On-screen couples are always more attuned to one another, mostly because the relationship is manufactured. And that’s a fine outcome. It’s fine for people writing a story to include some sort of idealized hook to control for chaos down across screen-time. This type of escapism is not new, but when filmmakers began to craft narrative on screen as a mainstream prospect in the mid-1930s, audiences could share in seeing these emotions on screen for the first time. Books, while accessible, left much of the narrative in a reader’s hands; movies, did a lot more showing than telling. The best movies, still, do a lot more showing than telling.
Top Hat is a raw and clever “screwball” romantic comedy, on the heels of It Happened One Night, pitting two electrifying performers together in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. How iconic are these two? Their names, if not what they’re known for, have been dragooned through film and entertainment history as icons (especially Fred Astaire; this might be because his last name is also, for a song’s sake, extremely rhymable). Astaire played his Jerry-as-dancer before his Jerry-as-actor, and Ginger played her Dale-as-well-rounded everywoman. They’re each other’s foil. The writing places these two characters as far apart as possible, but circumstance (also the writer) pulled them together in the laziest way possible: stage directions.
But what Top Hat is, above all, is a fun movie about attractive people making easy choices. There’s no doubt that Jerry and Dale would be together and the fun in this movie are the song-and-dance breaks that brought both Astaire and Rogers their fame. The movie’s heel is instantly dislikeable, and the minor characters are hapless memes. To be totally fair, this package works as a storytelling device and has been repeated in almost every romantic comedy, ever. Top Hat, its predecessors and its emulators, made it fine to escape into the hazy laze, and audiences were thankful for it. Dotted throughout film history are romcoms with different iterations on the manufacture; often if there was a new leap in technology, screenwriters would find a new way to wink-wink the leads apart. (Oh no! My AIM chat got disconnected!)
It’s also unfair to discount the 50s and 60s, whose noticeable dearth of romcoms (save Roman Holiday or Sabrina, say) still leave a mark on the “seriousness” of these films’ importance as foils themselves to the Very Serious postwar movies that were trying to capture the American experience until the 70s brought the world post-ironic madman Woody Allen, and the 80s and 90s, Nora Ephron. When did the Academy decide that lighter movies, weightless gems like Top Hat, were no longer Oscar-worthy? When did the “point” of human experience flip to “humans are exceptionally forlorn, and they just it expect it to happen?” What’s the modern Top Hat? It surely isn’t 2016’s La La Land; it might be 1988’s Working Girl, whose nomination has become an anomaly.
It’s truly hard to distinguish among the movies nominated in the 1930s, and Top Hat now simply exists on a list of movies forgotten to time (most of the time; though Astaire and Rogers’ performance of “Cheek to Cheek” has long survived the plot of this movie). The year’s winner, Mutiny on the Bounty, is a vaguely remembered movie, neither here nor there in film history. Lots of classics: David Copperfield and A Midsummer Night’s Dream would live to be later remade and so would Les Misérables (it’s actually my favorite filmed version of Les Mis). Likely, some backroom Academy cabal decided that we can’t have two of those silly flicks win twice in two years; but this is the power of hindsight. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Top Hat was 1935’s winner.