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music friday: aretha franklin, “dr. feelgood”

#12: top hat (mark sandrich, 1935)

(This is the 39th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

One of the Astaire-Rogers movies was going to turn up here. I could have chosen Follow the Fleet for being the first one I saw, but it’s an atypical choice (no top hats, white ties, and tails, just sailor suits). I could have chosen Swing Time, which I guess is generally considered the best. But none of those have “Cheek to Cheek,” the best dance number in the entire Astaire-Rogers series, so Top Hat gets the nod.

The best book about the Astaire-Rogers movies is Arlene Croce’s The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book. I doubt I have any original thoughts she didn’t already come up with. These movies were about romance and seduction, not necessarily sex, although there is the famous line about how Fred and Ginger were great partners because he gave her class and she gave him sex. The plot of Top Hat is exceedingly silly; the true story is told in the series of dances in the film. In the first, Fred offers a joyful solo tap dance that wakes up Ginger in another room in the hotel both are staying in (I could call them by their characters’ names, but why bother?); this leads to their first meeting, with Ginger cranky at Fred and Fred suffering from love at first sight (this happens in a lot of their movies together). Next, they dance together in “Isn’t It a Lovely Day” … Ginger hesitates to join in at first, but finally she makes her move, surprising and delighting Fred with her skills. The ice thaws. Fred does a show-stopping solo number (the title tune), and then, in the midst of that goofy plot about mistaken identities, the two of them fall in love to “Cheek to Cheek.” What’s happening in the non-dance parts of the film is irrelevant. What matters is getting Fred and Ginger to this point, where they will recognize their love for each other (or rather, Ginger recognizes … Fred is already there). “Cheek to Cheek” is one of the great romantic, exquisite moments in film.

There’s one more dance, a big production number, and the plot gets straightened out. There are some fun turns by the supporting cast, especially Erik Rhodes as dress designer Alberto Beddini (Rhodes, born in Oklahoma when it was still Indian Territory, played a similar Italian in The Gay Divorcee … Mussolini banned both films in Italy because he found Rhodes’ over-the-top characters to be offensive). Rhodes’ most famous line here is “Never again will I allow women to wear my dresses!”

 

Even the commenters who professed to knowing little about Astaire/Rogers films admitted to seeing a couple. And one commenter knew the movies better than I do, which was great fun!

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