Despite numerous technological advances in recent years afforded by the rapid incorporation of digital technologies into film, the most radical change in all of cinema remains the earth-shaking advent of synchronized sound. Ever since audiences flocked to theaters in 1927 to hear Al Jolsen’s whistling voice come to life in The Jazz Singer, sound has been an inseparable artistic element of the medium. It was, however, a rocky transition from both a technological standpoint and a cultural one, as is lovingly depicted in another definitive musical classic, Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Many films from the late 20s and early 30s are plagued with technological constraints and awkward mixing due to the still-developing comprehension of this latest innovation. As seen in the Gene Kelly classic, cameras were noisy and had to be secluded to a special sound-proof box which hindered mobility. Microphones were also notoriously large and difficult to work with. They began as stationary instruments calibrated to capture the sound of an entire room, sacrificing fidelity and precision to accommodate the visual element of the filmmaking process. Fortunately, technology is often nimble, and it wasn’t long before directional microphones, boom operators, and quieter cameras were invented to help mitigate these new hurdles. Soon enough, sound was as integral to movies as the film it was printed on.
Naturally, the inclusion of sound paved the way for the musical to become the dominating genre of the 1930s, by a considerable margin. Jolsen’s massive success with The Jazz Singer and similar films gave way to the Golden Age of Musicals, defined largely by the works of Busby Berkley at MGM, the musical comedies of the Marx Brothers, and most importantly, the dynamic dancing duet of Fred Astaire and Gingers Rogers at RKO. Fred and Ginger first got together on the set of the Dolores Del Rio vehicle Flying Down to Rio (1933) in supporting roles to the main romance plot. Their single dance sequence together ended up being the main sticking point of the film, and thus they were given their own starring projects, making eight subsequent collaborations at the studio with one final partnership at MGM reuniting them after a decade since their last film at RKO. Many consider their fourth collaboration, Top Hat (1935), to be the zenith of their work, with its snappy, screwball-style dialogue, a popping Irving Berlin soundtrack, a romance plot with progressive themes, and of course some of the best dance sequences ever committed to film. Top Hat was also the most financially successful film of all the Astaire and Rogers pairings and, in fact, the second most lucrative film of Astaire’s entire career, only outdone by his comeback collaboration with Judy Garland for another Irving Berlin showcase, Easter Parade (1948).
For all its many accolades, what often goes unappreciated in Top Hat is the creative implementation of sound throughout the film beyond the captivating Irving Berlin songs or the cracking taps of Astaire’s legendary soles. 1935 was still very early in the development of sound-centric films. From just a year prior, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much displays a lack of auditory awareness in its opening scene, where a skier crashes into a crowd without a sound. Similarly, Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century, suffers from lengthy silences between exchanges of dialogue, often undercutting the comedic pacing of a scene. Before the credits are finished rolling, Top Hat establishes an acute focus on sound through an opening scene built entirely around the deafening capabilities even the slightest of noises can have in a silent space. A boisterous cough, the sharp snap of a newspaper, and the most gentle of whispers create comedic disturbance in a strictly silent London men’s club, culminating in Astaire’s raucous departure creating a most vivacious disruption for the residents, much to Astaire’s gleeful delight. His constantly intrusive tap dancing is ultimately the catalyst for the film’s plot as well, as midway through the film’s first number, “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)”, the camera pans past Astaire’s fluttering feet through the floor to reveal Rogers’ character awoken by his thundering dance.
The plot of the film proceeds as a push and pull of Rogers’ attraction to Astaire’s character; first grappling with annoyance at his romantic persistence, later compounded by a comic identity mixup that sets the stage for a host of infidelity humor. But before that classic screwball setup can take place, Astaire must overcome his initial romantic hurdle to create a mutual attraction, which he manages through the film’s second song and dance number. “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)” begins as another scene with an excellent display of sound design. A sudden squall which forces Astaire and Rogers to take cover in a nearby gazebo serves as a central set piece to the scene, present not only for the setup of the weathery song, but continuing on to be a rhythmic accent to the music. On top of that, a loud clap of thunder gives Astaire an opportunity to comfort the vulnerable Rogers before transitioning into his swooning routine. Small details like the constant pattering of rain or a jolting thud of thunder may seem insignificant from a modern perspective, but it is the attention to such details in a film’s soundscape that allows for proper verisimilitude to take hold, and for a film made still in the infancy of sound technologies, it’s quite remarkable to establish the effects as a forefront of a major sequence. The rest of the scene plays out as a percussive courtship, as Ginger joins Astaire in a synchronized dance, matching his every movement and proving herself a complete equal before embracing in a ballroom-style climax that whisks them back into the persisting downpour, still pattering away on the soundtrack.
Perhaps the most interesting of the film’s theatrical set pieces is Astaire’s signature dance number, and the film’s title song, “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails”. The booming crack of the tap routine is obviously the aural focal point of every dance scene in the film, but the choreography of the film’s titular song takes that focus and highlights it further by building a scene around the clamorous clapping of Astaire’s metal-plated shoes. Halfway through the number, a score of dapper dancers march up behind Astaire on stage, who then raises his cane at each man in the line and smacks the back of his heel on the ground, producing a loud, staccato snap not too dissimilar from the sound of a gunshot. Each man recoils along with the gesture, imitating a gangster-style massacre one might see from one of the equally popular Warner Bros. pictures at the time. One by one, he mimics an assassination of each dancer, finishing them off with a fluttering of his feet that emulates the sounds of a machine gun. What this is, effectively, is an on-screen application of foley sound effects, a practice which typically demands meticulous post-production work to emphasize the sounds we often take for granted in a film. Sound effects are prominent throughout the entirety of Top Hat, including not only the stormy sounds of the previous song number, but also small comedic moments, like the smack of the ceiling tile hitting the floor from the film’s first number, or the dizzying slap Rogers supplies Astaire after first confusing him for a married man. The emphatic tap routine of “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” showcases the creative importance of sound in tandem with the inherent musical quality afforded by the medium. While the average musical of the 1930s is content to whistle its tune and leave it at that, Top Hat refines its tonal talents in synchronization with its progressive approach to sound design.
Astaire’s career was one of unparalleled talents, filled with countless incredible dance sequences that remain iconic and influential. Though musicals were abundant all throughout the first decade of sound films, none quite hold up as well as any of the Astaire and Rogers films. Some have fallen by the wayside due to their focus on musical spectacle instead of enduring characters and storylines, others fall victim to the technical limitations of the hulking and rudimentary new technologies. Astaire, Rogers, and Top Hat all came along at the right time to capitalize on the boom of dazzling Hollywood musicals, bringing with them considerable pedigree and talent the likes of which remain unchallenged and without equal. But the film is clearly more than the sum of its parts, intertwining the talents of its stars and legendary composer into the fabric of the music itself. The iconic works of these early musicals gave credence to the talking picture through marvelous displays of singing and dancing, but Top Hat remains singular in its incredible display of the medium from all fronts. Not just singing and dancing, but the idea of sound itself, is demonstrated to be the crucial facet of filmmaking it is throughout this musical masterpiece.