefly) and ballroom dancing. So overall, though very elaborate, it works.  Top Hat is one of my favorite Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films, along with Swing Time and Shall We Dance. For many, it is the quintessential film for the pair.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  The Truman Show