“The Barkleys of Broadway” would not have happened without Gene Kelly.
Gene was starting to work on “Easter Parade” with Judy Garland when he injured himself. When it was clear that he couldn’t continue on the movie, Gene and MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer called upon Fred Astaire, whose last movie was “Blue Skies” released in 1946. Fred was ready for retirement, but he graciously agreed to step in for the injured Gene.
Fred and Judy got along extremely well, and “Easter Parade” was a big hit in 1948. As a follow-up, the two were assigned to “The Barkleys of Broadway.” However, due to her illnesses, she could not proceed. Ginger Rogers was called, and she was delighted at the opportunity to reunite with Fred. The two picked up where they left off 10 years earlier, and they began rehearsing for their first film in a decade and their first together in color.
Ironically, even though this film was meant as a vehicle for Fred and Judy, the story actually reflects upon Fred and Ginger’s careers. In the film, Josh and Dinah Barkley (Fred and Ginger) are a successful Broadway musical team. However, she yearns to be a dramatic actress. Sound familiar? When Fred and Ginger broke up, Ginger started a successful solo career as an actress.
Unfortunately, the screenplay for Barkleys – which is by the usually strong Betty Comden and Adolph Green – isn’t terribly good. In a word, it’s silly. While this is the only Fred and Ginger film that starts with the two married, it still turns into a boy-chases-girl movie, and it’s pretty tired this time around. Josh and Dinah bicker, then there’s a handsome playwright courting Dinah and a beautiful understudy with eyes for Josh. It’s all very contrived and unconvincing. What it needs is a more sophisticated wit.
For once, the supporting cast in a Fred and Ginger film fails to enliven the proceedings. Sourpuss Oscar Levant plays friend Ezra Millar with none of the panache of Edward Everett Horton or Eric Blore, while Billie Burke is barely seen as Mrs. Livingston Belney, a patron of the arts. Gale Robbins is the pretty but one-note Shirlene, the understudy, while Jacques Francois has all the personality of plywood as the playwright.
So what’s to recommend? Fred and Ginger. The two have such an easy charm together that they could make burnt toast seem like caviar. And boy does this film need their chemistry.
The movie opens with the credits rolling over the duo dancing the “Swing Trot.” Rogers looks lovely in a gold lame dress, and it’s too bad the credits are blocking our view. Still, right off the bat, the film shows us that they still have it.
“You’d Be Hard to Replace” is a lovely little tune that is sung as Josh and Dinah apologize to each other after a fight. “Bouncin’ the Blues” is a rehearsal number much along the lines of “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” from “Roberta.” If “Blues” isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, it’s still an energetic, highly enjoyable number performed with verve. However, instead of playing to each other, you get the feeling they are playing to the movie audience.
“My One and Only Highland Fling” is a light and charming soft-shoe bit that’s very different from past numbers. “A Weekend in the Country” features Fred, Ginger and Oscar walking from a train station to their friend’s country home, and it’s an upbeat if unmemorable piece. One book states that Fred makes the simple act of walking a joyous event, and he does walk to music in several of his films.
“Shoes With Wings On” is the big Fred solo in the movie, a hybrid of “The Red Shoes,” which was released a year earlier, and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” with a bit of “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” thrown in for good measure. Fred ends up dancing with many pairs of shoes that dance on their own. Perhaps it’s just me, and while I admire its creativity, this number doesn’t dazzle. Perhaps I find the dancing shoes a bit creepy, and I kept thinking that shattering glass in the middle of a stage production isn’t such a great idea for the next group of performers. In all seriousness, Fred often used props in his dances without needing special effects, so why use them here?
However, I love “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” the Gershwin song from “Shall We Dance” that should have featured Fred and Ginger but didn’t. In “Barkleys” they finally get to dance to it, and it’s even more perfectly used in this movie. The lyrics sum up the duo’s popularity, and nothing can take their memory away from us, the audience. Ginger looks stunning in a white dress – an odd selection for a color film but one that works – and the two dance with feeling. This really is their swan song, even if everyone was hoping for one more outing together.
Unfortunately, the movie’s big climactic moment is Ginger in a dramatic scene as young Sarah Bernhardt, a play that we’re told is going to be a hit but looks pretty darn dreary. The final number is “Manhattan Downbeat,” a standard group number that Fred and Ginger enliven.
“The Barkleys of Broadway” is important because it reunites the great movie team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Perhaps if this had been a planned reunion, a better vehicle could have been found. Instead, it’s a routine MGM musical elevated by the two great and beloved stars. Sadly, it would be their final pairing on film. But what a legacy the two leave today. Even though these films were made so long ago, people still know who “Fred and Ginger” are. And no one ever topped them.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my look at the 10 films Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together. It took me long enough to finish this series, but finish it I did and I enjoyed every moment of it.