Wednesday, January 6, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: Top Hat (1935)

The 1930s musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers will always hold a special place in my heart. Believe it or not, before our hyper-sensitive and more sexually aware era, it was perfectly acceptable for a straight man to love musicals without his "manliness" being called into question. I'm pretty sure your grandfather could hum a few Irving Berlin tunes in his day, but just try walking down the street belting out an Andre Lloyd Webber song--yeah, whole different scenario.

What I'm getting at is that these films come from a completely different era of motion pictures, indeed a more innocent time, when happy-go-lucky musicals filled with beautiful melody and beautiful people could transport us away from our troubles without the slightest hint of snark or irony.

I grew up with the movies and music of Astaire, and his musicals are a part of my childhood as much as Star Wars action figures and The Muppet Show. And for me, Top Hat will always be the best--the creme de la creme, with the world's greatest dancer at the height of his powers, and the stunning Ginger looking for all the world like an angel fallen to earth.

And then there's the music. What can one say, but that Mr. Astaire is, in large part, responsible for some of the greatest songs of all time coming into being. Composers like Jerome Kern, Rogers & Hart and Irving Berlin set to work writing masterpiece after masterpiece for his films, and in this case its Mr. Berlin who wows us with tunes that have become part of the fabric of our culture. The title song, of course. "Isn't This a Lovely Day?" "The Piccolino" And then... "Cheek to Cheek".

You don't need to have seen The Green Mile to understand the power of this song to move, and of the particular scene in which Astaire and Rogers dance to it. It's moments like this one that the name of this blog series was created for, because it's about three minutes of absolute, unassailable perfection on film--two larger-than-life beings moving on screen as no two humans ever did before or since. It can literally take your breath away.

The melody and lyrics are pure Irving Berlin, and it remains one of the most well-known songs ever written. I have a particular affinity for the Great American Songbook--in fact, I devoted a whole blog to it. And well, this is certainly one of the absolute marvels of that amazing literature of popular music. I hear a song like this, and I get a bit sad for the sense of melody and beauty that has pretty much been lost in what we now call popular music.

What's the plot, you ask? Who cares, really? It's your basic romantic comedy plotline, guy and girl falling for each other, one misunderstanding after another standing in their way, until they finally stand united at the end. But that's not finally what this is all about. It's the music that's the star, and also the ambiance being created. That's all that matters.

But believe it or not, there's even more than just Astaire, Rogers and Berlin to recommend this movie. The sumptuous art direction of veteran set designer Van Nest Polglase succeeds in putting across this magical fantasy world in which the characters reside. Delightful character actors Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore are pure gold in every scene they share. And Erik Rhodes is charmingly weaselish as the flustered heavy Alberto Beddini.

These kinds of 1930s musicals were designed to take people away from the dreariness of the real world going on outside the movie theater during the Great Depression, presenting them with gorgeous people moving gracefully through an elegant world, the cares of everyday life of no relevance to them. Unlike our modern audiences, which seek to wallow in misery when times are down, these were people who sought the blissful escape that entertainent could provide. And Top Hat gave it to them, in spades.

I prefer these classy musicals of the '30s to the more bombastic widescreen extravaganzas that would come in later decades. Top Hat is the epitome of the escapist film, creating a fantasy world through the music of Berlin, and the dancing and singing of Astaire & Rogers. To watch a film like this is to know what it feels like to fall in love. The word "heartwarming" was invented for it.

Forgive me if I've gotten a bit curmudgeonly or nostalgic with this particular review. But there's a phrase in one of the songs of the film, "simply reeks with class"--and that's what this movie does. There aren't many latter-day films we can say that about. Later movies would be great for other reasons. But what made Top Hat great, and what made the entire Astaire/Rogers cycle so great, is a quality which sadly is no more.

"Heaven! I'm in heaven," sings Fred to Ginger. And when we watch them move, so are we.

NEXT UP: The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)


Nate Y. said...

I love this movie so much. Great write-up, Brian!

B-Sol said...

Thanks, Nate. This series has been a real pleasure so far.

Angie said...

Awesome! Loving your blog!

B-Sol said...

Thanks for checking it out, Angie! I hope you come back for more installments of 52 Perfect Movies!