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.
Cast: Fred Astaire (Jerry Travers); Ginger Rogers (Dale Tremont); Edward Everett Horton (Horace Hardwick); Helen Broderick (Madge Hardwick); Erik Rhodes (Alberto); Eric Blore (Bates); Donald Meek (Curate); Florence Roberts (Curate's wife); Gino Corrado (Hotel manager); Peter Hobbs (Call boy).
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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
Introduced during the early 1800s, the top hat became the most common men's hat of the nineteenth century. Worn by men of all classes, for all occasions, at any time of day, the top hat was a narrow-brimmed silk hat with a tall, straight crown and a flat top. Formal, dramatic, and imposing, the top hat represented much of the spirit of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in which middle class and wealthy Europeans focused on elegance and formality in their dress and manners. The century even saw the first rabbit pulled out of a top hat by French magician Louis Conte in 1814.
The top hat had been preceded by other tall-crowned hats, most made of beaver fur felt and called beaver hats. When British hatmaker John Hetherington first wore his new creation, a tall, straight-crowned hat made of shiny silk, into the streets of London in 1800, passersby were shocked at first, but soon the top hat caught on. By the 1820s top hats were seen everywhere. The height and shape varied somewhat through the century, but the tall hat became the symbol of the nineteenth-century man.
The Romantic Movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in France, Germany, England, and America established an emotional, romantic style in literature, art, and clothing, and top hat designs reflected this flamboyant period with very tall crowns that tapered to wide tops and dashingly curved brims. Hats grew so tall that in 1823 a Frenchman named Antoine Gibus invented a collapsible top hat. Called an opera hat, it could be folded flat at the theater. During the next two decades, top hats became so tall and straight that they were given the name stovepipes. American millionaire J. P. Morgan (1837–1913) had a special limousine made with a high roof so that he could wear his hat in the car. Even women joined the fashion, as popular women's riding clothes included a top hat with an attached veil.
The 1900s brought a less formal attitude towards dress, and the top hat faded from popularity, to be replaced by shorter, less stately hats such as derbies and bowlers. Top hats came to be used only for very formal occasions. A remnant of the age of the top hat can be found in the English language slang "high-hat," meaning conceited or snobbish.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Henderson, Debbie B. The Top Hat: An Illustrated History of Its Styling and Manufacture. Yellow Springs, OH: Wild Goose Press, 2000.
Top Hat ★★★★ 1935
Ginger isn't impressed by Fred's amorous attentions since she's mistaken him for a friend's other half. Many believe it to be the duo's best film together. Choreography by Astaire and score by Berlin makes this one a classic Hollywood musical. Look for a young Lucille Ball as a clerk in a flower shop. ♫Cheek to Cheek; Top Hat, White Tie and Tails; Isn't This A Lovely Day; The Piccolino; No Strings. 97m/B VHS, DVD . Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Erik Rhodes, Helen Broderick, Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, Lucille Ball; D: Mark Sandrich; W: Dwight Taylor, Allan Scott; M: Irving Berlin, Max Steiner. Natl. Film Reg. ‘90.