AFI Movie Club: TOP HAT – American Film Institute
Top Hat Film Still - Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers


AFI Movie Club: TOP HAT

Featuring iconic performances from Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire – both recognized by AFI as two of cinema’s greatest screen legends – TOP HAT appears on AFI’s list of the greatest American musicals of all-time. Astaire was honored with the highest honor for a career in film – the AFI Life Achievement Award – in 1981. 

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TOP HAT – Reelgood

Watch Mira Sorvino announce TOP HAT:

Movie Trivia About TOP HAT


In his autobiography, Fred Astaire described the difficulties he and Rogers encountered with Rogers’ feathered dress in the “Cheek to Cheek” routine: “Everything went well through the song, but when we did the first movement of the dance, feathers started to fly as if a chicken had been attacked by a coyote…. This went on again and again….It got to be funny after a while. The news went all over the lot that there was a blizzard on the TOP HAT set.” 


According to Astaire, James Cagney showed up on the set during the “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” number and offered Astaire advice on which take of a certain shot – in which the dancer improvised a pantomime bit – was the best. 


Songwriter Irving Berlin participated in all TOP HAT script conferences to facilitate the blending of story and song. 


Producer Pandro S. Berman wanted a big dance number in the same vein as “The Continental” from THE GAY DIVORCEE and “The Carioca” from FLYING DOWN TO RIO, so Irving Berlin composed “The Piccolino.” Perfecting “The Piccolino” required 125 hours of rehearsal time. 


It was screenwriter Dwight Taylor who devised the idea for Astaire’s “sandman-soft shoe” dance in the reprise to his “No Strings” number, in which his soft steps lull downstairs neighbor Ginger Rogers to sleep. 


According to Fred Astaire, the idea for the title dance in TOP HAT – the dance in which he uses his cane to “shoot” down a line of tail-coated chorus boys – came to him early one morning while he was tossing restlessly in his bed. He jumped up, grabbed an umbrella out of his closet, made a few exploratory passes with it to test the idea out before crawling sheepishly back into bed. 


During the rehearsal period, Astaire would demand a closed set. Only choreographer Hermes Pan and musician/arranger Hal Borne were allowed to participate in working out the musical numbers, which were created in small sections. Rogers was called when she was needed, but directors and producers had to wait until the numbers were nearly ready for filming before viewing the actual routines. 


The choreography was designed for head-to-foot framing and, with few exceptions, for only three camera angles: head-on, medium right angle and medium left angle. Astaire also insisted that a closely tracking dolly camera – sometimes referred to as the “Astaire Dolly” – film his routines in as few shots as possible. Preferring single shots to elaborately staged camera set-ups, Astaire has famously said, “Either the camera will dance, or I will.” 

Learn more at the AFI Catalog.


The movie doesn’t end at the credits: Family-friendly Discussion Questions Join the conversation on Twitter and Instagram now using #AFIMovieClub. Or post your responses in the comment section below.

-What is your favorite musical number in the film? 

-Do musicals require a different suspension of disbelief than other genres of film? Why or why not? 

-What was the state of the country at the time that the film was released? 

-How does the emphasis on luxury and finery speak to a nation emerging from the Great Depression? What role do movies have in reflecting – or providing relief from – the state of the world? 

-How do musicals serve as an inspirational art form during challenging times? 

-Which is your favorite musical? 

-How would you rate TOP HAT? 

In this exclusive AFI Archive clip, Fred Astaire muses on his career while accepting the AFI Life Achievement Award:

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Comments (1)

Robert Poupard

One of my absolute favorite Fred/Ginger Movie! Love Love Love it – It just takes me away, every time I watch it.

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