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.