To describe classic 1930’s cinema, one would have to include a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing number. Top Hat is one of their iconic classics, the first created exclusively to feature this pair. With catchy musical numbers, great use of Astaire’s fast feet and comedic plot based on mistaken identities, Top Hat is a film to relax to with a dopey grin spread across your face. For me, it’s nearly a guilty pleasure.
In London, Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) is the lead in the latest stage production by Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). Late one night at the hotel, Jerry gets a fit of restless feet and his conversation with Horace turns into a tap number. Just below him is Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers), who complains about the noise going on. Learning that the noise is coming from Mr. Hardwick’s room, she storms upstairs to confront the noise only to meet Jerry. The two are instantly attracted to each other, but no introductions are made. Though Dale does not immediately welcome Jerry’s advances, including filling her room with flowers, they do spark a bit of romance. But when she incorrectly conceives that Jerry is Horace, and worse, he is married, she leaves with her dress maker Alberto (Erik Rhodes) to Venice. There she meets up with Madge (Helen Broderick), Horace’s wife, and they talk about the advances Dale thinks Horace is making. When the men, back in London, learn that Dale is in Venice, they fly after her and meet up with Madge as well. As Jerry continues his pursuit, Horace feels the wrath of his wife, confusing the men even further and driving Dale into a quick marriage.
The set that is supposed to be Venice, with pristine canals and bridges, undoubtedly earned Top Hat its Art Direction nomination. Of course, this is only a large sound stage and to believe that this is any part of Venice, one must a very strong suspension of disbelief. It looks more like these clapboard gondolas are gliding through Disney Land’s It’s A Small World than any real canal. However, that is not a bad thing. Imagine how out of place Astaire and Rogers might look really dancing in Venice. These iconic stars, in their tails and elegant feather dress, look their best in completely synthetic surroundings. All those white structures were built just to help them pop off the screen more. In fact, the canal water was dyed black to gain more contrast.
Honestly, the plot is a little silly, and the sets look really fake, but we are not supposed to mind. As long as we are watching comedic mishaps based on Dale mistaking Jerry for Horace, we should be rolling with it, grinning and enjoying the musical numbers. The point is to keep the men confused in their pursuit and the women conniving until things start to resolve to the ideal ending. The film does just that while showing off Fred’s fast feet and pairing him up perfectly with Ginger.
“In dealing with a girl or horse, one just lets nature take its course.”