Tall Hat & High Heels
Updated: Aug 20, 2022
It's hard to picture Fred Astaire, possibly the greatest dancer in entertainment history, without a polished top hat, a slick pair of tap shoes and, most importantly, a stunning female partner by his side. Throughout his extensive career in showbusiness, beginning with his stage work in the early twentieth century, Fred has waltzed, hoofed and choreographed his way not only into the embrace of his audience but also the leading ladies who would be called upon to put their own talents to the ultimate test. Though Adele Astaire was the first to share the spotlight with her younger brother in the long-forgotten days of vaudeville, she was by no means the last...or the most memorable. And while many dancers – including Eleanor Powell, Vera-Ellen, Rita Hayworth and Cyd Charisse – have certainly earned honorable mentions, there was only one who forever became known as "the one."
Holding your own next to an iconic performer is never an easy feat, and it's been said that Ginger Rogers was fortunate to have been chosen as a partner for the dancer extraordinaire. And yet, it is impossible to consider the professional contributions and personal achievements of the extraordinary actress without acknowledging the fact that she herself was a legend in her own right. Having already gained experience on the stage, Ginger became a star by the age of 19 after appearing in a Broadway production of Girl Crazy. and was destined to take Hollywood by storm when Paramount Pictures offered her a multi-year contractual agreement in 1930. Ginger's work for Paramount as well as that of its competing studios was just the beginning, but her collaboration with Fred Astaire at RKO Radio Pictures (RKO) was by no means the end. And while it's not surprising that Ginger's career – which included television appearances, award-winning dramatic roles and a return to the theater – lasted well into the 1980s, her 73 film credits and a legacy forever memorialized by a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are nothing short of remarkable.
There is a reason why Ginger, considered to be a cut above the so-called others, was the ideal counterpart to match the rhythmic stylings of an uncompromising perfectionist. Balancing out her partner's physical appearance, which in the eyes of some Hollywood producers was hindered by a balding head, a weak chin and large ears, the strikingly beautiful and visually captivating Ginger made up for Fred's cosmetic flaws. Always striving to perfect her craft, Ginger never gave up on keeping up, willing to perfect the art of mirroring her partner's movements at any cost (and there were plenty, as evidenced by recurring cases of bleeding toes). From Ginger's vantage point, most often atop a pair of high heels, twirling in the arms of Fred, whose easygoing charm was glorified in her presence, was a thrilling experience unlike any other – a well-played and purposefully acted depiction of every romantic fantasy.
It's no surprise that the musical has always and continues to be a hit-or-miss genre, delighting some moviegoers with its level of showmanship while equally infuriating those who dismiss them as meaningless fluff. While there is some truth to both statements, and I'm the first to acknowledge that musicals certainly aren't for everyone, their importance and level of escapism, especially in the lives of wartime audiences, should never be discounted. By today's standards, movies from the 1930s or 1940s may not be as culturally diverse as some may wish them to be, nor do they address societal issues or seek to convey important messages; even in all of their simplicity, however, they are equally as influential in terms of artistic merit, intellectual significance and historical importance.
Whenever the opportunity to showcase Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their element presented itself, RKO never missed a beat. Having already perfected the formula with three previous films, the studio, then on the brink of bankruptcy, drew upon the talents of movie director Mark Sandrich, composer Irving Berlin, dance director Hermes Pan and a star-studded lineup of supporting players to create Top Hat, the second-highest 1935 grosser worthy of four Academy Award® nominations and preservation in the National Film Registry.
For the record, I've been a fan of movie musicals ever since I can remember, singing and dancing along with the best among the rest and the greatest of all time. And yet, despite my childhood love of renowned films such as The Sound of Music, Grease and The Wizard of Oz, my knowledge of the genre and its array of stars turned out to be fairly limited. It wasn't until I stumbled upon 1954's A Star is Born that my interest in learning more about the Golden Age of Hollywood skyrocketed into the stratosphere, and I began learning about and collecting as many films as I could find. Top Hat and the rabbit hole that is Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers may have come about as a mere coincidence when I stumbled across Turner Classic Movies' "Must-See Musicals" at a local bookstore, but in the serendipitous sense, it probably found me for a reason, meant to serve as the inspiration for what would eventually become Classics in Wonderland.
At the heart of the Top Hat story is Fred Astaire's Jerry Travers, an American performer who travels to London at the behest of producer Horace Hardwick, played by character actor Edward Everett Horton, and Ginger Rogers' Dale Tremont, a romantic interest who requires more than a first sight to fall in love with the self-assured dancer. Savoring his freedom from relational commitments, Jerry celebrates the life of bachelorhood with the "No Strings (I'm Fancy Free" song on his lips and a pep – make that a tap – in his step. Though this number, the first of several in Berlin's score of hit standards, is fairly straightforward in its execution, it gives us a glimpse of what's to come, setting not only the precedent for a genuine class act to wow us with bigger and better things but for an array of lavish, art-deco set designs, brought to life in part by unit art director Carroll Clark, to completely permeate our senses.
While Jerry is headed for professional recognition, Dale is anything but impressed with his antics. Little does she know that her upstairs neighbor has had a change of heart, mesmerized by her sudden appearance, and is now determined to win her over at any cost. Come rain or shine, Jerry succeeds in tracking Dale down to Hyde Park, where a Grecian-style gazebo, an ideal refuge from the impending storm, serves as the backdrop for the dancing partners' first duet.
The "Isn't This a Lovely Day" sequence stands out as a unique number for many reasons. Fred, with his penchant for expensive, well-tailored suits, turned the more traditional, aristocratic ware into a contemporary look that was uniquely his; carefully selecting clothing for this and most of his other films, he inadvertently redefined and continued to influence male fashion in the twentieth century – and for decades to come.
Unlike her escort, Ginger Rogers' typically made-up and glamorous looks are no longer a distraction to the viewer. Instead, Dale is casually dressed in riding gear and plays the part of Jerry's reflection, skillfully mirroring each of his subtle movements in reverse fashion. Ginger's comedic talents and multifaceted gestures are well-timed and on display throughout the number, reminding us yet again of why dancing alongside the sharply dressed Fred is a luxury that is not afforded to just anyone.
Before Jerry can properly pursue Dale, who leaves for Italy to model and promote designer gowns, he's got to deliver the performance of a lifetime back in London. Once again, Fred Astaire does not disappoint; on the contrary, he is dressed to impress in "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," a spectacle based on Ziegfeld's Broadway play called Smile. Set against a Parisian backdrop, Fred takes the stage and picks up a cane – one of 13 created for the production – to lead an all-male chorus in a teasingly destructive number.
Throughout several of his pictures, particularly those he would go on to make for MGM, Fred would draw upon the support of props ranging from the more conventional hat rack and musical instruments to the awe-inspiring revolving ceiling.
Top Hat's transition from a fun-loving musical to an iconic masterpiece begins the moment the audience is transported to a more fantastical visualization of Venice that stretches along a 300-foot canal, built entirely within the parameters of RKO's studio lots. It is there, among the gliding gondolas and free-flowing champagne, that a hilarious case of mistaken identities and reparations ensues.
Believing herself to be the cause of an extramarital affair, Dale seeks the advice of Horace's wife, Madge (Helen Broderick), a matchmaker by trade, who unwittingly adds fuel to the romantic fire. With plenty of encouragement from the woman who is not in the least disturbed by her supposed husband's behavior, Dale accepts an invitation from Jerry, who has finally managed to track her down, to dance "Cheek to Cheek." Arranged by Max Steiner, this great American standard, which Berlin wrote in a day, serves as a turning point in the couple's relationship while transforming into one of the most beloved Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers performances to grace the silver screen.
Though the end result is breathtaking, it did not come about without a wardrobe malfunction. Determined to wear a dress of her own making – a turquoise satin extravaganza with hand-sewn ostrich feathers – Ginger emerged onto the rehearsal set to the horror of Fred, who lost his temper, and the production team. Although the situation was remedied by the time Fred got over his shock of seeing "...a chicken attacked by a coyote" and a seamstress stepped in to tackle Ginger's flight of fancy, a few loose feathers remained forever scattered across the terrace floor.
While certainly an unpleasant incident when it happened on the set of Top Hat, any frustrations caused by the ostrich-dress fiasco faded away with time. Dancing alongside a feather-clad Judy Garland in 1948's Easter Parade, Fred Astaire proved that he was a good sport, "Cheek" and all.
These days, screwball comedies with unadulterated humor seem far and few between, but in the heyday of the classic Hollywood musicals, they were a staple. Top Hat is no exception, its cast of dynamic personalities just as deserving of praise and attention as the leading stars who stand at the forefront of the film's brilliant script. Erik Rhodes' Alberto Beddini, a dandy in every sense of the word, relentlessly woos Dale in his own over-the-top fashion...literally. Meanwhile, Eric Blore – whose reputation for playing butlers and servants precedes him – steals the show and gets in plenty of trouble as the eccentric, silver-tongued Bates. Eric's appearance in other Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films is no coincidence; musical movie enthusiasts will delight in his characterizations of Butterbass in Flying Down to Rio (1933), a waiter in The Gay Divorcee (1934), Mr. Gordon in Swing Time (1936) and Cecil Flintridge in Shall We Dance (1937).
Bates' role in Top Hat goes beyond that of Horace's valet. Mischievous to a fault, he also follows Dale to Italy at the urging of his boss and goes out of his way to employ unorthodox methods of keeping an eye on her. But even as Bates gets himself into trouble with a local police officer, Jerry drives Dale away and into the wedded arms of the ever-obliging Beddini. What begins as a simple story of boy-meets-girl turns into an engaging comedic romp by the time the closing credits roll. The Hardwicks are now at odds with each other, Dale is married to a man whom she believes to be the only one with any scruples, and Jerry is once again left to his own devices. While it's hard to tell who will come to the leading lady's rescue, there's only one man who saves the day at the end of the day.
"The Piccolino" is yet another showstopper – with a solo sung by Ginger Rogers in lieu of Fred Astaire's refusal of the tune – one that demanded over 125 hours of rehearsal and required all the talent that RKO had to bring the Top Hat story to a satisfying conclusion. Partially shot from an aerial view reminiscent of the tried-and-true style of Busby Berkeley while also closing in on the celebration of the leading couple's long-awaited reunion, the grand finale not only sealed the deal between Jerry and Dale but also set the stage for Fred and Ginger to become one of Hollywood's most beloved on-screen pairings.
In comparison to the turquoise dress that ruffled a few feathers earlier in the film, Dale's final ensemble, which Ginger Rogers donated to The Smithsonian, was welcomed with open arms by the Venetian spectators, Top Hat movie audiences and even Fred Astaire himself. A happily ever after, indeed.
While Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made a total of 10 films together, culminating with 1949's The Barkleys of Broadway, their final on-screen reunion, there are two movies in the dancers' repertoire that consistently show up on curated lists of all-around best musicals. While RKO was certainly no Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) in terms of grandeur and caliber, timeless gems like Top Hat and its partner-in-crime Swing Time, which the former studio did produce, are an exception to the rule. The fact that both titles have become timeless in their own right, shining alongside each other and over the remaining eight films as beacons of Golden Age cinema at its best, makes their viewing (and future Wonderland exploration) even more essential.