A review this week from our brilliant film-maker, Comrade Oli:
I am not a good writer. Certain MNFC-ers who have read and subsequently rewritten my previous efforts can attest to this. So if anyone wants to take a pass at this, go ahead…
When asked to write my last review, I was lucky enough for it be of a film I had already seen and loved: 12 Angry Men. On the second watch I noticed aspects of the cinematography and editing that really impressed me and – boom – I had something to write about. I can waffle for hours about the technical side of filmmaking, all while throwing in buzzwords like ‘cineprime’ (non-zoom lens or ‘glass’ to the cool kids on set), ‘steadicam’ (wouldn’t be invented for 20 years) and dollyzoom (that amazing reaction shot when Brody sees the boy and lilo disappear in a fountain of blood near the beginning of Jaws? That.) and I felt people were willing to overlook a tiny detail like the writing. To my face, at least.
^ My face during ‘Cheek to Cheek’.
Unfortunately for me, there aren’t that many of those aspects for me to comment on in this case. Top Hat was released in 1935, so still in the relatively early days of cinema and filmmaking, when everyone involved was still figuring out what the craft could do. As such the cinematography and editing aren’t much to write home about, but they don’t need to be. All of the dance numbers are shot wide with as few cuts as possible so that the talent of the stars can shine through. No camera trickery here. More on that later.
The plot is a farce of mistaken identity pushed to the absolute limit by a series of complications each more improbable than the last. Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) falls in love with Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) remarkably quickly – two dance numbers, quickly. It’s a classic boy dances on girls roof, girl reasonably asks him to stop, boy refuses and responds with creepy amounts of flowers, love story. Dale begins to reciprocate his feelings until she ‘finds out’ that he is the husband of her best friend, Madge, played by the scene-stealingly hilarious Helen Broderick. If she could dance, this would be her film. Dale then alternates between blanking and sassing Jerry all the way to Venice (the production designer clearly misread this as ‘The Venetian’) where all is resolved with a lot more singing, dancing and careful explanation on Jerry’s part. They celebrate with another dance.
I’ve never been one to let a little thing like plot (Con Air, The Room, Sharknado to name a few. Aren’t we all excited for my night?) get in the way of my enjoyment. This isn’t a film that you watch for the plot and it’s of significantly higher quality than those I just mentioned. Unlike the others on that list, the dialogue is incredibly well written. Apparently throw-away lines are set ups for later twists or gags and all delivered with heaps of charm by the two leads.
^ This is a film that someone financed.
The musical numbers, and it’s near-perfect dance routines, are where the film really shines. The dancers work together, almost seamlessly, conversing in dance. (Like… bees?) It’s pretty clear why they would go on to reunite for seven subsequent films. What’s remarkable is that all of the numbers serve the story and characters, whether it’s Dale gradually being won over by Jerry during Isn’t this a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)? or the first number, No Strings (I’m Fancy Free), giving us an insight into Jerry’s care free attitude while bringing the leads together with such efficiency most screenwriters can only dream of.
Released during the Depression, this film is just as important now as it was then. While everything in the world seems to be falling apart, we need this ridiculous, amazing, all singing, all dancing alternative. Where love at first sight is a thing, no one is ever out of a tuxedo or ball gown, and even the manservant seems to live a life of luxury. It’s a film we both deserve AND need right now (sorry, Batman). La La Land’s incredible success this year is testament to that but while it was hailed as the musical for people who don’t like musicals, this is definitely one for people who do.
THIS IS NOT A DEMOCRACY