January 22, 2012 § 3 Comments
I’m probably going to lose all my musical-loving street cred by saying this, but I’ve never been the biggest fan of Fred Astaire musicals. This has less to do with Fred himself than it does with the form the musical took at the peak of Astaire’s career: pre-Oklahoma!, they’re intended to be nothing but trifles with spun-sugar plots and no character development, no emotional journey. While plenty of people love them, it’s not my favorite era of the musical’s development. Most of the Fred Astaire movie plots seem to take the same basic format: either he or his romantic interest (or both) are involved with other people, but they fall in love instead. This is a solid enough plot with enough variations to base a handful of movies on, but not an entire career, sorry to say.
Still, it’s not just the musical’s fault. There’s a line in movie-musical fandom that says you’re either an Astaire fan or a Kelly fan, never both, with the implication always that Astaire’s dancing was the purer version of the art form. Astaire was sophisticated, made it look easy, was always in a top hat and tails while he did it. Gene Kelly wasn’t a dancer, he was an athlete. He did musicals where he wore a baseball player’s uniform or a sailor suit or a terrible mustache. You see him sweat! You never see Astaire sweat. The idea that I have to pick just one seems overly restrictive to me, but if I have to limit myself, I’m a Gene girl all the way. The problem with Fred is that even here, when he’s young, he just comes off as old. Fussy. Ineffectual. I can never suspend my disbelief enough to buy the idea that women are chasing after him, fighting over him, can’t stay away from him. It’s a problem I have with Fred, with Bing Crosby, sometimes even with Frank Sinatra. Sometimes the qualities that made someone a star don’t universally translate over the decades. Seventy years from now, I imagine classic film fans will wonder why we were so hot for George Clooney.
But the biggest hurdle for me to jump is that Astaire always plays the same character. Always lovesick, always walking that tightrope between smarmy and charming. Never convincingly hot-blooded, never in over his head. Refusing to be seen in anything other than that damn top hat and tails. Would Astaire ever wear a terrible mustache or a baseball uniform if it fit the character? Never. Astaire’s a dancer, not an actor. And certainly there’s some comfort to be derived from that, a comfort that was probably more welcome during the Great Depression when Astaire’s career was at its peak. If you went to an Astaire film, you knew what you were going to get: Astaire, always in fancy dress, always calm, cool and collected, always twirling you away from your problems. It’s these traits that many Astaire fans still love in him to this day. Just not me.
With that introduction in mind, I enjoyed Top Hat more than most Fred Astaire films. Astaire is the same as ever–put-together, tuxedo-clad, head over heels in puppy-love. The plot is similar to other Astaire plots, albeit with a mistaken identities twist that I enjoyed more than most–while Astaire is trying to romance Miss Rodgers, she’s convinced that he’s the husband of her close friend. A comedy of errors ensues. But despite the same ol’ Fred and same ol’ plot, the movie has other charms. First there’s Ginger, whom I love anywhere. Then there are those absurd, amazing Art Deco sets, culminating in the wonder of a Disneyland-esque Venice pictured above. I could love this movie for those sets alone, and of course the highly artificial Fred & Ginger films work better on highly artificial sound stages than they would have on location. And the costumes–Ginger’s riding pants, that infamous feather dress during the “Cheek to Cheek” scene! The dancing, it goes without saying, is phenomenal. The supporting cast is stellar, the script is funny–basically everything except Fred works for me here. Sorry, Fred.
While the film is intended to be wholly superficial, the mistaken identity plot functions here as it does in many Shakespearean comedies, allowing the characters to allude to sex and adultery in a way that never could have been addressed in a 1935 movie if played straight. At one point, Ginger believes that her friend Madge is literally offering to share her husband with her–and Ginger, if we’re to take the movie seriously, considers it (despite being slightly appalled). The Breen Office only allows this because we, the audience, know they’re actually in love with different men. I’m not one of those Hays Code afficionados who believe that the Code made everything better by forcing filmmakers to allude to things and audiences to use their brains rather than having things spelled out for them, but Top Hat is a perfect example of films that are made better by implication only.