Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Top Hat, it’s entertainment

Sean Penn once said during a panel discussion that films should be serious. They should have a ‘message’, a story of substance, something with drama, instead of light entertainment. Mr. Penn says that when he is interested in entertainment, he prefers “two hookers and an eight ball”. As some of us do not share a preference for this particular formula for entertainment, we do find reason for its placement in movies. Think of those two eyeless masks that represent the theater: one of them is smiling.

Top Hat is nothing if not a big smile. The very handsome Fred Astaire plays a well-known dancer named Jerry Travers, visiting London to star in a show produced by his friend Horace. Lovely Ginger Rogers plays Dale Tremont, a well-to-do society girl who becomes enchanted with Jerry until a misunderstanding changes her opinion of him.

Dale’s ‘simple misunderstanding’ about Jerry becomes the device that turns the plot. This creates confusing and uncomfortable situations for Dale, but because we, the audience, are aware of Dale’s misperception, we find these situations amusing. This one misunderstanding dictates almost all of the interactions among the characters, aside from the secondary story of Jerry Traver’s theater appearance, which provides opportunity for song and dance. This one misunderstanding produces predictable conflicts with predictable results once the misunderstanding is explained. It becomes evident early on that Dale’s confusion, and the story, will be happily resolved once the truth is revealed. It makes sense. Simple mistakes can be easily resolved.

Dale’s misperception persists day after day through carefully misleading dialogue and impossibly well-timed exits and entrances which create additional humor. This demands a suspension of disbelief from the audience, understanding that fortuitously timed entrances are a staged entertainment very much like the song and dance numbers.

A lot of comedies transpire around two lovers who are caught up in their infatuation, reading the signs along their road to discovery. In addition to the comedy in comedies, guys would be wise to observe the actions and interactions of the lovestruck protagonists. They demonstrate a variety of ways and means of wooing an object of affection. When Jerry meets Dale for the first time, he has disturbed her sleep and she is in a disagreeable mood. In spite of her displeasure with him, Jerry is bold and assertive with her as he attempts to win her friendship. Although Dale is wary and suspicious, Jerry, using humor in a last ditch effort to gain her affection, manages to bring a smile to her stern face. His strong assertiveness leaves little question about who will likely wind up in his arms when the credits roll.

Would Mr. Penn claim that is this not an admirable aim for a film: providing lessons in love? What if Mel Gibson could tell us What Women Really Want? Life lessons in classy restaurants are not so different and just as important as those upon battlefield: principles of maneuvering, techniques of gathering of intelligence, and strategies for victory.

Top Hat, a musical with a lot of song and dance, includes a few marvelous characters with a gay sensibility. They are all quite at home in the upper class setting where sophisticated tastes and genteel demeanors are prized attributes. The tongue-in-cheek dialogue, while heavy with humor, makes inferences both subtle and bold. Eric Blore plays the valet Bates with a grand comic flair. His gratuitous eye-rolling and self-flattering formality are graced with a touch of femininity, providing a soft counterpoint to his master Horace and guest Jerry.

A much stronger characterization appears with Erik Rhodes as Alberto Bettini, a fashion designer. Alberto designs smart clothing for Dale, and travels with her to insure that she looks her best... in his designs. He expresses a love for both his wonderful designs as well as Dale, but he displays a passionate devotion to the former. When he disagrees with her and storms out of the room he declares, “Never again will I allow women to wear my dresses!” One can easily imagine the men that might wear his dresses. Later in the film, he has the opportunity to say, “Help! There is a man in my bed!”

Top Hat is a wonderful film of lighthearted humor. It blends lovely song and dance numbers with a charming romantic tale. Although the story is sometimes unbelievable, it generates wry and clever humor.


Edward Copeland said...

Some people claim Swing Time was the best Fred-and-Ginger collaboration, but I've always preferred Top Hat.

Jeffrey said...

Nice job, Parsley.

Nothing sours natural talent than having an over-sized ego for it to get lost in, which is the pity of Sean Penn. The man takes himself way too seriously. For all his weighty endeavors, he'll end up being a footnote in Hollywood history whereas Fred Astaire is assured a prominent position.

Often, light entertainment ends up being some of our most accurate records of previous generations in the sense that it reflects popular tastes. It's too bad that Penn denies that as I'm sure he would make a funny clown.

Jeffrey said...

"Top Hat is nothing if not a big smile."

Nicely put & it seems to sum up that realization on the part of the audience that knows there will be a happy ending despite the misunderstandings. So often, those types of lapses of communication or wrong impressions drive me nuts in a movie - but not here.

Charlie Parsley said...

hello there. thanks to the liverputty editorial staff.

I had so many thoughts about Top Hat, there is still few more rolling around in my head.

The main 'thing' is 'simplicity'. Simplicity is a strength in any endeavor: architecture, engineering, painting, compsing, writing. Top Hat demonstrates how simplicity applies to plot/line of action.

I had another realization about the song 'Top Hat, white tie and tails'. Again, there is simplicity itself. The song is about receiving an invitation to a party, the party itself is not specifically important, rather, it is the opportunity to dress up in formal attire. At first, this may seem a weak topic for a song and dance number... but... I must admit, dressing up in a tux with tails, shirt studs, cologne, spats, cane and top hat might be one of the only things that would have me singing and dancing around myself.

The driving principles of Top Hat are simplistic, but they work.

Wagstaff said...

You've really got me fired up to see Top Hat and Swing Time now. Nice work, Mr. Parsley.