Best Movies by Farr: Berlin + Astaire

November 21, 2011 | John Farr

The music of Irving Berlin and the fancy footwork of Fred Astaire combined for some of the finest musical cinema of the century. John Farr selects his favorite three.

Top Hat (1935)

It’s love at first dance for performer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire) and the stunning Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) , until, for reasons I won’t disclose, Dale gets the wrong idea that Jerry is already married. This case of mistaken identity leads to a series of comic shenanigans, punctuated by Irving Berlin songs and stunningly choreographed dance numbers.

Finally, the long-awaited Astaire-Rogers classics are being released on DVD, and “Top Hat” (arguably the best of the series, along with “Swing Time”) has never looked or sounded better. The plot is soufflĂ©-light, but runs on the divine hilarity of its ensemble players, in particular Eric Blore as persnickety butler Bates, and Erik Rhodes as Beddini, rival to Dale’s affections. Beyond that ineffable Astaire-Rogers chemistry, the real stars are the buttery Berlin score (highlight: “Cheek to Cheek”) and dancing sequences that define beauty and grace in motion. Heaven-I’m in heaven!

Holiday Inn (1942)

After a painful bust-up with his girlfriend, song-and-dance man Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) decides he’s had it with the big city and retires to a farm in New England, which he converts into an inn, complete with floor shows, but open only on public holidays. Friend and co-headliner Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) wants to make a film about the inn, but things get complicated when he tangles with Hardy over lovely leading lady Linda Mason (Debbie Reynolds).

Conceived from an idea by composer Irving Berlin, Mark Sandrich’s “Holiday Inn” is a humorous, festive Crosby/Astaire musical that finds both performers in tip-top crooning and toe-tapping form. Famous for introducing “White Christmas,” the best-selling single of all time and an instant favorite with troops overseas, “Inn” is consistently tuneful and entertaining, with a sublime Irving Berlin score that covers not just Christmas, but all major holidays. Watch for the July 4th rave-up “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers,” one of many musical highlights.

Easter Parade (1948)

Dumped on Easter by longstanding dance partner Nadine (Ann Miller), Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) rashly wagers he can still draw crowds even teamed with the greenest of chorus girls. Hannah Brown (Judy Garland) is his pick, and Don begins grooming her for stardom.

In this joyous musical romp, MGM producer Arthur Freed paired Garland with the recently “retired” Astaire after original lead Gene Kelly injured his ankle. Combining Astaire’s moves and Garland’s pipes with a phenomenal Irving Berlin score adapted by Johnny Green and Roger Edens, highlights include the vaudevillian duet “We’re a Couple of Swells” and Astaire’s excellent solo to “Steppin’ Out With My Baby”. The movie was a big success in 1948, and no wonder! By all means, step out with this title.

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