I’ve just been to see the latest romcom out this month-I Give It A Year. My suggestion is you ignore the title…and don’t even give it five minutes.
Subverting the romcom genre is one thing, throwing in crassness can work, but it’s another entirely to expect audiences to spend two hours with thoroughly unlikeable and selfish characters.
Rather than dwelling on how much I wanted to slap almost every single character (an urge I also had to subdue for The Silver Linings Playbook, another ‘subverted’ romcom), I started to go over what makes a romcom zing for me.
One of my favourites is When Harry Met Sally, it ticks most of the boxes, especially the friends, who in this case end up together, giving great lines like “Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor but they couldn't possibly all have good taste.” The film even gives a good reason for the contrived urgency of the mad dash with Harry in hero mode, “I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” And Sally gives him the best answer “See you say things like that and make it impossible for me to hate you!”
I’m not sure if another favourite, Working Girl, fits into the romcom model, the romantic hero doesn’t put in an appearance until at least a third of the way in, that’s one way to subvert the genre I suppose. But I’m including it for the enthralled look in Harrison Ford’s eyes when Melanie Griffiths delivers the line at their first meeting, “I have a head for business and a bod for sin. Is there anything wrong with that?” It is such a great look, fascinated, attracted and enchanted. I’ve been lucky enough to have a similar look directed at me a few times, it makes you feel on top of the world. But that’s a story for another day.
But there's one film that ticks all the romcom requirements, and has the bonus of featuring some of the greatest dance sequences ever captured on film. It’s Top Hat, from 1935 starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
The story is as light as a soufflé, and about the courtship by dancer Jerry (Fred Astaire) of Dale (Ginger Rogers). The pair meet when his dancing in a London hotel wakes her and she stomps up to his hotel room to complain. Ironically he is performing an enthusiastic celebration of his single state but as soon as Dale slams into his room he is smitten. That’s the meet cute. He overcomes her initial dislike by wooing her to the wonderful ‘Isn’t it a lovely day to be caught in the rain.’ It’s a gorgeous piece of dancing, full of flirting and falling in love.
The second act obstacle comes in the form of mistaken identity. Jerry has been staying in secret in the hotel suite of his friend Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). The secrecy is to prevent Jerry’s star turn in Horace’s new West End musical being discovered by the press. Horace is married to Dale’s friend Madge (Helen Broderick), whom Dale is due to meet in Venice. When Dale discovers Horace’s hotel suite is above hers, she assumes the charming dancer she’s falling for is in fact her friend’s husband. She flees the hotel, and he doesn’t know why. On the face of it this is a truly ridiculous plot device to sustain most of the film, even when he catches up with her in Venice it isn't sorted out, but as contrived as it is, the way it is sustained is completely consistent. And it’s all done with such energy and humour you can’t help but go along for the ride.
The dancing is sublime of course and, apart from the eponymous ‘Top Hat’ number, is never just a spectacle, it’s always part of the plot, showing how the leads’ relationship is unfolding. And the outfits Ginger Rogers wears for each dance! Oh my! The story of her feathered dress for ‘Cheek to cheek’ is famous, about how Astaire hated it for shedding copious amounts of feathers, and how she fought for it, and in fact after that sequence you do see some feathers floating down. But that’s only one in a succession of gorgeous outfits she wears. Most of the film takes place over one day and she manages to change clothes five times (including two different evening dresses). That’s the life!
Part of the film’s joy-in addition to the dancing, the costumes and the sumptuous art deco sets-is the secondary characters, particularly Helen Broderick as Madge and Edward Everett Horton as the bumbling Horace. Madge and Horace spend most of the film apart, most of their interaction is with their respective friends, but every time they are together they steal the scene. As towards the end when Jerry realises his ladylove has been mistaking him for Horace:
Madge: No wonder she thought Horace was fascinating.
Horace: (distractedly agreeing) No wonder, (realising what she’s just said) I resent that!
As far as I know this is the only time the two actors appeared together, which is a great shame, I’d happily watch an entire series of these two, quibbling and quipping. They’d be joined of course by Horace’s manservant Bates, with whom he is engaged in a cold war at the film’s start over the very important subject of the correct way to tie a bowtie. See even the lightest of romcoms have their serious elements!
Eighty years on the charm of Top Hat surpasses anyone who says I give it a year!