Last night I watched the Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers movie Top Hat with my oldest son who, at twelve, is finally old enough to get the humor, or at least most of it.
Early on he kept asking why the characters don’t just talk to each other and explain the mix-up. I took a minute to explain how the characters were acting in reasonable ways given what they knew at the time, and we looked at it a bit in detail. After Dale thought that Jerry was actually Horace, she slapped him and then walked off; he was stunned for a moment then tried to follow but the elevator doors closed. Before he could get up to see her, though, he was detained by Horace who was extremely concerned with scandal ruining the show. When he finally was able to get away, he wanted to go see Dale and straighten things out, but she had already left.
Considered from Dale’s perspective, as soon as the mistake was made in which Jerry was mis-identified to her as Horace, she felt enormously betrayed on several levels. Before she had any time to think, he approached her and tried to flirt, which only made things worse, and before he could say anything else she slapped him and left. At this point, any further interaction with him was awful, and though she was willing to go to Italy and see Madge, she very reasonably wanted to put off for as long as possible seeing “Horace”. So she left.
In the morning in Italy, it was still too fresh and she couldn’t bear to see “Horace” yet, so she ran off. Having already told Madge what happened, Madge told Jerry to leave Dale be for the moment, so he didn’t follow her. Later at dinner, it was natural that Madge didn’t use Jerry’s name as she had earlier found out from Jerry that he and Dale had already met. There was no office of introduction to perform, and the habit people have of addressing others by name is actually pretty unnatural—an artifact of movies needing to remind the audience of who everyone’s name is.
And so it went until it was finally revealed that Dale thought Jerry was Horace. There were plenty of circumstances where things could have gone differently, but none where things were unnatural or out of character in order to keep the mistake going. That last part is important as the characters were, for the most part, all eccentric. They were, however, consistently eccentric. They weren’t merely eccentric when it was convenient, and moreover they all knew each other’s eccentricities. Madge was an over-eager match-maker, but she was up front about that and everyone knew it. That she told Dale that Dale should get a husband of her own should have tipped Dale off when Madge was encouraging her to dance closer to Jerry, but she was convinced that Jerry was Horace, and that’s the sort of mistake it takes a lot of evidence to make one re-evaluate. She was confused, which was a realistic result.
I thought it especially brilliant how Horace made Jerry promise not to ask Dale to marry him until Horace learned more about Dale’s past, and then when Jerry and Dale were talking and Dale thought that Jerry was trying to talk her into marrying him after he divorces Madge, and she says, “Go on,” he replies, “if it weren’t for a promise I made in a moment of weakness, I would go on.” It’s both entirely correct from his perspective and sounds exactly like what Dale was expecting from someone trying to say that it’s fine to disregard a marriage vow. It really was brilliant writing.
As an Astaire/Rogers film, it had great dancing, but I appreciate Top Hat more for its excellent writing. The jokes are great and I’ve never seen a mistaken identity premise carried through half as well. If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it. At the time of writing, the DVD is only $13 on Amazon. (Rather disappointingly, the blu-ray seems to be out of print, and I never managed to get a copy of it.)