Last weekend’s Oscars ceremonies experienced their second-lowest TV ratings in 20 years. The reason in my opinion is very simple: They don’t make ‘em like they used to.
A couple of weeks ago I picked up a boxed DVD set of five of the ten Fred and Ginger movies made for RKO back in the thirties, representing the best of the golden age of the silver screen. This is a purchase I had wanted to make years ago, but Warner Brothers had different ideas. Priceless heirlooms, after all, require loving restoration, and the wait was well worth it.
In went “Top Hat.” On came the buoyant opening chords of a brilliant sound track by Irving Berlin. The camera zeroed in on the tapping feet of Fred and Ginger. Showtime. Who needs tragic gay cowboys?
“How can anyone not like this guy?” I asked my wife as Fred broke into his first tap dance.
Hollywood musicals are a lost art. Only one or two successful ones come to mind since “Cabaret” back in the early seventies. Too many things have to come together at once to make a musical work, including a credible story line, show-stopper song-and-dance numbers, and two leads who can sell the usual boy-meets-girl story.
“Top Hat” goes way beyond this. First there is Fred Astaire, acknowledged by Mikhail Baryshnikov and many others as one of the greatest dancers of the twentieth century – dancers, not just tap-dancers. He is highly underrated as a singer, but the song-writers he worked with – Berlin, Gershwin, Kern, Porter and others – absolutely loved him.
Then there is the delightfully sassy Ginger Rogers, who, more than any of other of Fred’s partners, made the women in the audience feel there was nothing more romantic than being sung to by a guy who wasn’t about to win any Cary Grant look-alike contests.
Add to this highly witty dialogue, a brilliant supporting cast, art deco sets that leave today’s computer-generated backdrops for dead, splendid costumes, a director who actually knew where to point the camera, and suddenly we’re out of the realm of Hollywood fluff and into cinematic masterpiece.
Fred and Ginger lifted the audience of their day out of the miseries of an economic depression. They have the same effect on me for my clinical depression. Suddenly I’m up in my seat rather than slouched back, feet tapping, ready to grab the nearest mop or broom for a dance partner.
“Heaven,” Fred sings to Ginger, “I’m in Heaven.”
No doubt about it – this is heaven.
Published On: March 13, 2006
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