Read an additional review about the film: I'm in Heaven
Jason and I finally attended one of the Based on the Book Film Series
at the Humboldt County Library. I was able to convince him to go because they were showing musicals all month, and he's always been a fan of musicals.
On Tuesday, January 4, at 6:30pm, we went to the library to see Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Everett Horton in a film called Top Hat
. We hadn't seen it before, and the film was hosted by Bob Doran, a North Coast Journal
writer. Since it was a free screening with a brief introduction and discussion afterward, we went despite being tired. We arrived ten minutes early because the seating was limited. Unfortunately, we were still forced to take the not so comfortable chairs at the back of the room. Poor Jason got a really bad kink in his lower back. Still, we were able to enjoy the film despite the poor seating circumstances.
The introduction was interesting because Doran talked about some of the actors' childhood and adult years, especially how they became Hollywood stars. I paid the most attention to the information about Fred Astaire, born Frederick Austerlitz, and Ginger Rogers, born Virginia Katherine McMath. One thing I didn't realize was that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were contracted to the same studio, which is why they commonly played in the same films. Still, Top Hat
is considered their best performance. Ginger Rogers also created the fancy dress she wore at the end of the film when they were dancing to "Cheek to Cheek." During the discussion afterward, we learned that Astaire gave her the nickname "Chicken" because of that very same dress. Astaire didn't like it because the feathers flew all over the place when they were dancing. However, when I was researching this information, Wikipedia
said she was nicknamed "Feathers." I'm a little unclear about which version is true, but it's still a fun fact to know before watching Top Hat
Although the introduction to the film was comprised of mainly fun facts and tidbits, such as Astaire starting his singing and dancing career with his more talented sister Adele Astaire, I was surprised that Top Hat
was criticized for resembling an earlier film's plot too closely called The Gay Divorcee
, 1934. Having not seen that film, I can't comment on whether or not the similar themes and actors devalued the production of Top Hat
. To be honest, directors and writers repeat themes all the time, such as a "love triangle" or the "hero versus villain" plot. If a movie is a good, it's good regardless of whether or not it's been done before. Originality is a little overrated. Creative presentation makes all the difference.
The most interesting aspect about this film, and a topic that was discussed at the end of the movie, was how it was made during the Depression Era. Fred Astaire plays his typical aristocrat role and is always seen wearing a tuxedo, minus the time he disguises himself as a coach driver. Astaire's character is a rich American who's made it big with an international singing and dancing career in England. Roger's character is an American fashion model promoting her friends' fashion (The Great Benini) to the rich in England and Italy. However, without his cooperation, she would have to go back to America penniless, as he points out at one poignant moment when Rogers' considers breaking her contract for love. Top Hat
is a typical escapist film for the Depression Era. The viewer is distracted from their own financial troubles by the ideas of wealth and glittering elegance that abound in this film. There are extremely detailed backgrounds and sets, such as fancy hotel rooms, Venice, and nightclubs. Many of the sets are Art Deco inspired. Of course, there are extravagant costumes and debonair characters; who doesn't like fancy ball gowns, top hats, tuxedos, and dancing? At the same time the film glorifies the rich and famous, it satirizes them, like when Astaire teases the old men at the gentleman's club for being too stodgy and quiet. The film does an effective job of allowing the viewer a brief respite from their everyday troubles with the hope that true love will prevail. After all, anything is possible!
The most unusual Depression milieu is the "gangster tap" finale of the "Tap Hat" performance that Astaire's character stars in. He taps across the stage and uses his cane like a machine gun taking out the other dancers one by one. After all, it's easier to succeed without any competition getting in your way. Whether this was a social commentary or more satire remains to be seen.
Overall, the film is worth your time. It was nominated for quite a few Academy Awards, such as Best Picture, Best Interior Decoration, Best Song, and Best Dance Direction. Unfortunately, it didn't win any of them. There was a lot of tough competition that year; Mutiny on the Bounty
(1935) won the best picture award.
The discussion after the film was more exciting than the introduction, and it left me wanting to research more about these actors and this time period. I'm really happy that we attended the Based on the Book Film Series
at the Humboldt County Library. It provided a great opportunity to see an amazing film that we probably otherwise would never have watched. The addition of a big screen projector made it feel as if we were in a theater watching Top Hat
One final note about Top Hat
and the musical film genre: Top Hat
was not based on a book or play,
but the deviation from the norm didn't disappoint any of the attendees. Doran explained that musicals are often considered plays in and of themselves, especially in regards to this production. The songs are interwoven into the narrative and are actually used to advance the plot and develop the characters. This was very apparent when Ginger Roger's character eventually unraveled the mistaken identity plot and the types of songs changed to fit the new actions/tone. Wikipedia
compares musical films to stage musicals, further elaborating the idea of a play to these types of films:
The musical film was a natural development of the stage musical. Typically, the biggest difference between film and stage musicals is the use of lavish background scenery which would be impractical in a theater. Musical films characteristically contain elements reminiscent of theater; performers often treat their song and dance numbers as if there is a live audience watching. In a sense, the viewer becomes the deictic audience, as the performer looks directly into the camera and performs to it.