When you think of musicals, you think of song, dance, comedy; you think of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They are, perhaps, the definitive musical film stars. Their films set the standard for musicals after the huge rush of the genre at the dawn of the sound era. Astaire and Rogers made ten pictures together; nine were at RKO between 1933 and 1939, while a tenth was made at MGM in 1949 after Judy Garland was forced out of The Barkleys of Broadway. Top Hat was their fourth picture together; it was their zenith, their zeitgeist, the absolute peak of creativity from all concerned in its production. There had never been a musical as good as this, and some would argue that there never would again. That is perhaps for another debate. Certainly, this was the best musical that had been produced up to that point. Even today, I consider it to be the greatest musical, while most others would put it in their Top Five.
Above: The title kind of gives it away, doesn't it?
How did Astaire and Rogers, and their studio, get to this point? Ginger Rogers (1911-1995) was already a veteran movie star for the previous five years or so. She was signed up by RKO in 1929 at the age of 18 and appeared firstly in shorts before making her feature debut in Young Man of Manhattan (1930). She quickly showed a talent for comedy, and she was given roles in films such as The Sap From Syracuse (1930), and - one of the best of her early roles - The Thirteenth Guest (1932). She was an experienced singer and dancer on the New York stage, and in Hollywood she was sent across to Warner Bros. to appear in two of their musicals: 42nd Street (1933), in which she sang 'We're in the Money', followed by Gold Diggers of 1933. The following year she also paired with Dick Powell in Twenty Million Sweethearts (1934), which was not nearly as successful.
The two Warner Bros. musicals of 1933 were massive hits. It was evident that the public wanted more of her in musical films, and so RKO decided now was the time to make some large-scale contributions to the genre of their own.
Above: Utter perfection: Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire are dancing 'Cheek to Cheek.'
Fred Astaire (1899-1987) was already famous as a Broadway musical comedy star; he frequently starred with his sister Adele on many occasions. He was only 19 when they both starred in The Passing Show of 1918, and later in the Gershwins' shows Lady Be Good (1924) and Funny Face (1927). When both shows transferred to the London West End stage, Fred and Adele went with them. Indeed, Fred was in London when his first screen appearance, a loan appearance as himself in MGM's Dancing Lady (1933) hit the movie theatres. Within the month, audiences were marvelling at Astaire's first film under his RKO contract, Flying Down to Rio (1933), whose main co-star was Dolores Del Rio, but the second female lead was Ginger Rogers.
The report on Astaire's RKO screen test is supposed to have read, 'Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little.' It's a wonder they gave him a contract after that report, but they did, and the rest is history. The man who gave him the contract, and appears to be ubiquitous in the history of Hollywood at this time, wrote a memo which said, 'I am uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even on this wretched test.' Astaire's saviour after the dreadful screen test was David O. Selznick.
Astaire and Rogers appeared in two further pictures: The Gay Divorcée (U.K.: The Gay Divorce) (1934) and Roberta (1935), both of which were adaptations of well-known stage shows by Cole Porter and Jerome Kern respectively. Then came Top Hat.
Above: Astaire's imaginative use of the bottom half of himself and Rogers for the title sequence - perhaps suggesting the mistaken identity?
This was the first of the Astaire and Rogers pictures to have a script developed specifically for them. The screenplay was credited to Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott, but the two men never actually worked together; Scott provided a number of rewrites of Taylor's work, after Astaire pronounced himself dissatisfied with some of the early drafts. Indeed, on the film's release, critics swiftly rounded on the fact that this was the second consecutive Astaire-Rogers musical to feature mistaken identity as a key part of the plot, as it had done in The Gay Divorcée (also written by Taylor). Nevertheless, everyone concerned with the film realised that the plot to a large extent mattered little, and the lightness and unimportance of the storyline has only added to the film's charm in the last 80 years or so. The repetition of this particular plot device only served to be more noticeable because many of The Gay Divorcée's principal cast: Astaire, Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore, were also in Top Hat.
It was becoming well-known that a key feature of an Astaire-Rogers musical was its Art Deco set designs, and indeed they do and always will add to the magic of the films. Two separate sound stages were used, joined together by a bridge over which Astaire and Rogers can be seen to be dancing during the 'Cheek to Cheek' number. Nothing was spared for the set designs, and they are pure perfection. Part of the plot was set in Venice, and this scenery was made for Art Deco, with its bridges, piazzas, canals, and a large stage area.
Whoops. I've already given away one of the film's key musical numbers. The songs were all written by Irving Berlin (1888-1989), and almost all of them are now American standards: 'Cheek to Cheek' and 'Top Hat, White Tie & Tails' are the best known numbers, followed by 'Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)'. However, the big production number was in fact 'The Piccolino,' just as 'The Continental' had been in The Gay Divorcée. Despite Berlin's songwriting genius, a musical director was needed to pull all of the great elements together, and for the studio's biggest production of the year, only the head of the studio's music department would do: Max Steiner.
Above: I've got to do what? Director Mark Sandrich with Ginger Rogers.
The first thing Steiner did was reject eight of Berlin's songs. This was not a reflection of their quality, it was simply a matter of cutting the songs which it was felt did not advance the plot. One such song was 'Get Thee Behind Me Satan,' which found its way into Follow the Fleet (1936), Steiner's final commission at RKO. This song appears in the daily production records, which suggests to me that it was either filmed and used in the latter picture, or filmed and is now lost; a separate version made for Follow the Fleet. Amazingly, Irving Berlin could neither read nor write music, and, in the days before synthesizers, he was forced to sit down at a piano which could transpose keys and work out the melodies and harmonies with the aid of a second pianist. Once this arduous process was complete, Steiner would spend days and nights orchestrating it, before handing it all over to almost half a dozen orchestrators, including long-time collaborators Maurice de Packh, Edward Powell and Gene Rose. They wrote out the scores for Steiner to conduct when the time came to record. I have been fortunate enough to go through these scores, which now live at UCLA, along with the rest of the RKO archive. I wrote out a detailed analysis of the full score of 'Top Hat, White Tie & Tails,' which I'll not go into here, except to note that the orchestration was very brass and woodwind-heavy, with three separate parts each for Alto and Tenor saxophone, along with three each for Trumpet and Trombone, in addition to two Horn parts. Strings were somewhat on the light side, with only Violin, Cello and Bass being used (no Viola). This was more or less the scoring for most of the main production numbers. Over half of the surviving musical scores were devoted to 'The Piccolino,' and it seems that almost all of the music's orchestrators, Edward Powell and Arthur Knowlton in particular, had a crack at it.
Above: How good were we? Rogers and Astaire during the 'Cheek to Cheek' number.
Steiner's fee was budgeted at $5100, but the final cost came to $10,200, exactly double. I am unsure why this happened, I can only surmise the obvious, which is that he spent twice as long on the film as was thought necessary originally. The budget for all of the musicians was set at $26,617.50. The final cost? $26,618 - 50 cents over budget! That could have broken RKO - thank God for Howard Hughes!
The recording dates for the music are not known, but Top Hat went before the cameras on RKO's Gower Street lot on April 8, 1935. Naturally, the most difficult sequences to film were the production numbers but Fred Astaire, ever the perfectionist, worked out his and Rogers' routines with choreographer Hermes Pan, and Astaire worked Rogers to the point of complete exhaustion. However, the on-screen results show that Astaire's and Pan's efforts were most definitely worth it, and then some. The choreography is sublime; easily the greatest musical achievement of the 1930's, perhaps of all time, and without a doubt Astaire's best work. Production wrapped on June 5, 1935, and June 6-10 were spent filming added scenes - a surprisingly short schedule for a picture of this scale. It does not matter, though; everything worked.
Above: Astaire (with Edward Everett Horton) annoys Ginger Rogers in the suite below.
Previews were held towards the end of July, and audience reaction meant that a significant amount of film - almost 15 minutes from the latter part of the picture - was cut before release. Top Hat made its official debut on August 29, 1935, and when it opened at RKO's Radio City Music Hall a week later, it broke all records there. Final worldwide receipts for 1935/36 were around $3 million against a production cost of $620,000. Oh yes, it was a hit.
One of the key features of Astaire and Pan's choreography is how the dancing itself was woven directly into the plot. In 'No Strings,' for example, Astaire's character occupies a room in a London hotel directly above that of Rogers. She is initially annoyed by him (another Astaire-Rogers plot device, in which Rogers' resistance is eroded by Astaire's charm, was frequently used), and while she is trying to sleep, he begins tap dancing above her, beating the furniture with his hands, tapping rapidly in one spot in the centre of the suite, and beating his cane off the floor rhythmically on the off-beat. After she goes upstairs to complain, a reprise of the number is used for Astaire to sprinkle some sand on the floor and dancing softly over it, with the intention of lulling her to sleep. So successful is it that not only does Rogers fall asleep, but so does Edward Everett Horton (as Astaire's manager) and - again using a typical Astaire comedic device - Astaire himself.
Astaire's genius is perhaps most clearly displayed in the 'Top Hat, White Tie & Tails' number, as he humorously uses his cane as a mock 'gun,' shooting down the members of the male chorus behind him. He uses lighting, tempo and mood changes throughout. He was able to begin a dance phrase softly and end it with a rapid display of speed and volume. The lighting gave him the opportunity to use his figure as part of the backdrop, an almost Art Deco dancer if you will. He is also very much a part of the musical arrangement, as he uses his cane as a rhythmic device on the off-beat in between words he is singing during the song's legendary chorus.
Above: The famous 'Top Hat, White Tie & Tails' number.
The song 'Cheek to Cheek' is justifiably famous in part because it is an infectious tune yet extremely difficult to sing, and it inspired a dance routine featuring Astaire and Rogers which is now the stuff of legend. Again, the choreography directly reflects the current stage of the plot; and once again, Astaire introduces the song by singing its opening words almost as part of the dialogue. Rogers is still uncertain as to her feelings for him; Astaire and Pan reflected this in her dancing. She hesitates at first, they dance separately, together, separately again, and finally together as he leans her back; Rogers had an extremely supple back and Astaire was determined to exploit this to its fullest effect in this, quite easily their most famous routine together. Rogers' costume actually becomes almost a third dancer as it spins and flows in perfect time and space. The light feathery nature of the dress contributed much to this delightful effect. Each time Astaire bends her back she trusts him more, and the final twist shows us that she is now completely in love with him.
On its initial release, Top Hat grossed around $3 million, becoming the second most successful film of 1935, after Mutiny on the Bounty. During the TV, and then the video and DVD age, it has featured consistently in schedules and sales charts, demonstrating its enduring success. When you think of musicals, yes, you think of many of the MGM Arthur Freed classics of the forties and fifties, and perhaps some of the absolute slew of them that were made between 1929 and 1931, but for me Top Hat is never far behind. In 1935, people wanted escapism, and they got it. This picture is the pinnacle of the Astaire/Rogers musicals, features some of Astaire's greatest dancing, some of the greatest songs ever written, and an enormous Art Deco set that students of fashion and architecture have written dissertations and theses about.
Personally, I love this film because it is pure escapism. I also love the great songwriting and Max Steiner's sublime arrangement of the songs. The music is tremendous. It was made in black and white, but it did not need to be in Technicolor; why should it? You can imagine all the colour you want in your head. The script and acting were light and inconsequential, but, as I mentioned earlier, that in itself added to the greatness of the film as a whole; it was almost a humorous plot device in itself. From start to finish (it is around 101 minutes), it is a lesson in how to make a musical comedy. I am very glad I have lived my life in a world in which Top Hat was a part. x