Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935)

by Douglas Buck July 27, 2021 3 minutes (626 words) Digital projection La Cinémathèque Québécoise/part of their two-month long MUSIQUE! program

A screwball musical comedy of love-seeking and desire-stalking amongst high society’s erudite and elegant elite, with misunderstood and shifting phony identities abounding (a usual formula and setting for this kinda film… in fact, the film has been apparently criticized as a direct knock-off of the Astaire/Rogers effort from the previous year, The Gay Divorcee, which has now officially been put on my short list, as well as any of the other legendary dancing duo’s numerous film jaunts, admittedly none of which I’d seen until now with Top Hat), with at its center an absurdly thin-featured Fred (I can’t not see him as a human incarnation of the muppet Beeker) and Ginger, prancing joyously about extravagant art-deco sets, their feats of wonder looking near effortless, almost like dancing on air at times, Top Hat didn’t have to speak to a desperate depression-era audience to be appreciated… it’s just as magical to see today (even if it takes a bit getting used to the lower quality of production sound, which – to me, anyway – slightly affects my enjoyment of the full musical experience… but that’s a quibble).

You know who

As I watched, I found myself marvelling at the choreography, taking in just how much the physicality of the dancing — the shifts and changes that occur (with the changes in just the physical touching played between Astaire and Rogers from the beginning of a number to the end saying so much) – is used to reveal (or expose, or challenge, or change) the emotional states of the characters, allowing the dance numbers to actually move the plot forward, rather than just act as thoroughly enjoyable eye candy (which it is as well!). It made me think of David Cronenberg’s stated goal with his vehicle-crashing, sex-filled transgressive fetish movie Crash of telling the story through the multitude of sex scenes, requiring the audience to pay attention to the emotional connections being made in those scenes (rather than simply turning their minds off, and their little sexy parts on, as audiences have traditionally been trained to do during these scenes over cinema history)… and it suddenly dawned on me… hell, musicals have been doing just this kind of thing – and just as brazenly — at least fifty years earlier (admittedly, just through another kind of character/actor physicality – you know, singing and dancing, rather than the ol’ in/out).

As with so many Hollywood films of yesteryear (when the studios controlled everything, including each and every performer), let alone the musicals, the assembly-line supporting cast might be familiar, but they’re a warmly welcome familiar, in which when they show up on screen, you just know they’re gonna deliver the goods — I mean is there any greater delight than watching the sublime timing of Edward Everett Horton playing another of his eternally put-upon butt-of-the-joke officious ninny characters? I mean, he’s gotta be up there in the stratosphere as far as greatest comic actors having ever graced the screen.

Everett Horton

The inspired production design has little interest in anything representing verisimilitude, that’s for sure, imagining the canal-laden old-style landscape of Venice as pure fantastical massively-scaled art deco. But it’s grand illusion. Like the whole film.

Top Hat, and joyous old-time majestic Hollywood musicals like it (the just watched Singin’ in the Rain springin’ right to mind), wrapped up in child-like excitement as they are (and delivering it to the audience), has me feeling a bit like that poor, listless, clearly light-in-the-loafers Prince from Monty Python’s Life of Brian who keeps telling his barbarian like King father that he doesn’t want to get married and own that Swamp Castle, no, why he just ‘wants to sing!’.

Cue the music. I’m in.

Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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