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Is There Still Hope? Watching Top Hat (1935) in 2018

Top Hat (1935)

Directed by Mark Sandrich

Produced by Pandro S. Berman

Screenplay by Allan Scott, Dwight Taylor, Ben Holmes, Ralph Spence, Károly Nóti (uncredited)

Based on the plays Scandal in Budapest by Sándor Faragó and A Girl Who Dares by Aladar Laszlo

Songs by Irving Berlin

Score by Max Steiner

Cinematography by David Abel

Edited by William Hamilton

RKO Pictures

Warner DVD (1:41)

The Great Movies at the Severna Park Library

There’s a moment while watching a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie when you realize that you’re actually witnessing a miracle. I’m not a physicist (but I am ignorant enough to know that I may not even be citing the correct scientific field), but the combination of elements required to come together for a dance scene like the one in “Cheek to Cheek” from Top Hat, elements that permit muscles and tendons to properly function, for its performers to wear two very different types of clothing and shoe wear, and to perform this together in a predetermined space in precise time to perfectly match the accompanying music, is nothing short of miraculous. Yet Astaire and Rogers make it look so blasted easy.


I presented Top Hat to our audience at our Great Movies series at the Severna Park Library a few nights ago. You can find the details of the film elsewhere, but what I really want to talk about is how the audience reacted to the film. About a fourth of them had never seen the film and half of those people had never viewed any Astaire/Rogers film. When the film was over, a man in the audience asked, “Can you do a whole series of all the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers films?” I understand his request and his enthusiasm. These films are both infectious and contagious.

In my pre-movie presentation, I spoke a bit about Astaire’s early days with his sister Adele as his dance partner, how Fred was a bit awkward for awhile. Even when his dancing improved, those with the ability and power to sign him to a studio contract, including David O. Selznick, were skeptical. Yet Selznick saw Astaire’s unmistakable charm even in what Selznick called a “wretched” screen test.

Rogers, from Fort Worth, Texas, won a Charleston dance contest at the age of 14 which launched a career in vaudeville before heading to Broadway to dance, act, and sing. Before making Flying Down to Rio (1933), her first picture with Astaire, she had never had a dance partner. It’s hard to imagine a world in which the two never met, never danced together, and never pulled off the miraculous. I don’t think I’d want to imagine such a world.

I’m always a bit uncertain as to what’s going to click with our library movie audiences. Last year I screened the W.C. Fields film The Bank Dick (1940) and heard only one collective laugh for the entire movie. (Yet many audience members left that night telling me they had a great time.) Months later, I expected them only to tolerate (and perhaps even hate) The Night of the Hunter (1955), but they loved it. You just never know.

Before I I screened Top Hat, I told the audience that the plots for these movies are by-and-large formulaic and really secondary to the dancing. Here, the plot revolves around a case of mistaken identity, a situation that could’ve been cleared up with just one sentence, but then where would we be? We’d never get to see Fred and Ginger do their thing. I expected a couple of chuckles, maybe a guffaw or two, but was flabbergasted to hear the audience laughing frequently and heartily, not only at Edward Everett Horton’s masterful double-takes, but also at Eric Blore’s wise-acre timing, Erik Rhodes’s self-absorbed Alberto Beddini, and more.

Is there a point at which audiences simply give themselves over to what they’re watching on-screen? What combination of things have to happen? Here’s a room full of people watching a movie more than 80 years old. The clothes styles are different to what we have now, the cars are different, the songs are different, the way people speak is different. The weather outside the library that night was unbearably hot and humid, but inside the air conditioning was downright cold, approaching the level of discomfort. Yet not one person left during the film. Something miraculous happened each time Astaire and Rogers appeared on-screen, but something equally miraculous happened with the audience. A large group of people (a few of them teenagers) sat in an uncomfortable room for two hours watching a black-and-white movie filled with actors, singers and dancers who’ve been deceased for many, many years. And yet the audience loved it.

I also mentioned that the film came out while America was still in the midst of the Great Depression. For a couple of hours, you could sit and forget about the world outside the movie theatre and watch this amazing couple, believing not only that miracles could happen, but maybe, just maybe, something better could be right around the corner. Yet people scraped together money for a 10 cent movie ticket to see Top Hat in 1935. When you consider that ticket prices at the time were between 10 and 25 cents, a first-run box office of $3.2 million (from a $600,000 budget) is pretty impressive and speaks to the lengths people were willing to go for a bit of hope. If nothing else, Fred and Ginger made you feel alive and that perhaps things were going to get better. You could certainly look to them for a little hope in 1935, but I’m not sure who you’d look to now. Maybe it’s still Fred and Ginger.

Photos: DVD Beaver, IMDb, Roger Ebert

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