Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Short Take: Top Hat

"Heaven, I'm in Heaven..." That's the famous opening line of the song "Cheek to Cheek" from Top Hat (1935). Fred Astaire sings it at the beginning of the romantic dance number that's the film's centerpiece. But one may think of it when recalling any of the dances by Astaire and co-star Ginger Rogers. Watching them, divine is the only word that seems fitting. There's the "Isn't It a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)" number, in which romantic tentativeness blossoms into the flush of love's delight. "The Piccolina," the closing routine, begins as a Busby Berkeley-style ensemble, but then shifts to a celebration-themed duet for the two leads. And of course, there's "Cheek to Cheek," in which the graceful choreographic lines, the flowing diffuseness of Rogers' ostrich-feather dress, and the astonishing climactic backbends come together in a beautiful whole. The scene is perhaps the most elegant rendering of romantic abandon in all of film. Astaire's numbers without Rogers--the bravura tap solos "No Strings (I'm Fancy Free)" and "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails"--are also outstanding. It's all given the grandest of stages: the magnificent Art Deco sets created by production designer Van Nest Polglase. His elaborate treatment of Venice, complete with canal, bridges, and piazza, may be the most gorgeous movie set ever. The silliness of the film's story, a mistaken-identity romantic comedy, all but seems beside the point. One can also forgive the one conspicuous misstep: the Rogers character's benefactor, an Italian dressmaker played by Erik Rhodes, is a painfully unfunny ethnic caricature. The other cast members include Edward Everett Horton, Helen Broderick, and Eric Blore. Lucille Ball has a small role as a flower-store clerk. The screenplay is credited to Allan Scott, Dwight Taylor, Ben Holmes, and Ralph Spence. The music is by Irving Berlin (songs) and Max Steiner (score). Hermes Pan is credited with the choreography, although by all accounts he just assisted Astaire. Mark Sandrich directed.

Reviews of other Astaire & Rogers films:

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