Her Niceties Are The Nicest: Top Hat (1935)

I have been away from the blog for longer than usual, I openly admit this.  I could blame it on the reality that I am knee deep in graduate school and have been afforded little time to do anything beyond heavy paper writing, a few within the grasp of academic publication.  I could blame it on this and it would probably be accurate.  However, while on Thanksgiving break I found out that one of the great modern atrocities will be occurring in the upcoming weeks on a major network channel.  Apparently Carrie Underwood and one of the vampires from True Blood are going to do a live on television version of Sound of Music.  This hurts my soul and it too should hurt your soul.  However, instead of ranting on about purity and how some works should not be tampered with or recreated I have decided to pull forth a planned month of movie marathons and spend the entirety of December watching and reviewing musicals.  While my marathons for Kungfu films and westerns were inspired by my illiteracy in the genres (still so even after knocking out thirty films in each situation) I am somewhat more versed in regards to musicals.  At least I thought I was more versed in this sense, but I began looking at lists of suggestions and getting a recommendation here and there from a friend and it turns out that I am quite lacking in both contemporary and classic Hollywood musicals.  As such I will take it upon myself to watch thirty musicals some from the burgeoning moments of sound right through to the recent popularly successful but critically panned Les Miserables.  I am hoping that by doing so I will bring more awareness to the genre, even if only a handful of people read the posts and expand my understanding on one of cinema's most misunderstood and mocked genres.  While I am still deep in school for at least another week, I also hope to crack into some literature on the genre and begin to consider the more complex layers of cinematic narrative and diegesis at play, which is fitting since I begin the marathon with the delightful and charming Astaire and Rogers number Top Hat, made purely cinematic with the inclusion of an Irving Berlin score.

Top Hat focuses on Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) a prominent song and dance man who has recently been recruited to work on a show in London.  His boss and friend Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton) hoping that Jerry will prove the exact spark necessary to drive his show to the top.  While Horace is a bit bumbling and well-meaning, he is no match for the guile and constantly devious ways of Jerry, whose willingness to tap-dance at a moments notice lead to a confrontation with their downstairs neighbor the equally adept performer Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers).  Jerry instantly falls for Dale, finding her confrontational manner delightfully open not to mention her looks stunning.  Dale initially oblivious to this becomes to point of Jerry's adoration when he begins sending gifts to her, including a large horseshoe shaped bouquet, much to the frustration of another of Dale's suitors the idiom misusing Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes).  Yet, Jerry the constant trickster decides it will be funny to send the gifts in the name of Horace as a way to assure that he and Dale will meet up again, which he manages to make happen on a variety of occasions.  Horace oblivious to this occurrence, is berated and eventually hit by his angered wife Madge (Helen Broderick) who thinks him to be flippantly having an affair.  Indeed, Dale even believes Jerry to be Horace, making the insistence on the part of Madge that the two become partners that much more confusing since she thinks Jerry to also be the very Horace that Madge has mounted complaints against.  All the while, Alberto attempts to swoon Dale, eventually dragging her to Paris and convincing her to get married when she believes Jerry to indeed be married to Madge, thus sad as she has genuinely grown to adore his company.  After a series of even more comedic encounters it is revealed, in a rather underwhelming way, that Jerry is not Horace thus saving Horace from more abuse.  Fearing that the two will not be able to marry, it is revealed that the ceremony was overseen by Bates (Eric Blore), Horace's butler and not an official priest, thus allowing Dale and Jerry to happily, and literally, dance of in their new life together.

Top Hat is probably the best place for this marathon to begin because it manages to enigmatically traipse between the space of the diegetic and non-diegetic in a way that makes the musical decidedly fascinating.  Indeed, one of the main critiques mounted against people who "like" movies is that musicals are impossible in the willingness for characters to break into song and dance for little to no reason.  While this is true, it is often within the context of adding emphasis to scenes or to consider the way in which space works within cinematic language, never mind that the people who often deliver these same criticisms are themselves huge proponents of the horror genre, which I find to exist in a cinematic space more implausible than the musical.  Either way, I digress, because what I find fascinating about these films is that there seems to be, at least it is the case with Top Hat, a knowing navigation between the space of the cinema and the music that non-diegetically invades the film.  In the opening dance number Jerry begins to dance to the music, the tapping a response to the music that assumedly exists outside the cinematic space, yet it is his dancing that leads to Dale responding to a very loud and very diegetic sound, the large thumping coming from above her hotel room.  In this sense the film works not only within the diegetic and non-diegetic, but arguably also an extra-diegetic space, wherein a response to a sound, is a response to music and the two, at one point occur simultaneously.  This does not only consider the music though, as there are also scene which are purposefully staged, as is the case with the delightful "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails" which happens to also possess a bit of narrative extension.  This staginess, however, also comes to be replicated when the cast moves to Paris, where the gondola rides and the like are also indicative of a theatre stage, as is Horace's apartment.  Indeed, the only space of the film that seems to certifiably exist within the diegesis, is that of Dale's bed, where she incidentally hears Jerry's tapping.  It causes one to wonder about the layers of the imaginative at work in the film, particularly since all the action moves from the reactions of Dale, right through to her idyllic closing dance with Jerry.

Key Scene:  Fred Astaire gunning down dudes with his cane is great choreography in a film full of genius music and dance.

This is a great film, one of the certifiable classics and certainly worth your time.  It is justifiable as a rental, but also a worthwhile buy.

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