The Barkleys of Broadway
d. Charles Walters / USA / 1949 / 109 mins
Viewed on: Turner Classic Movies (UK)
I said a wee while back that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films, as a rule, don’t tend to get me thinking. I was obviously lying, however, since The Barkleys of Broadway did make me think. A lot. Although I wasn’t thinking so much about its crude song and dance representations of occupations or nationalities, or about how to best read its underlying ideological viewpoint. Nope, it was much less complicated than that: The Barkelys of Broadway simply got me to thinking about what happens when great entertainment double-acts go their separate ways.
Of course, this being the first Fred and Ginger outing for a whole ten years (and the only in colour), it’s more than a little ironic that such a reunion should have taken place on a picture that sees a song and dance duo fall apart. You might be forgiven for assuming that this was a knowing ploy by Arthur Freed and his band of MGM producers, a kind of nod-and-wink to Hollywood history and the turbulent relationship of Fred and Ginger, but in reality, it was something very different.
In fact, the Barkleys saga was in preparation well before Ginger signed up, initially under the title You Made Me Love You. Work had began on this film during the production of the Fred Astaire-Judy Garland picture Easter Parade (1948), and it was envisaged as something of a companion piece for its none-too-dissimilar predecessor.
But whilst Garland was slated to take up the Dinah Barkley role opposite Astaire, she failed to make it past the rehearsal stage, withdrawing from the production when the combination of prescription drugs and migraines led to the further deterioration of her already ailing physical and emotional health.
Enter Ginger Rogers: her first on-screen appearance opposite Fred Astaire since the overtly serious, box office failure, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). The casting of Rogers in The Barkleys of Broadway also came at a time when – despite a string of successful comedic and dramatic roles in the early 1940s, including her Oscar winning performance in Kitty Foyle (1940) – Rogers’ career had entered a period of steady decline.
With Fred and Ginger back together at last, audiences might have expected a return to their 1930s glory days. What they got, however, was a much tamer version of Katherine Hepburn’s oft-quoted aphorism, ‘she gives him sex, he gives her class’. But, when it works with Fred and Ginger, it really really works, and there are some typically astounding dance routines spread throughout The Barkleys of Broadway. They certainly still had an unmistakable chemistry, even if some of that old magic had dissipated over the intervening decade.
Of course, Ginger Rogers is still Ginger Rogers, and given the apparent similarities between her post-’30s split with Astaire and the on-screen fissure between Josh and Dinah Barkley, it is probably not surprising that she attacks the role with her tongue planted firmly in cheek.
In some ways, this added dimension to the duo’s already savvy repartee – which is physical as much as it is verbal – saves the film from descending into second-rate hamfatter, making The Barkleys of Broadway a typically enjoyable Fred and Ginger fare.
Still, it would have been nice to see what an Astaire-Garland partnership would have made of the whole thing. One can only wonder.