Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat.
Everett Collection

Choosing the best Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical is a task no one should take lightly. But for the crazy exuberance of its sets, for its fantastic trio of second bananas (Eric Blore as an all-seeing gentleman’s gentleman, Edward Everett Horton as an innocently flirtatious society rake, and Erik Rhodes as a preening Euro-suitor), and most of all for the exquisite “Cheek to Cheek” dance number, let’s go with Mark Sandrich’s Top Hat. The plot is your standard mistaken-identity loop-de-loop. But to watch the slow-burning romance between Astaire’s eternal playboy Jerry Travers and Rogers’ no-nonsense charmer Dale Tremont is bliss: you almost don’t want them to get together so their fox-trotting courtship can go on forever. When Astaire looks at her, sings to her, he somehow appears both sick with love and seductively self-confident; Rogers, as the one who must be won over, is so resolutely against being pursued that when she melts, she melts us too.

The seduction happens in a delightfully ultra-fake version of Venice, a pristine sound-stage reverie of candy-white art-deco bridges, gliding gondolas, and curving terraces that wouldn’t be out of place atop a wedding cake—the great dance critic Arlene Croce called the setting “a kind of celestial powder room.” As Astaire and Rogers whirl on that phony Venetian dance floor—Jerry has just told Dale, in the most convincing terms possible, that he’s in heaven when she’s around, a feeling he barely has the words to express—they play out a romance of resistance and surrender that exists not just in Depression-era Hollywood but also outside of time. Even just to summon this number in memory, let alone watch it, is to open a floodgate of wistfulness. The lore has it that the ostrich-feather gown Rogers wore for this number annoyed Astaire—wisps of it kept flying off; its fluffiness ruined the clean lines of the dance. But those airborne feathers now read like a whisper from the past. A faulty dress is sometimes exactly the right dress, quivering with every movement, an approximation of what it’s like to anticipate a new lover’s touch.

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