The Most Overrated Movie of 1935 – Top Hat

Let’s get the worst of 1935 out of the way right up front.

Everyone seems to love Top Hat.  Pauline Kael, Woody Allen, Roger Ebert, Danny Peary, and even an old fusspot like film theorist Siegfried Kracauer have expressed admiration for this whirling mess.

First off, the whole Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers pairing was always goofy.  They could absolutely dance together; they swirled around the dance floor like no one else could, but that was the extent of their chemistry.  Their romances were never convincing.  Ginger Rogers always seemed too smart to fall for the wooden pickup lines of Fred Astaire.  We know she could have done better than the inexplicably cocky Astaire characters.  (And we suspect she knew it too.)  One of the worst Astaire-Rogers pairings was in the 1938 musical Carefree.  Did anyone buy Astaire as an accomplished psychiatrist and Rogers as a dizzy dame unable to commit to marriage?  They needed to switched roles.  Ginger Rogers was just too bright to play that dumb.

Top Hat is one of their most celebrated mediocrities, but why?  Sure, the Astaire-Rogers aversion is a purely personal thing.  Others – many others – love their movies.  But beyond their personalities the story of Top Hat is frustratingly inane.  Everything depends on the impossibly insane premise that they would never introduce themselves to each other, even as they are falling in love.  Mistaken identities are supposed to lead to all sorts of wacky hijinks, but all it does is induce cynical groans.  I want to throw something at the screen every time they make wrong assumptions based on other wrong assumptions.  That’s hardly optimum for an alleged comedy.

So what is it fans admire about this picture?  Can it be they are dazzled by the song and dance and they don’t notice that there isn’t much to hold it together?

(And on a side note: their recreation of Venice on the RKO soundstage is about as convincing as It’s a Small World.)

None of this makes for a charming musical romantic comedy.  The only bright spots are Ginger Rogers (even though her character is too dopey to be believed) and some inspired comedic supporting performances, especially from Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, and Helen Broderick.  But let’s be honest and from now on admit that Top Hat isn’t a great movie.  The dancing is nice, but there isn’t much else.  I know there has to be someone who agrees with me out there.

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5 Comments

Filed under 1935, Yearly Best Pictures

5 responses to “The Most Overrated Movie of 1935 – Top Hat

  1. Not me, Jason. Not by a country mile. I liked SWING TIME a bit better, but TOP HAT is a classic dance musical that has stood the test of time grandly. The inane story you speak of maligns many other musicals that are in the masterpiece category, so I don’t see this film as a sole violator. Count me with Danny Peary (I see you are a big fan of his too, eh?) Kael, the Woodman and just about every other critic I’ve read on this one. There is charm to spare here and then some.

    But, as always, your opinion is greatly respected. I agreed with you that IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT is overrated, and I’m sure I’ll agree with you many other times in the future.

    • I figured I would be in a minority on this one. You seem to agree that the story is thin, so I’m not sure how that squares with the whole masterpiece thing. I have a feeling that I’m not a fan of those other musicals you say I malign, though I am more forgiving if I enjoy the characters. I don’t enjoy these characters at all. Like I said, part of it is sure to be my bias against the Astaire-Rogers pairings. (And it’s mostly Fred who’s the problem for me.) I will say I like them much better when they shared the spotlight with Randolf Scott and Irene Dunne in “Roberta.” Not a great movie, but they were much more credible in it, maybe because Ginger Rogers is written so much more intelligently. Anyway, “Top Hat” is one of those movies about which we will have to agree to disagree.

  2. As a “consolation” Jason, I would not include this in my top films of the year though. There are ten others that I would rate ahead of it, as it is, though I would suspect it would be right after that.

  3. red2blues

    You are definitely in the minority on this one. Of course, if you don’t like musicals then I totally understand. But, musicals are not about the plot or character, they are about music, singing and dancing. In this one they also have gorgeous staging, lovely costumes, witty dialogue and very funny supporting cast. This is fantasy pure and simple. And the chemistry between Astaire and Rogers is unmistakable in how they banter as well as dance. I’m sorry for you, that you don’t see it.

    • Yes I know I am in the minority, but don’t feel sorry for me. There are plenty of movies, including some musicals, that I love. I’m not missing out. One thing I totally agree with you about is the supporting cast; they are genuinely great. But like I said in my essay, I’ve never found the Astaire-Rogers pairing all that charming. Even in their better movies like “Swing Time” and “Shall We Dance?” I’m always waiting for Ginger to see through Fred’s phoniness.

      I absolutely disagree that musicals are not about plot or character. That’s like saying action movies are only about explosions and chases. There are many wonderful musicals that are great because they don’t ignore these elements like “Gold Diggers of 1933,” “Forty-Second Street,” “Oliver!” and “The Music Man,” just to name a few that popped in my head. In my view, any movie, no matter the genre, absolutely hinges on strong characters and a compelling plot. If the writer can’t nail these elements, it isn’t enough to explain it away as a musical (or comedy, or action-adventure, etc.)

      Clearly there was enough for most people to enjoy this movie and I’m glad they did. It just makes me want to pull out my hair every time I see it.

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