1 April 2009 | JOHNAMI
A Very Entertaining Astaire and Rogers Showcase
Of the ten films Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together "Top Hat" is the one that best demonstrates their many talents and which presents a memorable impression of their unique, inspiring partnership. Although they were great dancers, they were really so much more: Their work represented a standard of excellence, it conveyed an image of exciting, beautiful romance, and they made it seem as though the fantasy world of Hollywood was accessible to everyone.
The story lines for all ten films are weak. Some have more credibility than others, but even the pseudo-biographical films made later in their partnership are contrived, overly sentimental, and trite. RKO cranked-out a script like "Top Hat" simply to accommodate the hot team of Astaire and Rodgers. They didn't allow time to do better. In addition to the stars, good direction and fine work from both the supporting actors and the various technical people transformed the lean script into satisfying entertainment.
Ginger Rogers brings a great deal to the shallow women she is asked to portray. Her acting accounts for much of the success of the Astaire and Rogers movies because she approaches every line, every idiotic incident, every emotion with the same professional integrity she would give to the finest material. She is a hard working, disciplined actress, always completely in character, and in turn, completely believable. In great part, we believe the stories simply because of her.
Her singing and dancing skills are excellent, although not as dynamic as her acting ability. Fred is definitely the lead in singing and dancing. That she is able to follow Fred's dancing with both technical and artistic agility attests to her talent and even more to her professionalism. She earned a reputation as Fred's greatest partner because, on many levels, she can approach his greatness. They work as one toward a common goal.
Fred Astaire was an established Broadway star when he began working in Hollywood. He had already defined his artistic persona and had concentrated on three major areas: Demeanor, Musicianship, and Dancing. Fred is a most unlikely romantic lead. He has comely, but ordinary looks that diminish under close examination; too high a forehead, too large features, too pale and small-framed. Yet, on the screen, he projects a charming, elite image that more than compensates for the banality of his physical person. These qualities derive from Fred having developed the most exquisite manners. He is the most poised, the most polite, the most confident of men. Those fine traits, combined with his everyday looks, make him a romantic lead anyone can believe in, by association as well as by example.
He also developed an exceptional ability to interpret music. He finds everything the composer has written. It's not just a matter of reading the notes or of keeping the right tempo. He finds the essence of the song, its deepest meaning. He has a pleasant, small voice with which he sings splendidly. Every word is given full value, both musically and literally. The music is fully appreciated and fully communicated. In "Top Hat" his excellent musical talent is beautifully demonstrated in the song, "Cheek to Cheek." Written in a high register, Fred scales the music with impressive virtuosity, never failing to convey the full meaning of the song.
His gift with music extends with perfect appropriateness to dance. As a choreographer and dancer his work is one hundred percent original. His ability to find the very core of the music creates interpretation that is never obvious, never expected, and seeded with a genius that is unparalleled, highly aesthetic, and always inspiring. It is unfortunate that he has been labeled a "perfectionist" because it is a misunderstanding of his objectives. The word perfectionist tends to have an underlying negativism. It suggests triviality, fanaticism, rigidity. None of those factors exist in the work of Fred Astaire. His objective was, perhaps to some degree unconsciously, to achieve a level of quality that equaled his genius. In order to get to that point, it was necessary to rehearse and rehearse, to make everything just right, in the same way that all the stokes of a Matisse are as they need to be, or all the chisel strikes of a Michelangelo create a unified artistic achievement.
In "Top Hat," when Fred finishes singing the lyrics in the "Cheek to Cheek" scene he and Ginger segue to an open area where they perform a beautiful, fascinating dance. It is a highly romantic sequence, performed with impressive technical skill. At the end, Ginger's reaction clearly shows how it wasn't just dancing, but a type of love-making that satisfied the mind and the soul. It is notable how much they were able to communicate symbolically through movement.
For me, "Top Hat" showcases the many talents of Fred and Ginger more fully than the other nine films they made together. It also has excellent production values. However, it should be noted that the other films also have exceptional dance numbers of equal, and sometimes, even greater merit than those in "Top Hat." It is definitely worth seeing all ten of the Astaire and Rogers films, preferably in chronological order.