Sophisticated, Funny and Physical: The Romances of Astaire and Rogers
Physical comedy brings to mind Moe, Larry and Curly bopping each other over the head. Or it might suggest Lucille Ball stuffing chocolates into her mouth, her blouse or anyplace except on the conveyor belt in the neat little rows the candy-making supervisor intended. (Or better, her boozy bout with VitaMeataVegamin, the Peppy Picker-Upper.) A thousand reruns of a thousand theatrical shorts, like "The Three Stooges" films, and a hundred thousand reruns of sitcoms from "I Love Lucy" to "Seinfeld" (even that cerebral show had people climbing in and out of windows on occasion) pretty much give us our concept of what theatrical physical comedy is all about.
In short, we think of slapstick, defined by the TheatreCrafts.com glossary as:
Two pieces of wood loosely joined at one end, which make a loud "slap" sound when used to hit something / someone. 2) Form of physical comedy where people get hit, covered in custard pies or showered with water.
If you think of either of those classic definitions when you think of the movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, you wouldn't think the films were physical comedy at all. And yet, according to The Columbia World of Quotations:
Film comedy, as well as film art in general, was born from delight in physical movement. The essence of early filmmaking was to take some object (animate or inanimate) and simply watch it move...."
There is the AHA! moment. Fred and Ginger did nothing if not move. They were, after all, dancers. But the supporting cast -- particularly to 'regulars in their movies, Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore -- brought comic movement to the films they were in that, frankly, get more belly laughs than Astaire and Rogers.
The Columbia quotation also mentioned, however, that the great silent movies "revolve around the body and the personality of its owner." There is no doubt that Astaire and Rogers had personality. They had so much personality that they became cultural icons that remained in the popular language for decades after they quit dancing together, and after Fred -- who carried on longer -- quit dancing at all. It is not uncommon today to hear someone say of a couple of good dancers, "They're a regular Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers." It is said even by people who've never sat down and watched one of their nine black and white efforts from the 1930s, or the single color picture, The Barkleys of Broadway, made more than ten years later, in 1948.
All but one of the Astaire-Rogers movies were made in the mid-1930s, shortly after sound had been added to films in the previous decade. The comedy in the "talkies," the same source notes, "revolves about structure and style -- what happens, how it happens, and the way those happenings are depicted."
That's a good description of the physical comedy in all the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies, but particularly apt for Top Hat (1935), possibly the signature film of the series. Who does not think of Fred Astaire in a top hat and tails?
Let's get physical, Depression-era style
The opening scene of Top Hat gets the physical comedy off to its elegant, upper crust, understated start. In it, Astaire as American dancer Jerry Travers, is in a members' sitting room at London's stodgy Thackeray Club, a gentleman's club, to meet his friend Horace Hardwick, played by Edward Everett Horton.
A butler allows some ice to clink in a glass. Two old geezers flick their newspapers in annoyance.
Astaire coughs behind his own newspaper, peering out to see the predictable reaction to the unseemly noise, revealing his irreverent characterization at the same time. Soon, Horton approaches the front desk and asks in normal tones if Travers has arrived; he is shushed.
Eventually, Hardwick and Travers quietly make their way out of the hotel but Travers can't resist; he steps out of the lounge onto the hardwood vestibule floor and does a dozen tap steps, which brings the members grumbling to their feet.
The concept behind the movie is one used often in the Astaire-Rogers romantic comedies, mistaken identity. Hardwick is a budding impresario, responsible for Travers' new London show. Hardwick has just gotten married; his wife is waiting for him in Venice, where she intends to introduce their mutual friend Jerry to a nice young lady in hopes he will settle down. But the young lady, Ginger Rogers as Dale Tremont, is still in London as well, awaiting a weekend trip to meet Hardwick's wife (Madge, played by Helen Broderick) while showing off the work of Italian designer, Alberto Bedini, played by Erik Rhodes.
In the natural comedic way of things, Dale runs into Jerry by chance and they hit it off. But then Jerry sends her flowers billed to Hardwick's room and a bellman points Jerry out to her, so she'll have a name to go with the face of the man she's interested in; he had just called himself "Adam" since she said she didn't know him from Adam in an early line. Unfortunately, in that instant, Horace and Jerry trade places and Dale ends up thinking it is her friend Madge's husband with whom she is falling in love. And, of course, Jerry and Horace know nothing abut this. Neither does Madge at first. When she does hear of it, what she is told is, naturally, also wrong. The film traverses a familiar comedic trail, straightening out one mix-up only to see another get started. Since it is a comedy, it all must work out in the end. On the way, however, there are a number of instances of physical comedy that are almost too subtle to consider comedy in the broad sense, except under the definition given by the Columbia volume; "what happens, how it happens, and the way those happenings are depicted."
And style, of course, must be present. The Astaire-Rogers films are nothing if not stylish. In this case, the sets are huge, spare, very Art Deco but in an almost cartoonish way. Still, they provide ample highly polished floors for Astaire to strut his stuff.
Astaire/Travers meets Rogers/Tremont to begin with while strutting his stuff. He breaks into dance in Horace's suite, which is above Tremont's. She wakes up, storms upstairs, gives him a piece of her mind and takes a piece of his heart. He spies a sand filled cigarette snuffing can in the hallway, sprinkles the sand on the floor of Horace's suite and does a soft-shoe to put Tremont to sleep. It also puts Horace to sleep, and Travers himself slumps into a chair after his final 'sand dance' step.
Two of the first three scenes in the movie (the club and the sand dance) are the sorts of gentle physical comedy that pervades the film.
Next up is a scene in which Travers trades places with a hansom cab driver taking Tremont to a riding academy. She doesn't know it is Travers until he taps some dance steps on the roof of the cab, where the driver's feet rest. She looks up through a peephole and sees who it is, to her consternation. During her ride in the park, a thunderstorm arises, and Travers does too, in the cab, to save her. Instead, they end up dancing in the gazebo. Their first (one of only two or three) kiss of the movie happens when Tremont skitters into his arms, frightened by a loud clap of thunder.
While the Astaire-Rogers physical comedy is romantic physical comedy, supporting actor Eric Blore paints broader strokes. But he, too, stays away from pratfalls and madcap activity. His physical comedic talents depend on a very mobile face, with glittering eyes and a large mouth. He makes his lines, too, into physical comedy. He delivers them with wit, but also with a slew of 'sound bite' embellishments. When he seethes, as he often does at something he doesn't like, it is a physical act, full of hissing and puffing and extending of cheeks and narrowing of eyes.
The namesake dance as comedy
The movie is called Top Hat, so of course there must be one someplace. And there is. It is a huge, all-male musical number in Jerry's new London show. A platoon of dancers mimics his dance, finally disappearing for his solo, and reappearing as ducks in a carnival shooting gallery. Jerry takes his cane, used almost as a dancing partner, and 'shoots' them one by one with it. They crumple in the background, and Jerry gets a standing ovation. He also 'shoots' the Thackeray Club, which had come en masse to see the show and inhabits a large box at stage right. While none of this is belly-laugh material, it is certainly amusing, and highly creative. And it perfectly fits the requirement that, in movies with sound, the physical comedy elements obtain some of their effect from their surroundings. There is a…