They just don’t make them like they used to. Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee, two movies starring the eternal dancing duo, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, represent a time (in Hollywood at least) when romance was innocent and fun, love and happy endings were assured, and catchy dance numbers were plentiful. They also represent a time when Hollywood assumed that most people who went to the movies were at least somewhat educated. Seriously, The Gay Divorcee has jokes about geologists and Top Hat includes a reference to Gertrude Stein. Unlike the absolute crap so abundantly churned out in Hollywood today, the filmmakers of yesteryear didn’t always dumb down their movies to please an audience of Neanderthals who want their kids taught “Young Earth Creationism” in elementary school.
But I digress…
Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee are kind of like dancing porn. You see, in porno movies, the entire “plot” revolves around getting the characters to have sex. In these two Fred and Ginger movies, the plot revolves around getting the characters to dance…and dance…and dance some more. In fact, the plots of the movies are quite similar: In Top Hat, Fred plays American dancer Jerry Travers, who is staying in a hotel in England with his friend Horace Hardwick (played by the hilarious Edward Everett Horton). One night, Jerry starts randomly tap-dancing in his hotel room and wakes up Dale Tremont (played by Ginger Rogers), who is a friend of Madge Hardwick, Horace’s wife. When Dale confronts Jerry, Jerry instantly falls in love with her and, despite her annoyance, starts to follow her around, stalker-like, in an attempt to woo her. Through a series of mix-ups, Dale ends up thinking that Jerry is Horace and therefore married to her best friend. Much hilarity (and dancing) ensues until the end, where the mistake is revealed and Dale and Jerry are free to dance into the sunset.
In The Gay Divorcee, Ginger plays Mimi Glossop, a young and unhappily married woman whose husband will not grant her a divorce. Mimi’s eccentric and daffy aunt hires a lawyer, Egbert Fitzgerald (again, played by Edward Everett Horton) to help Mimi. Egbert hires a “correspondent” to pretend to be Mimi’s lover and arranges a detective to catch Mimi and the professional “lover” in flagrante delicto. That way, Mimi’s husband will surely grant her the much hoped for divorce. Problem is, Egbert’s friend, American dancer Guy Holden (that’s Freddie A.), is staying with him. And when Guy and Mimi meet cute, Guy instantly falls in love with her and, despite her annoyance, starts to follow her around, stalker-like, in an attempt to woo her. See what I mean about the plots basically being the same? Well, anyhoo, Mimi ends up thinking that Guy is the hired professional she’s supposed to be caught doing the nasty with, and so she thinks his murmurings of adoration are all part of the act. But not to worry…by the end of the film, the mistake is revealed (and it is also revealed that Mimi’s husband has a *gasp * second wife stashed away in France, leaving her free to get a legal divorce) and Mimi and Guy are free to dance off into the sunset.
So why would I waste my time on two movies that are basically the same? Because they’re fun! The jokes are clever, the dancing is great, and the chemistry between Fred and Ginger works so well. For movies made in the mid-1930’s, Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee feel fresh and modern enough to have come out last week (minus all the dumbed down tropes of modern film I mentioned earlier). The cinematography also looks amazingly polished. I mean, The Gay Divorcee came out in 1934, same year as It Happened One Night, the Clark Gable/Claudette Colbert rom-com, and while It Happened One Night looks…just…old in some parts, The Gay Divorcee avoids looking like it crawled out of the silent era. You kind of have to see the two movies to know what I’m talking about. Also, for two movies that came out post-“code” (i.e. The Hays Code, which basically censored naughty stuff in movies) Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee get away with some seriously dirty jokes (well, dirty by 1930’s standards). C’mon! The Gay Divorcee is basically a celebration of adultery!
The only bone I have to pick with the two films is that they both get a little bogged down in the final 20 minutes. In the last third of the movie, The Gay Divorcee launches into a dance-and-song sequence (called “The Continental”) that literally goes on for about 15 minutes. That’s 1/7th of the entire film dedicated to that one song. Top Hat also features some unnecessary dance numbers, which come after the iconic “Cheek to Cheek” scene. In both movies, the two best songs (in my humble opinion) happen a little over halfway through the movie and then every thing else afterwards seems lame and boring by comparison. But that’s just my opinion. Maybe people in the ‘30’s freakin’ loved “The Continental” and “The Piccolino”…but I found both to be boring and superfluous.
In conclusion, if you consider yourself a connoisseur of film, then watch a couple Fred and Ginger movies. You owe it to the Golden Age of Hollywood. And you owe it to yourself. These movies might be a little cheesy and naïve, compared to the oeuvre of Todd Solondz and P.T. Anderson, but dammit, they featured some frickin’ good dancing!
Grade: Top Hat: 87; The Gay Divorcee: 85 (points deducted for “The Continental”)