People have always relied on entertainment to get them out of their daily lives. Doesn’t matter what form it takes as long as it works. In Shakespeare’s day – or the Earl of Oxford, if you believe the hype – the predominant form of entertainment was theatre. In the early 20th century, you had theatre; cinema; and football. In the latter half of the 20th century the cinema was ascendant, as was the football pitch.
Wherever there was (and is) a crowd, gathered together to forget today: that’s entertainment.
It is notable that a lot of today’s entertainment harks us back to earlier times – particularly the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the Edwardian; or the post War period when women’s rights and equality issues began to take centre stage. It is also worth noting that in each of these instances the portrayal we are given of the past is inaccurate.
We feel, when we watch Downton, an affinity for a world that potentially never existed. We are, after all, talking about a world in which servitude was the norm, a world where society was essentially run for and on behalf of the super rich. Whatever you may think about the parallels between these words and today’s world, the fact remains that Downton and shows like it make us feel a warmth for a time that was clearly out of kilter with itself: it started two World Wars, for one thing; and saw the beginnings of a century of liberal foment whose effects have still not finished spawning new revolutions.
This kind of entertainment is nostalgia through and through – a rosy feeling for a vision of history probably quite different from its reality. There is, though, another form of entertainment that has quite a different bent even though it exists in the same ballpark.
Top Hat tickets are a good case in point; as are tickets to Singin in the Rain. In either case, and particularly with Top Hat, the audience is doing something very interesting. It is not viewing entertainment about a bygone world, which it has no direct experience of: it is, instead, looking at entertainments made for that bygone world.
Top Hat was filmed in 1935, pre WWII and squarely in the middle of a period of massive European unrest. It was made in an America that refused to believe it would go to war – a State whose reputation for military involvement had yet to be forged. In other words, it was made just after the Great Depression at a time when nervousness and self-confidence blended quite nicely in the American psyche.
The film, and entertainments like it, can be seen of evidence of the time in ways that entertainments about the time will always fail to live up to. An entertainment is always an artefact of when it was made – Shakespeare’s, or Oxford’s, plays are a key example of this – and Top Hat is no less an artefact for its being a wacky screwball comedy.