1934, Movies

Top Hat (1934, Mark Sandrich)

This is my first Astaire-Rogers film and I must say that, for such a famous, iconic Hollywood duo, I am a little mystified. I understand things change, and what was entertaining 90 years ago is not necessarily entertaining now. But I have watched a lot of films from the 1930s for someone my age (and the 1920s, and the 1910s, and the 1900s…), so I have some idea of the standards of the time and I have a pretty good tolerance of a lot of old films. And this is just…not very good.

This film, the first in the Astaire-Rogers collaboration, has a 100 on Rotten Tomatoes from critics, and 90 from audiences, a 92 on Metacritic, and a 7.7 on IMBD. It is certainly an acclaimed film both in the past – when it was also a box office hit, I believe their biggest – and now. But, as far as I can tell, it is a lazy plot hung on scenes in which Astaire and Rogers, but often just Astaire, dance.

The plot is one of those classically lame romantic comedy plots where literally one word from any number of the characters would clean up the mistaken identity. Literally all anyone needs to say is “Jerry” and the plot unravels. And somehow this film is 100 minutes long. I kept waiting for it to get cleared up and for, you know, something else to happen, but nope, that’s the plot: Rogers’ character thinks Astaire’s character is really Horton’s character and hijinks, banter and dancing ensue.

There’s a breed of American movie critic that thinks these types of films are the height of craft when it comes to comedy and I have just never understood that. The banter is moderately amusing at best – I laughed out loud two to three times in the entire movie – and there was at least one massive groaner where it felt like they were waiting for the audience to laugh or throw things, as if they were on stage. (The horsepower um, “gag.”) As I’ve said many times with films like these, maybe this was the height of comedy in 1934 but there’s been a lot of comedy since, and I just have different (I would say “higher”) standards.

If there aren’t jokes, it’s really hard for one of these plots to work well and that’s what happens here. I was thoroughly bored because I knew he’d get the girl and I knew there would be some plot machination to invalidate the marriage. And I got increasingly frustrated as every character in the film aside from Horton’s refused to say “Jerry” outloud.

As Jenn said, the Astaire-Rogers dances are more compelling than Astaire’s solo dances. I know nothing of tap but it definitely looks harder to me when the two of them are dancing than when he’s by himself. But he’s by himself a bunch and it’s not great entertainment in 2024. I am sure tap takes a lot of talent, but it’s a testament to the limited entertainment options of the 1930s that seeing someone tap like this was considered the height of entertainment.

This movie embodies a lot of what I hate about classic Hollywood. The plot is lame, the jokes are mild and the whole thing takes place is this bizarre artificial reality of Hollywood sound stages. The “Venice” in this movie is among the most laughable facsimiles of a real place I’ve ever seen in an American film. It feels like it’s shot in The Venetian in Vegas. It looks like no real place, just some American’s idea of a copy of a place. And the hotel rooms…The wife says the two men have to bunk together and they somehow end up in the largest hotel “room” (it’s multiple rooms) anyone has ever seen. It also looked like the gazebo from “London” and a different set piece from “Venice” were just different versions of the same set. I bet that happens in a lot of old movies but here it was like they weren’t even trying to hide it.

I just have no idea why this is a classic film to people. If you grew up with it as a child, sure I guess…But this goes on my shortlist as to why so many other countries’ cinemas were better than Hollywood’s during the heyday of the production code.



PS I did know two of these songs already. So I guess that’s a testament to how big this movie was at the time.

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