“They’re Still Dancing Cheek to Cheek” became the infamous tagline for the 1935 film, Top Hat, featuring the two iconic dance partners, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire at their very best. Filming for Top Hat began in April 1935, with a relatively small budget of 620,000 dollars. The movie was directed by Mark Sandrich, a Jewish American film director, writer and producer. Sandrich's was best known for his films that stared the Astaire-Rogers duo. Some of these films, which he made at RKO in the 30’ss, include The Gay Divorcee (1934), Follow the Fleet (1936), Shall We Dance (1937) and Carefree (1938).
The script for Top Hat, written by Dwight Taylor, was criticized during its creation. Astaire didn’t like the first drafts of the script, particularly its close resemblance to his previous film The Gay Divorcee. He also disapproved of the role Taylor had written for him. He is quoted saying: “I am cast as…a sort of objectionable young man without charm or sympathy or humor.” Astaire wanted to portray a more complex character, rather than a simple-minded character that does nothing but dance. He wanted to transition from his usual simplistic roles to that of a more round and dimensional character. He also strongly objected to the two instances in the film when Rogers slaps him in the face. Allan Scott was hired by Sandrich hired to polish the script. While the two slapping scenes still remained in the final screenplay, Scott helped to further develop Astaire’s character, Jerry. The Motion Picture Production Code (the censorship guidelines that governed the production of films from 1930 to 1968) was also very critical of the script. The strict regulations insisted on several changes. One of the more notable changes was Beddini’s motto: “For the women the kiss, for the man the sword” which was originally “For the men the sword, for the women the whip.” To no surprise, the Hays Office (the group of censors who worked to enforce the code) found the motto too brutal and offensive to be shown to a public audience.
The musical aspects of the film are credited to Irving Berlin, a Russian-born American composer and lyricist. Berlin is considered one of the greatest American songwriters of his time yet he never learned how to read or write music. Top Hat was his first complete film score since 1930. Berlin had a unique contract that allowed him copyrights to the score with an additional ten percent profits of the film if it earned more than 1,250,000 dollars. “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free),” “Isn’t This A Lovely Day (to Be Caught In the Rain),” “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” “Cheek to Cheek” and “The Piccolino” are the five major hits of the film which reached the top of popular music charts at the time. However, not every song made the cut. Eight songs from the original score were discarded because they didn’t advance the plot. One song in particular, called “You’re the Cause” was to end with Astaire and Rogers spending the night together, floating on the water in a gondola. Nevertheless, the Motion Picture Production Code found this scene to be too suggestive and the song was omitted. Despite the obstacles that the code created, Berlin went on to write songs for five more Astaire films.
One of the most impressive aspects of Top Hat is its incredibly lavish set that has the effect of almost completely removing the audience from reality. Carol Clark and Van Nest Polglase created the art deco set. It was their biggest stage yet. The set design took up the largest portion of the film’s relatively small budget. The set itself consisted of two combined sound stages and its entire length was over 300 feet. It was a fantasy representation of the Lido of Venice, a big sandbar in northern Italy. Lido is home to the Grand Hotel des Bains, which is where Horace, Madge, Jerry, Dale, Bates, and Beddini stay during the plot of the movie. Lido is also home to the Venice Casino, where “The Piccolino” musical number took place. While the inspiration for the set may be nonfictional, the gaudy design of the set itself is far from reality. The elaborate staircases and ornamental bridges were more representative of the latest styles in Hollywood than the authentic décor of Italy. The cannels were dyed black to make the whites of the set look even more bright and vivid when shown in black and white film. The floors were so incredibly glossed that scratches from dance scenes had to be removed between shootings.
The extravagance of the film’s set is matched only by the costumes of the stars themselves which where designed by wardrobe director Bernard Newman. The luxurious clothing of the characters is used strategically, along with the set, to help the depression era audience escape to a dreamy world of wealth and glamor. Also, Hollywood leading ladies were expected to showcase the latest fashion for the public. One dress in particular had an especially lasting impact. The dress cost 1,500 dollars and was made of a multitude of ostrich feathers and Rogers was determined to wear it in the “Cheek to Cheek” musical number. The dress had a high front and a low back, a style that resulted from the Motion Picture Production Code that called for women to cover up their cleavage. Astaire didn’t see the dress until the day of the shoot and he was horrified by how many clouds of feathers it shed. He said, “It was like a chicken attacked by a coyote, I never saw so many feathers in my life.” While filming the dance scene Astaire became frustrated by the issues the dress was presenting and he yelled at Rogers. Rogers began to cry and it is said that her mother, the notorious Lela Rogers, stormed onto the set and charged Astaire in protection of her beloved daughter. The following night a seamstress made alterations to the dress. The next day they were able to shoot the scene without a mess of feathers on the set. After the shooting Astaire presented Rogers with a feather charm and he and the choreographer, Hermes Pan, sang to her a tune of their own creation:
Feathers- I hate feathers
And I hate them so that I can hardly speak
And I never find the happiness I seek
With those chicken feathers dancing
Cheek to cheek
- Shooting of Top Hat ended three months later in June and it was released two months after in August. It premiered at Radio City Musical Hall with an enormous audience turn out that broke attendance records. It became RKO’s (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) most profitable film of the 1930’s. Together Astaire and Rogers danced their way into the hearts of the viewers, cheek to cheek.