One of the best of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, Top Hat centers on a typical mistaken-identity plot, with wealthy Dale Tremont (Rogers), on holiday in London and Venice, assuming that American entertainer Jerry Travers (Astaire) is the husband of her friend Madge (Helen Broderick) — who’s actually the wife of Jerry’s business manager Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). Complicating matters is Dale’s jealous suitor Beddini (Erik Rhodes), whose motto is “For the woman the kiss — for the man the sword.” Beddini is disposed of by some last-minute chicanery on the part of Jerry’s faithful valet Bates (Eric Blore), paving the way for the happy ending everyone knew was coming from the opening scene. The Irving Berlin score includes “Cheek to Cheek,” “Isn’t it a Lovely Day?,” and the jaunty title song. The charisma of the stars, the chemistry of the supporting players, the white-telephone art direction of Van Nest Polglaise, the superlative choreography by Astaire and Hermes Pan, and the effervescent direction of Mark Sandrich all combine to make Top Hat a winner.
Top Hat is classy, Depression-era escapism, with great tunes, witty choreography, and the charismatic screen chemistry of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It is an excellent example of the fine work of director Mark Sandrich, who today is less remembered than the musical stars who had some of their greatest successes in his films. The film’s story, cast, and style are largely derivative of The Gay Divorcee, which also starred Astaire and Rogers and was directed by Sandrich a year earlier. The supporting casts are pretty much the same, although Top Hat has the distinction of adding Lucille Ball in a small role. RKO pulled together many of its best resources to produce the film, including songwriter Irving Berlin, dance director Hermes Pan, and art directors Carroll Clark and Van Nest Polglase. The result was film that proved popular with audiences and critics alike. Top Hat was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. — Richard Gilliam