Director: Mark Sandrich
Production: RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.; black and white, 35mm; running time: 105 minutes. Released 6 September 1935. Filmed in RKO studios.
Producer: Pandro Berman; screenplay: Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott, adapted by Karl Noti, from a play by Alexander Farago and Laszlo Aladar; photography: David Abel and Vernon Walker; editor: William Hamilton; art director: Van Nest Polglase; set designer: Carrol Clark; music and lyrics: Irving Berlin; costume designer: Bernard Newman; choreographers: Fred Astaire with Hermes Pan.
Fred Astaire (
); Ginger Rogers (
); Edward Everett Horton (
); Helen Broderick (
); Erik Rhodes (
); Eric Blore (
); Donald Meek (
); Florence Roberts (
); Gino Corrado (
); Peter Hobbs (
Astaire, Fred, Steps in Time , New York, 1959.
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Sennwald, Andre, in New York Times , 30 August 1935.
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* * *
Top Hat was the fourth film made by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for RKO/Radio and the first film written especially to showcase their own unique talents on the screen. In Flying Down to Rio (1933), their first film together, Astaire and Rogers were the second leads to Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond, but the screen chemistry created when they danced together made them the ultimate "stars" of that film. Their next two films, The Gay Divorcee (1934) and Roberta (1935), were adapted from successful stage plays with some alteration to suit the Astaire-Rogers combination. By 1935, when Top Hat was released, they were such established stars that RKO hired no less a figure than Irving Berlin to write a new score to accompany the Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott screenplay. Although the plot is run of the mill and displays the usual "boy meets girl" twists of most of the Astaire-Rogers films, the score is one of the best they ever worked with. It includes such now standard songs as "Isn't It a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)?" "Cheek to Cheek," and the title song, "Top Hat," which has become synonymous with the image of Fred Astaire.
As with all of their films together, Top Hat is both musical and a story with music. A pure musical has only musical numbers that somehow advance or explicate the plot; the story with music has songs that may be interpolated to entertain the audience yet do not affect the story at all. The title number for Top Hat is an interpolation: Astaire, as Jerry Travers, is a musical star, so that audience sees him performing on stage, and although it is a magnificent example of the inimitable Astaire style, the "Top Hat" number does not give any information about the character or the plot. As Astaire and/or Rogers frequently played characters who are entertainers, their audience was given ample opportunity to see the stars dancing without the necessity of tying the number to the storyline.
In Top Hat the most memorable of the musical numbers that advances the plot is "Cheek to Cheek," perhaps the single most beautiful popular dance for two performers ever filmed. Astaire and Rogers were always cool, perfectly groomed and the essence of 1930s sophistication. The grace and symmetry of their bodies, set against the sleek black-and-white Art Deco set created by Carrol Clark (under the titular direction of Van Nest Polglase), were perfect expressions of the music. In the sequence Travers entices Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) into the dance to win her love. Dale, who thinks that Jerry is married to her best friend Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick), is at first reluctant. Eventually, though, the romance of the dance and her attraction to Jerry cannot be overcome, and by the midpoint she participates fully. The refrain of the song, "Heaven, I'm in Heaven" is illuminated not only by the dance and the set, but also by the graceful beauty of Rogers' ostrich feather dress. Although there have been many published reports of fights on the set over the unwieldiness of the dress, it is definitely an asset.
There are other important dances in the film, the most memorable of which is the casual, yet sophisticated, tap dance "Isn't It a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)." The style of this dance is happy, flippant, and fun—the complete opposite of the more involved "Cheek to Cheek" dance in which the principals are troubled by their love. In this number, even the rain is a joke, and the stars are all smiles after a brief hesitancy on the part of Rogers. In "Cheek to Cheek" even the beauty of the dance cannot make Rogers smile, and the conclusion seems bittersweet.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers went on to make five more successful films for RKO in the late 1930s and one more, less successful, film in 1948, The Barkleys of Broadway , for MGM. (Ironically, although their last film was the only one to be produced in color, in terms of style it is the most colorless.) Their popularity was a mainstay for RKO in the 1930s, and their reception by both critics and the public alike have barely diminished over the decades.
—Patricia King Hanson