Is Top Hat better?
Yes. These two titles are generally regarded, correctly IMO, as the best of the Astaire-Rogers movies. Top Hat is the most famous of them all and Astaire’s own favorite. For many years it was the undisputed champ, but more recent conventional wisdom has Swing Time as Number One – Arlene Croce, for one, called it so in her book on Astaire and Rogers. I still prefer Top Hat. The dance numbers, taken in all, are not as distinguished as the very best of Swing Time, but they are excellent. Top Hat also has the archetypal Astaire number in “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails.”
canbelto, it’s true that Astaire and Rogers, as singers, can take some getting used to (or, as George Gershwin once observed, “the amount of singing one can tolerate from these two is limited” (quoted from memory, please note). However, Irving Berlin said he would rather have Astaire introduce his songs than any other performer, and among the musical stars only Ethel Merman had more great songs written for him/her. Astaire's musicianship is always a pleasure, and composers loved the fact that he sangs the songs as they were written with no funny business.
Yes, the plots are awful, but they’re not so bad if you don’t mind the conventions of the French farces that many of them employ. I don’t mind the implausibilities of The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat, for example, both of which work on their own terms, but I do mind the flatfooted storyline of Swing Time, which is just – well, it’s just retarded.
I’d also suggest that the Bojangles number isn’t ‘pasted in senselessly,’ although it doesn’t emerge from the plotline as we’ve been trained to expect. Astaire is a performer at the club and that’s supposed to be sufficient justification for showing us the number. (Also, it’s an awesome routine, arguably Astaire’s best ever, and overpowers all objections, save for the blackface. Yes, I know, Croce said it was a “homage.” I don’t care. Yuck.)