While I’ve always preferred Mark Sandrich’s The Gay Divorcee (1934) and George Stevens’ Swing Time (1936), I’d never sell Sandrich’s Top Hat (1935) short. (Back in the old days before home video, I even owned a bootleg 16mm copy of the film.) It was the film that took the basic template of The Gay Divorcee and refined it to something like perfection, smoothing out some of its rougher edges. The setup is much the same in both pictures. Fred and Ginger “meet cute” in both, but the device of him waking her by tap dancing in the room above her in Top Hat is cleverer and less awkward than the business of her getting her skirt caught in a steamer trunk. The business of her mistaking him for her best friend’s (Helen Broderick) husband here is also more smoothly accomplished (though perhaps stretched thinner) than her thinking he’s a professional co-respondent in Divorcee. But perhaps the best thing was that the songs and musical numbers — while laid out almost identically — were better integrated into the film and more designed to showcase the stars. Though the better pacing of the comedy and slicker construction of the film are plusses, the real selling point of an Astaire-Rogers picture lies in the musical numbers. Where The Gay Divorcee was something of a hodge-podge of songs (delightful, but still a hodge-podge), Top Hat showcases five brand new Irving Berlin songs — “No Strings,” “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails,” “Cheek to Cheek” and “The Piccolino” — all tailored to the film and the talents of its stars. (At the time, the studio had reservations about “The Piccolino” because it was about a song, while the big hit numbers in Flying Down to Rio (1933) and Divorcee had been about dances. When Berlin offered them an alternative with the words, “Come and do the Lido, it’s good for your libido,” they opted for his original.) All in all, Top Hat is simply a perfect confection of a movie.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Top Hat Tuesday, Dec. 4 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.