Top Hat (1935) / Swing Time (1936)

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By Scott Ross

No one should be forced to chose a single Astaire-Rogers musical.

Top Hat is probably the better movie: it’s swifter, more sparkling, lays some nice emphasis on those two incomparable sissies Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton, and boasts a pluperfect Irving Berlin score that includes a title song that elegantly sums up the appeal of Fred Astaire — whom Graham Greene once called the human equivalent of Mickey Mouse. (That isn’t the insult it seems; in the early ‘30s Mickey was not yet the figure of respectability he became; he was rambunctious, elastic, mischievous, even slightly cruel — just like Fred.)

Swing Time, despite its occasional longuers and a truly silly finale, has a Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields score that is just about the greatest of its kind, and inspired Astaire to one of his supreme achievements: the duet with Rogers on “Never Gonna Dance.” Shot in a single take, the final portion of this breathless medley of everything for which we love these two required endless re-takes, and somewhere in the middle of it all, Rogers’ feet started to bleed.

A side-note: Astaire was one of the American songbook’s great stylists, but just compare the way he listens to Ginger singing with the manner in which she takes in his vocalizations. He smiles a lot but looks faintly bored; she hangs on every word whether she’s facing him or not, and always seems to be hearing them for the first time. She not only (in Sylvia Fine’s memorable phrase) “did everything Fred did, backwards and in heels”; she also acted him off the screen.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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