Top Hat (1935)


Some years back Downbeat, the jazz magazine, featured a piece on collected vocals of Fred Astaire. He sang in many of those classic movies the Great American Song Book, as it was called in his time; for example, he sang songs of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter.

Jazz musicians in all eras have considered Astaire one of the rare authentic singers, in his own great way something like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong (the singer): natural, original, a wonderful interpreter of timeless songs, with nobody else sounding like Holiday and nobody else sounding like Armstrong and nobody else sounding like Astaire, either. Astaire loved jazz, and not surprisingly he sounds like a jazz singer; I guess in a deep way he is a jazz singer. It’s mysterious how the good ones sound alike yet unique. I don’t think any thinkers about jazz I’ve read or talked to have ever quite understood how this can be. It clearly is so, though. And many jazz singers have voices which might flunk an audition for a top voice instructor. Or put it this way: theirs is not what usually passes for good vocalizing style.

But obviously Fred Astaire is much more: the song and dance man; no one has ever gotten close to him here. And he’s acting royalty, the King in nearly every scene he’s in, that is, the one we all look for and at. Not only has he never been anything but graceful physically, even when simply walking across the tile-patterned polished floor of an enormous art deco suite and sitting on a piano bench or entering an elevator or bending down to pick up an object from a table; he’s graceful even when he’s supposed to stumble or to get his feet tangled up in one of those obligatory moments in which the script calls for a little self-effacing charm.

Most importantly, he is transcendent. You go to rare beautiful places with him. And of course Ginger, too, takes you along. In their movies you can hardly wait for their next sublime dance with its romantic, cleverly bantering, prelude. The dances of Astaire and Rogers: perfect heavens of the graceful. In their dances he is gently the man and she is the woman of sure allure, instantly and irresistibly.

Yes, what carries all the plot “filler” stuff along–the delays between dancing scenes–is your almost unbearable yearning for the next transcendent dancing. When those scenes appear, suddenly you are away from the stumbling, groping, struggling progress of yourself and everyone else around you. If we’re fallen angels, we suddenly have recall of all before our Fall. The Fall hasn’t been as far down as we’d come ruefully to believe.

Our gratitude, wonder and pride in the grander possibility suddenly brace us during the dancing.

In Top Hat  Edward Everett Horton (“Horace”) and Helen Broderick (“Madge”), the entirely human man and wife, are superb as exemplars of the fallen Human Condition, and they suitably interrupt the Inspired Condition of the near-angels with the necessary confusion and delays to create a restless suspense as you long for a few more minutes of the paradise of Astaire and Rogers dancing “Cheek to Cheek” with Astaire singing Berlin’s sterling lyrics just as an arisen angel must have done to another fallen-but-unbanished angel in a sublimely beautiful brief recovery of a perfect Art Deco heaven.

Tension is necessary in romance. Ancient truth.

Has there been another entertainer as great as Astaire? I can’t think of one.

I hadn’t seen Top Hat in many years, and tonight I marveled at its timelessness and its gift of transcendence. It’s a beautiful world. It’s a real world. If just a brief, rare world.

It captures you, especially in these times. It’s not simply 1935. I don’t know that it’s anywhere in time, except everywhere, always.

You should see it again.

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