The release on DVD of the Astaire-Rogers classic Top Hat, coupled with the circumstance that I have lost all trace of my original piece on the film from several years back, has occasioned my second, and third, thoughts about a work that is often regarded as a masterpiece of light entertainment—the closest that Hollywood has ever come to duplicating the sparkle of a René Clair musical, only, of course, minus the proletarian politics. Indeed, it may be the American masterpiece of light entertainment. (It is vastly superior to Donen and Kelly’s empty, overrated Singin’ in the Rain, 1952, much as Astaire is nine hundred times a better dancer, singer, actor and choreographer than smarmy, obvious, clumsy Gene Kelly.) Top Hat is one of the most charming films ever—and a primary contributor to the Astaire-Rogers legend.
Alan Vanneman thus writes in the online Bright Lights Film Journal: “Top Hat is the apotheosis of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It has five dances, a total they matched in only one other film (Follow the Fleet). All five are first-rate, and several are among the best that Fred and Ginger ever did. Irving Berlin’s score is one of the most famous in film history, probably second only to Edgar Harburg’s and Harold Arlen’s work for The Wizard of Oz. ‘Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails’ is the song most closely associated with Astaire throughout his career, while ‘Cheek to Cheek’ has become a symbol of the [onscreen] Astaire[-]Rogers relationship as a whole.” I am not certain that another Berlin song, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet (1936), doesn’t qualify at least equally as the latter; but Vanneman’s assertions are all reasonable ones.
I want to do two things here. One, I wish to summarize some ways that Top Hat remains problematic for me. Two, I will offer an interpretation that, I believe, provides a degree of unity and depth of import to Top Hat that argues for the film’s aesthetic and intellectual brilliance. This film makes exquisite sense when it is seen in (what I take to be) its own light.
There is no need to synopsize the famous plot of this “essential film” (Dan Callahan, Slant Magazine). Let me jog your memory, however. Dale Tremont (Rogers), a dress designer’s touring model, mistakes dancer Jerry Travers (Astaire) for Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), the husband of her best friend, Madge (Helen Broderick), and therefore rebuffs his romantic advances. (Befitting the primarily visual medium of cinema, the camera shows us precisely what Dale sees that launches the mistaken identity.) The action moves from London to the Lido, a resort area right near Venice.
There are three elements, all relating to violence, that I find disconcerting in Top Hat. The first of these involves a part of the “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” number that Jerry performs in the show Horace is producing. Converting his cane into a gun and his taps into gunfire, he mows down in the second act, in a stylized fashion, a row of dancers—the male chorus. (Two shots miss the last one standing, so Jerry converts the cane into a bow and downs him with an invisible arrow.) Adolf Hitler was in power in Germany, the Spanish Civil War was a year away, and world war would break out in Europe four years hence. From our vantage, this wasn’t a good time for such stage shenanigans—although it may be the case that no time suits making light of killing people. Yes, Jerry’s gesture is symbolical and all that; Larry Billman, a film dance historian on the DVD’s commentary track, opines that Jerry is eliminating his alter egos—I presume, to solidify his consciousness and existential sense of being. Still, there is the most literal level with which the viewer has to contend: mass murder—and mass murder executed by a national icon. This bothers me.
Another troublesome aspect is a supposedly hilarious instance of spousal abuse. When Madge wrongly suspects Horace of pursuing Dale, she socks him, giving him a black eye. We see the “before” and “after”: the look of fear on Horace’s face as his wife approaches him to deliver the blow; the blackened eye, to which pal Jerry tends as best he can. Madge never apologizes, even when the matter of mistaken identity has been revealed. Yes, it is true that Horace has practiced infidelity elsewhere; but isn’t this infidelity (pretty unconvincingly, if you ask me) thrown into the script simply to justify the abuse? Isn’t socking one’s mate wrong under any circumstances?
One might argue, I suppose, that a woman’s walloping her husband redresses some gender imbalance pertaining to power exercised within the marriage. But that’s irrelevant here; Horace is an accommodating and affectionate husband, not a dictatorial one. Besides, violent acts on screen have real, social consequences—which brings me to my third complaint. Wife-battering is much more common in the U.S. (and everywhere else) than husband-battering, so the outcome that the film event would incite—especially given a brute’s determination to redress at home the redressed gender imbalance that tickles his wife’s fancy in the safety of a darkened theater—would more likely be to the woman’s disadvantage, not the man’s. I don’t know how to say this any plainer: I have no doubt that this little joke in Top Hat resulted in actual women getting beaten up. Audiences were sufficiently delighted by what they saw, though, that Carole Lombard two years hence decked Fredric March in Wild Bill Wellman’s screwball comedy Nothing Sacred.
Those, then, are my three problems with Top Hat, and they never seem to go away. But the rest of the film in which these pockets are embedded keeps getting more and more beautiful with each fresh viewing. I am now able to say that in the Astaire-Rogers cycle Top Hat is bested only by Swing Time (George Stevens, 1936), second only to Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944) and perhaps The Band Wagon (Minnelli, 1953) as my favorite American musical film of all time.
Everyone, it seems, loves Top Hat; but everyone whose writing regarding the film that I’ve encountered treats it as a glorious diversion—a nonsensical piece whose largely nonexistent story purely exists to bring us those marvelous songs and dances. But, like Follow the Fleet and Swing Time, Top Hat is really about something. It possesses thematic unity. This unity, by the way, helps explain why Dale mistakes Jerry’s identity and persists in this mistake.
I am not trying to be mysterious or evasive, but I think it would be most helpful in terms of contextualizing what I take to be the central theme of Top Hat to approach this theme from a direction other than head-on. Generating enormous suspense is the emotional thrust of the film, and it is with this that I wish to begin. Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) is Dale’s employer; it is his gowns and dresses that Dale wears, and it is with him that she tours in order to advertise his expertise. Throughout the film, we eagerly expect Jerry and Dale—Fred and Ginger—to get together romantically, but the issue of mistaken identity keeps frustrating the outcome we anticipate, throwing up road blocks. When Jerry proposes marriage, Dale, still believing him to be her Madge’s husband, Horace, recoils at the thought that she should contribute to the ruination of her best friend’s marriage. Desperate, she accepts Alberto’s longstanding offer of marriage. They marry. They move into the Lido’s newlywed suite, replacing, oddly enough, Jerry and Horace. Dale had been rooming with Madge—an arrangement that had helped the mistake of identity to continue. With the new coupling arrangement, consummation of the marriage is imminent, and indeed the Beddinis’ lush hotel bed figures prominently in the mise-en-scène. The suspense is over this: Will somehow everything get straightened out so that Dale and Jerry will get together first and last? We do not want Dale to be waylaid by Alberto; we want her to have sex with Jerry, not Alberto. But how can that happen now that Dale and Alberto are married?
The whole matter is emotionally intensified by the fact that Dale is likely a virgin. Since she is in love with Jerry, but is resisting his love because she mistakes him for Horace, we want her to be with Jerry. This isn’t a matter of fastidious prejudice, that she should be “unspoiled” for Jerry; rather, we want her to couple with the real object of her heart’s desire. Too, we worry that even a marriage built upon her reaction to a case of mistaken identity will make claims upon her as a marriage, and these will preclude her coming together with Jerry, or at least appreciably increase the impediments to this happening.
What makes me think that Dale might be a virgin? Two instances of false appearances that suggest the opposite: her sexual experience. In London, it is rumored at the hotel where she and Alberto are staying that she is his kept woman. We subsequently learn that, despite Alberto’s ardent feelings for Dale, theirs is strictly a business relationship. Later, when she is trying to give Jerry, whom she believes to be Horace, a good scare so he won’t stray “again” from Madge, she pretends to him that they had an affair in Paris a year earlier. In addition to these false appearances of sexual experience that tend to suggest, because of their falseness, that the opposite is the case, that Dale has little or no sexual experience, there is the continual visual and aural contrast between wide-eyed Dale and Madge, who appears and sounds wise in all the ways of the world.
Well, Dale isn’t all that young; at the time, Rogers was 24 years old, so let’s attribute that age to the woman she is playing. The theme of Top Hat is Dale’s sexual confusion and sexual fear. The mistaken identity enables her to postpone the romantic outcome for which she feels keen ambivalence as a result of her confusion and fears. Marriage to Alberto, a bisexual whom Madge dismisses as a homosexual (in the sense of his being an unsuitable marital partner for Dale), may seem to Dale like a safer alternative.
Let me show, now, how this theme informs many of the film’s images and situations. After the shot, during the opening credits, of Fred and Ginger’s dancing feet (our assurance that their characters will become a couple), the camera fixes on a top hat. It is an angled overhead shot. Of course, we would expect the hat to remain perfectly still, but this hat very slightly moves back and forth. When the camera lowers to reveal an actual man’s head underneath and inside the hat, we get our explanation; but it’s the effect of the undulating hat that, for me, introduces the theme of sexual unease. The man wearing the hat, incidentally, is in the street chattering away with other gentlemen in formal dress attire for a night on the town, and this is soon counterpointed by a memorable scene of silence. Jerry is waiting to meet Horace at the latter’s club, where silence is the strict rule. Horace is late, and there Jerry is, the only young man in a large room filled with much older men, all of them sitting straight-backed while Jerry, trying to make himself as comfortable as possible, is scrunched down in the chair, with one leg draped over the arm of the chair. Rustling his newspaper, Jerry also is the only one making noise, inviting censure. Finally Horace arrives and, as the two depart, Jerry shatters the silence with some loud taps. I submit that this is Jerry’s assault on the asexuality of the codgers, and it’s our first glimpse of the vitality and virility of his that will (unconsciously or otherwise) distress Dale.
Jerry’s rupturing of silence with his tapping feet becomes a motif, and one that sexually resonates. In their London hotel room, Jerry starts dancing at night, amusing Horace but not Dale, whose sleep is disturbed in the bedroom right underneath. The two meet, spar a little, and Jerry falls instantly in love. This resolves the issue of his capacity to commit, expressed earlier in the song “No Strings,” very quickly. Dale will take longer to arrive at a resolution of (what I take to be) her issue.
The next day, we hear the gossip about Dale’s being Alberto’s mistress. In a stunning juxtaposition, we next see Dale dressed in masculine attire; she is going riding. Surreptitiously Jerry replaces the driver of the Hansom cab that Dale has arranged to take her to the stables. She isn’t in bed this time, but once again Jerry ends up, so to speak, on top of her, tapping right above her. The scene also associates Jerry with horses (Hansom cabs are horse-drawn), a traditional symbol of virility and sexual prowess. A storm has the two seeking refuge in a park gazebo, where Jerry sings and they both dance to “Isn’t This a Lovely Day to Be Caught in the Rain?” The thunder and lightning—again, interruptions of silence—visibly frighten Dale; but their amiable dance together makes friends of them, and they end up shaking hands(!). During the dance, each in his or her masculine attire, throws the other—a bit of choreography that assumes new import in the context of my reading. What park is this, by the way, where the two dance? It doesn’t really matter because U.S. audiences will in any case think “Hyde Park”—for most Americans, the only British park they will have heard of. If so, a double-meaning asserts itself: Dale is hiding her sexual identity out of self-uncertainty and confusion. It goes without saying that Ginger Rogers’ splendid though imperfect dancing, especially alongside Fred Astaire’s, creates a touching visual impression of this self-uncertainty. Dale’s self-uncertainty and confusion crops up now and then, even accounting for a reference to Gertrude Stein that is the film’s funniest line—delivered, I might add, by Dale in a conspicuous show of sophistication that suggests her knowingness isn’t worldliness but something that comes instead from books.
Everyone is floored by the film’s Art-Deco sets at Lido. In terms of my reading, the whiteness, including white on white, suggests a projection of Dale’s sexual repression and, perhaps, near hysterical fear.
This is the test for the reasonableness of this interpretation. The next time you visit the film, see if my reading (1) fits and (2) clarifies the actions and images, providing a more satisfying sense of the film. Dale and Jerry’s great, sensuous erotic dance to “Cheek to Cheek” suggests the couple’s emotional progress beyond the sexual neutrality of “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” We are closer to the final dance we savor.
Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott wrote the scintillating script, from Taylor’s motion-picture story, expressly for Astaire and Rogers. Mark Sandrich, as director, mustered all the competence at his command. Irving Berlin contributed a magical score, and Astaire brilliantly choreographed himself and himself and partner. Hermes Pan choreographed the ensembles, including the Busby Berkeley-like opening to “The Piccolino,” with stock dancers creating geometric patterns for an overhead camera and (laughably) rhythmically running. Thank goodness Astaire & Rogers take over and blow the Venetian sky off. Their riff of back-kicks adds an element of sexual abandon to the eclectic dance.
Top Hat is the best-acted movie musical ever. Astaire is phenomenal, as is Broderick—a former Ziegfeld Girl and Broderick Crawford’s mom—as Madge. Rogers as Dale, Rhodes as Alberto, Horton as Horace, and Eric Blore as Horace’s manservant, Bates, are all wonderful and perfect.
Rhodes, Horton and Blore are all recognizably gay actors. Whereas Sandrich tried to work around this fact in The Gay Divorcée (1934), in which they all appeared along with Astaire & Rogers, here their gayness makes delightful sense. It is an index of the sexually safe male world in which Dale Tremont prefers to hide before Jerry Travers seduces her out of it for (we presume) a future of romantic excitement and bliss.
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