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 romantic comedy filled with mistaken identities, 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 its 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 follow 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 Beddini 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 jodhpur-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 seaplane – 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 Beddini 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 Beddini 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 Belddini 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. Beddini 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 are 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 Top Hat. It starts as an 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

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Follow the Fleet

  • Title: Follow the Fleet
  • Director: Mark Sandrich
  • Date: 1936
  • Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
  • Genre: Musical, Romance, Comedy
  • Lyrics and Music: Irving Berlin
  • Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Randolph Scott, Harriet Hilliard, Lucille Ball, Betty Grable, Astrid Allwyn
  • Format: Black and White, Standard
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

“Say, Will you guys let me forget I was once a hoofer?” – Bake Baker

“Sorry, miss, it’s the rules of the Paradise, no girls are allowed in without an escort.” – Ticket Girl
“Oh, I see, women aren’t even admitted to Paradise without a man.” – Connie Martin

“But I bet you’re used to seeing pretty girls all over the world.” – Connie
“I never give them a tumble, sister, women don’t interest me.” – Bilge Smith

Follow the Fleet is another Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical where, unfortunately, they play second fiddle. The main romance is between Connie (Harriet Hillard) and Bilge (Randolph Scott) – and Hillard even sings, unfortunately. Fred and Ginger do have a lot to do, but as the “B plot” of the film. Astaire plays Bake Baker, an ex-hoofer, or dancer, now in the Navy. Ginger is Sherry Martin, his former dance partner, now trying to make it on her own with a career in show business. Connie is Sherry’s sister, a music teacher. And Bilge is Bake’s best friend aboard his ship. By the way, keep in mind, this film is from 1936, or before World War II; thus this is a peace-time Navy.

When Bilge and Bake’s ship makes port in San Francisco, they, as well as a group of sailors, head into town for shore leave. Bake runs into his old dancing partner again. He had been in love with her and had even proposed, but she turned him down to concentrate on her career. Meanwhile, Bilge meets Connie, and they have a nice date. However, he also meets Iris (Astrid Allwyn), who as the vivacious blonde, is much more his type, he thinks. Bake promises to help Sherry find a better job in show business, but before he can do anything (and after he’s accidentally cost her her job at the Paradise club) all shore leave is canceled and all the sailors have to return to their ships.

Connie is now head-over-heels in love with Bilge and doesn’t realize he’s fallen for Iris. She decides to take out a loan to refurbish her father’s ship, which needs a lot of work. Sherry gives Connie her savings to help as much as she can. Sherry’s also angry at Bake for leaving her without the better job he promised her.

When the ship returns that Spring, Connie’s refurbished the ship, with help, but she also has a massive loan that’s due. Sherry is still angry at Bake. Bake is completely in love with Sherry, so much so that he’s decided to leave the Navy and go back to show business. Bilge, though, thinks he’s in love with Iris, not Connie. Sherry and Connie, with Bake’s help, decide to put on a show to raise funds to pay off Connie’s loan (in part because a family friend also helped, and now he’s in trouble for covering the debt). Bake convinces Iris to perform “a small part” in the show, then writes a scene that Bilge is intended to over-hear, so he’ll get sore and run to Connie (it sort-of works). Bake also gets himself in trouble, hitting an officer he was told was harassing Sherry (a misunderstanding) and has to go AWOL to get to the show on time. Bilge lets him go on-stage, once he is told the show was to help out Connie. In the end, Sherry and Bake are together, with the promise of their own show once Bake finishes his term in the Navy (including his time in the brig) and Sherry even proposes to him. Bilge and Connie are also together, though, like Bake, Bilge has to finish his term in the Navy before he can be master of his own ship and sail the world, with Connie, on her ship.

Musical Numbers

  • We Saw the Sea  — Fred Astaire and Ensemble, vocals
  • Let Yourself Go — Ginger Rogers, vocals
  • Get Thee Behind Me, Satan — Harriet Hilliard, vocals
  • I’d Rather Lead a Band — Fred Astaire, vocals (and tap dance) also dance with ensemble
  • Ginger’s solo tap dance, for her “audition”
  • Let Yourself Go — Ginger Rogers, vocals (reprise)
  • But Where Are You? — Harriet Hilliard, vocals
  • I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket (Piano) — Fred Astaire
  • I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket (Song) — Fred Astaire, vocals; Fred and Ginger, dance (tap)
  • Let’s Face the Music and Dance  — Fred Astaire, vocals; Fred and Ginger, dance (ballroom / waltz)

“Let’s Face the Music and Dance” is one of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers best numbers together, and it’s worth waiting through the entire picture to see it. It’s highly unusual for a Fred and Ginger musical in that the number is part of the “show within a show” that the two characters, Bake and Sherry, and putting on for Sherry’s sister. It’s the only number for the show within a show. And, in a sense, it’s a ballet – it’s a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, told entirely through music, dance, and the expressions of the characters. Fred is gambling at a casino, but loses all his money; then he loses the girls that hovered around the table with him. When he finds all the girls ignoring him, he goes to the roof of the casino hotel, takes out a pistol, and is considering shooting himself. But, while on the rooftop, he runs into Ginger, who’s about to jump off the roof. He rescues her, and the two dance a marvelous slow waltz to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (Fred provides vocals at the start before it segues to the dance). The dance is the perfect embodiment of romance that Fred and Ginger do so well, and it’s a story in and of itself. And this despite the accident which occurred in the middle, where Ginger’s beaded gown accidentally hit Fred in the face (he continued anyway, and though other takes were done later, the first was the best and remained in the film, and yes, you can see the smack).

It is a shame that the relationship between smart and sassy, Sherry, and working-class, Bake, is the B plot, and Bilge and Connie are the “A plot”. Randolph Scott really doesn’t seem to be any sort of a catch for Connie – he’s a bit of a cad. But there you go, a rather uneven film, but with a fantastic dance at the end. This is one of the Fred and Ginger musicals I owned on VHS videotape, that I replaced with DVD.

Recommendation:  Though not perfect, see it.
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Footloose

Easter Parade

  • Title:  Easter Parade
  • Director:  Charles Walters
  • Date:  1948
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Music and Lyrics:  Irving Berlin
  • Genre:  Musical, Romance
  • Cast:  Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Ann Miller, Peter Lawford
  • Format:  Technicolor, Standard
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“I bet you know a lot about women.”  — Don
“I should, I’ve been single all my life.”  — Mike, the Bartender

“You spend your life behind a bar, you get to know what makes people tick. This place is like a clinic, people come in here because they’ve got troubles. Well, if you listen, you learn.”  — Mike

Easter Parade is a big, splashy, colorful MGM musical. The film is essentially song after song, all by Irving Berlin, with only the smallest amount of dialogue linking the songs and providing the plot. The plot is actually somewhat complicated, and not well realised. Nadine (Ann Miller) and Don (Fred Astaire) are a dancing team, but she’s fallen for their friend, Johnny (Peter Lawford). Meanwhile, Don has fallen for his dancing partner, Nadine. Nadine decides to stretch her wings and takes her own role – meanwhile Don, after an argument with Nadine, decides to “show her” by taking any dancing girl and turn her into his new partner. Don runs into Hannah (Judy Garland), and decides to coach her into becoming his new partner. Hannah falls in love with Don, and Johnny falls for Hannah. However, once Don and Hannah find their own style, rather than imitating the famous style of Don and Nadine, they are a rousing success. In the end, Hannah and Don end-up together.

Don and Hannah’s first on-stage number, with Garland in a light-blue feathered gown, is a complete disaster — Hannah does everything wrong, and shows herself to be very un-graceful. But the number also feels like a parody of Astaire and Rogers and a mean-spirited one (Garland’s gown in similar to Ginger’s from Swing Time).

The film also could have used more humor and cleverness.

List of  Musical Numbers

  • “Happy Easter”
  • “Drum Crazy”
  • “It Only Happens When I Dance With You”
  • “I Was Born in Michigan / I Want to Go Back to the Farm”
  • “I’m Just a Fella’,  a Fella’ with an Umbrella”
  • “I Love the Piano”
  • “Snookie Ookums”
  • “Fiddle on your Violin”
  • “When the Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam’ “
  • “Shaking the Blues Away”
  • “It Only Happens When I Dance With You” (Reprise)
  • “Stepping Out With My Baby”
  • “A Couple of Swells / Walk Up the Avenue”
  • “The Girl I Love is a Magazine Cover”
  • “No Next Time for Me”
  • “Easter Parade”

The best number by far is Fred’s “Stepping Out With My Baby”, which includes a piece where he’s dancing in slow motion in the foreground and the background dancers are dancing at regular speed in the background. It’s a nice effect — and it’s cool to see all the detail of Fred’s dancing. But it’s also a great jazz dance number.

Easter Parade is meant to be set in 1912 (Nadine’s big chance is working in the Ziegfield Follies of 1912), yet the costuming screams 1950s, not two years after the end of the Edwardian Era.

Overall, though, it’s a light, romantic musical. Not as much comedy or cleverness as I’d like, which is why I prefer The Bandwagon, but Judy Garland does sing wonderfully, and I always enjoy Fred Astaire.

Recommendation:  See it, at least once.
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  A Fish Called Wanda

Carefree

  • Title: Carefree
  • Director: Mark Sandrich
  • Date: 1938
  • Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
  • Genre: Musical, Romantic Comedy
  • Music and Lyrics: Irving Berlin
  • Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Ralph Bellamy
  • Format: Black & White, Standard
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

“We all try to escape reality. We all want to be something entirely different than we really are.” – Dr. Tony Flagg

Carefree is one of the less well-known Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. It is somewhat unusual in that it’s one of the few, if not the only one, where Fred and Ginger are not playing professional dancers – thus the film is more like a romantic comedy (especially a screwball comedy) than a musical. In this film, Fred is Dr. Tony Flagg, a Freudian psychiatrist, and hypnotherapist. Ginger is his patient, Amanda Cooper, brought to see Tony by his friend Steven (Ralph Bellamy) because she’s afraid of matrimony. Also, whereas in most of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, Fred meets Ginger and falls for her, in Carefree, it’s Amanda (Rogers) who falls for Dr. Flagg (Astaire) almost as soon as she meets him. It takes Dr. Flagg a while to realize his true feeling for Amanda.

Also, Carefree is a very dreamy, effects-laden film, well, for 1938, that is. Dr. Flagg, as an expert in psycho-analysis, asks Amanda to tell him her dreams. Told that she doesn’t dream, he takes her to dinner with friends and has her eat a variety of strange foods – to induce dreams. And dream she does, but not of Steven, instead, she dreams of Tony. And the dance in her dream includes a slow-motion sequence that’s a joy to watch.

Later, at the country club, Amanda sings “The Yam”, bringing Tony into the dance with her. The dance is interesting because, in the first part of the dance, she’s actually the one leading. Though that changes to Fred leading as the dance becomes more elaborate. As a whole, “The Yam” is elaborate partner tap dance, with ballroom moves, and swing, that’s also light and humorous. The dance also moves through several rooms of the country club, and at the conclusion, Fred flips Ginger over his leg several times (bracing the leg against a table, flipping her over it like a gymnast’s bar, dancing to the next table, bracing his leg, flipping her over it, going to the next table, etc, in a complete circle around the room). It’s impressive in the pure strength and athleticism it took to do that – as well as Astaire’s natural grace, and Ginger’s balance. Astaire often manages to look like he’s floating on air. It’s amazing.

Finally, in desperation, after Amanda admits she’s fallen in love with him; Tony hypnotizes her into thinking she loves Steven and that Tony’s “terrible, and should be shot down like a dog”. Poor choice of words on Tony’s part. Because, yet again, he leaves her alone – this time having a conversation with himself in the mirror, in which he realizes he’s fallen for his patient. He returns, only to discover, yet again, she’s escaped while under the influence. This time – she goes to a skeet-shooting contest and starts shooting up the place with a rifle. Tony must figure out how to undo what he did …  when Steven, and his pal the judge, are determined to not let Tony see Amanda again.

Carefree also has the ballroom number, “Change Partners, and Dance”, with Dr. Tony attempting to hypnotize Amanda during their dance, which is also quite a nice number.  (She’s in a black dress, he’s in full black tux with tails).

As always the dances are shot full-frame (Fred and Ginger are shown from head to toe), and the dance is filmed in a single shot, without a lot of edits and cuts. This method of filming makes it easier to follow the dance, but also means the dancer’s pure talent can shine through.

Eventually, everything works out. Tony gets in to see Amanda at her wedding, Steven accidentally knocks out Amanda, Tony reverses his negative post-hypnotic suggestions, and Tony and Amanda marry. Ralph Bellamy, of course, is left alone and single as always. Carefree is also a short film, only 82 minutes, but still very fun, light, and funny.

This film is fun, and the novelty of Ginger chasing Fred instead of the normal Fred chasing Ginger makes it a bit unusual. It’s a screwball comedy classic, but with singing and dancing.

List of  Musical Numbers

Since They Turned Loch Lamond into Swing – Fred (tap)
I Used to Be Color Blind – (Fred, vocals), Fred and Ginger (Ballroom dance)
The Yam – Ginger (vocals), Fred and Ginger (Partner tap)
Change Partners and Dance – Fred (Vocals)
Change Partners and Dance – Fred and Ginger (Ballroom)

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4
Next film:  Casablanca