Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935)
Swing Time (George Stevens, 1936)
The history of cinema is deep. Very deep. How many classic films have been made? Countless. There have been so many icons from so many eras and so many genres that to keep up or catch up is seemingly impossible, but as a movie buff it is my duty. Sadly, I had not really seen much of the legendary Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers duo, or musicals in general really, which is also surprising given I have loved the musicals I have seen, rating Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain as my 2nd favorite film ever. So what better place to jump into things than with a nice double feature, two of Astaire/Rogers’ best: Top Hat and Swing Time. And after having seen these two films, and a few other older musicals, it somehow amazes me that musicals and dance numbers are so rare in film these days. There really ought to be a dancing/singing icon in cinema today. The talent has to exist.
I decided to combine my write ups of these two films into one for a few reasons, but one of the more obvious reasons was the fact that the only real difference between the two films seemed to be some minor plot differences. With these types of films, one assumes, you will have Fred and you will have Ginger. You will see them dance, you will see them sing. You will have them meet by chance and Ginger will despise Fred, Fred will immediately fall for Ginger and work the rest of the film, and almost effortlessly, to make her fall for him, which she inevitably will. The basic plot is fairly transparent, but it does lend itself as a great platform to feature these two great artists and their craft.
And their craft is magical. I think I might be able to watch these two dance for hours upon hours and glean nothing but joy from the experience. They honestly are not the greatest of actors, but they are the greatest of performers and their chemistry is well developed and quite believable. Between the two films there are a handful of wonderful dance moments and each have their moment in the sun with a great song a piece, so I would pretty much call the comparison between the two a wash in the category of song and dance, which is a major part of the musical. So bookoo bucks for both in that category.
And since I’ve basically already said the plots of the films run similar enough that I can hardly really tell between the two, we must dig deeper to truly find a winner, though perhaps there needn’t even be one, that we could appreciate each equally. But there is no fun in that, and plus I can honestly say that I enjoyed one a little bit more than the other anyway. I thought that Top Hat was a little bit more enjoyable because I thought it was a little bit more charming, which has a lot to do with Astaire’s character’s situation. In Top Hat we have the classic case of mistaken identity, which has Rogers believing this charming man is essentially an adulterer. In Swing Time, Astaire basically is an adulterer. A gambler, he goes to New York to make enough money for his love’s father to consider him eligible to marry his daughter. And while there, he falls for Rogers instead, having to overcome her disdain for him after he steals a quarter from her.
Top Hat is just more attractive to me than Swing Time, though I agree we are probably splitting hairs for the most part. Paired together the films managed to run together for the most part and created a few nights of a simple good time. Neither was majestic in their storytelling or technical achievements, save maybe the dancing. But being able to look back into this era when dancing and musical was as big as it was is a lot of fun to do when musical performances are no longer on screen. Why can’t be have those triple threats anymore? Instead we are ‘treated’ to the antics of Lady GaGa, Nikki Minaj and Justin Timberlake, which are fine and dandy, but a boy can dream of a renaissance when somebody was not only able, but also willing to cross over into film again.