[1935] Top Hat

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!) Continue reading

[1937.9] Stage Door

I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.  

If the Academy were allowed a mulligan – a do-over in retrospect, but a few years later – Stage Door would have offered The Life of Emile Zola almost unbearable competition. For the past eight reviews, all focused on films nominated in 1937, this blog’s format attempted to justify the Best Picture winner using static data that Emile Zola won (it did) and why the other films weren’t better suited (they weren’t), until this one. Stage Door is a superlatively powerful challenger, based squarely on Katharine Hepburn’s broad shoulders, so much so, that given a Mulligan, this film would have taken Best Picture at the 10th Academy Awards of 1945.

The two films are essentially incomparable, aside from their temporal and basic technical aspects. The mood in each film taps a completely different nerve, the structural elements of each’s story assumes wildly different story arc depths and each tackles a different synapse of the American Interwar psyche. On one hand, The Life of Emile Zola tackles xenophobia, political resistance and preaches acceptance in response to European democratic devolution and revolt. Stage Door, on the other hand, dives inward into the interplay among varying levels of “together,” in the stifling world of top-level Theater. With dozens of girls and women at different stages of their careers, relationships form from happenstance and from necessity. The only common thread that ties these two films together is that both films concentrate on the actions of people in the face of an uncertain and variable living conditions. Even so, nineteenth century France and twentieth century New York do not seem to intersect culturally or politically until the advent of rapid communication technology via the Internet. Continue reading