I’m currently taking a “Television-Film Aesthetics” class this semester, and thought the weekly screenings presented the perfect opportunity to write about some of the films from my notes. This past week, we watched Top Hat (1935) and were encouraged to think about the appeal of a musical in the 1930s. I know there is so much to cover in detail, but I will focus on writing about some of the parts that especially stuck out to me.
I’ve seen this film once before for leisure, but my second viewing took a much more analytical approach. As the movie began, the main stars—Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers—are introduced mainly from the waist down in the opening credits. Of course, since they are a notable dancing duo, one could recognize them even by their feet. Similarly, the first glimpse of Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) is also of his feet. He is waiting inside a dignified London club, but is abruptly shushed for every move he makes that disturbs the surrounding occupants’ quiet atmosphere. My professor pointed out that we can look at the introduction of his feet as being disruptive towards classism. He is, after all, an American in London—a foreigner, someone who is seen as an outsider and possibly branded as disorderly. Jerry seems to confirm this notion (almost as a retort) when he gives a loud tap dance on his way out, clearly having enough of the treatment he’s received.
Being a musical, it’s nothing unusual for Top Hat to have music that virtually comes out of nowhere, paired with dancing that seems too well-rehearsed for spontaneity. But the songs are important, as they are integrated into the story. Take the “No Strings” number, where Jerry expresses that he hasn’t any obligations and enjoys being a bachelor (in mid-sentence, he even begins to sing, which shows just how integrated the music is), while moving around freely in dance. Meanwhile, he awakens Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers), who is just a floor below the suite he’s currently in. The moment they meet, she’s visibly annoyed, but—almost in an ironic twist—he’s immediately bound by love.
During “Isn’t This a Lovely Day,” the two are taking shelter under a bandstand from the sudden storm. This is where we see their first dancing sequence together. Jerry starts off, and after slight hesitation, Dale joins in and challenges him by imitating his steps. They begin to communicate to each other through dance, with Dale keeping some distance. However, she eventually warms up to him, and they finally pair together and dance as one unit. Even Dale’s outfit is something to note: she’s donning jodhpurs, instead of the conventional flowing skirt, which is actually refreshing to see. Not only does she look stunning, it also evokes the level of equality that the characters achieve through their dance, but in a visual representation that doesn’t present any binaries.
As is apparent in the Fred & Ginger films, dancing is an art and a form of communication. The choreography and the relationship between the partners are aspects that should be regarded with a closer look. During the memorable “Cheek to Cheek” dance, more character unfolding occurs. Throughout the film, the viewer is aware of the case of mistaken identity that the plot builds up, and the growing confusion it is causing. It’s obvious that Jerry and Dale do not communicate very well to each other through the exchange of spoken words, but rather through dance. To get the full effect of their dancing and body language, the camera only uses full body shots. No close-ups. I couldn’t help but notice a trancelike stillness in the room when they dance, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking.
“The Piccolino” dance sequence is one that turns sound into visual by making extensive use of the huge production set. At one point, the dancers form what appears to be strings on a guitar through the use of ribbons attached to the dancers’ costumes. The result is a visually stimulating, Busby Berkeley-esque kaleidoscope of dance.
It’s films like Top Hat that appealed significantly to movie-goers at the time due to the feelings they presented. During the Great Depression, they provided viewers with an escape, and gave them a fantasy to hold onto: one of wealth and luxury and carefree attitudes—even if for only just a moment.