The Barkleys of Broadway
There are countless, unforgettable films made during the golden age of Hollywood that were the result of “accidents,” where for one reason or another stars or directors ended up on a film because it was meant to be. The Barkleys of Broadway is one of those.
Kismet: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) had intended Charles Walter’s, Easter Parade (1948) as a vehicle for Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. Gene Kelly was unable to complete the film because he was injured. Together, Kelly and MGM boss, Louis B. Mayer decide to call Fred Astaire to see if he’d come out of retirement to do the picture. He does. Easter Parade turns out to be MGM’s highest grossing film of 1948 and Astaire and Judy Garland fall in love, they absolutely adore working together. So, as with all things Hollywood, in hopes of taking advantage of the film and duo’s co-starring success, MGM quickly looks for another vehicle to co-star Astaire and Garland. That vehicle was The Barkleys of Broadway. Unfortunately, Judy Garland was unable to do the film due to health issues. Enter Ginger Rogers.
After the success of Easter Parade, Ginger Rogers sent the film’s producer, Arthur Freed a note of congratulations. As Freed and other MGM executives tried to figure out what to do with The Barkleys of Broadway now that Judy was not available, someone suggested Ginger Rogers who’d planted the seed in Freed’s mind. They asked her and she agreed to do the picture. According to film historian, Leonard Maltin, despite all the gossip to the contrary, Astaire and Rogers had no aversion to working together again and had, in fact, discussed doing another picture together but the opportunity had not presented itself. Now here it was. “Joyously together again!” Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers…
Fred and Ginger made nine films together in the 1930s with RKO Radio Pictures. All were successful films that made them the most popular musical-comedy team in film. Of those, I believe Mark Sandrich’s, Top Hat (1935) is the most acclaimed. It is the film that features the magical, “Cheek to Cheek” by Irving Berlin – the dancing, that gorgeous dress, one of the most memorable moments in film – ever! When the music swells, damn it if I don’t get chills each and every time I watch this.
No doubt “Cheek to Cheek” is special but there isn’t a Fred and Ginger pairing of the 1930s I don’t enjoy. There are lesser films of the nine they did together in that decade, the familiar formula was bound to grow a bit stale. But there are glimpses of greatness in each of them. My personal favorite is The Gay Divorcee from 1934 partly due to the very witty repartee between the players, and a wonderful cast of characters played by veteran actors like Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton and Alice Brady. I could listen to and watch them all day long. But also because there’s Fred and Ginger. I am swept up in the frenzy of “The Continental.”
Some fun in Roberta, 1935 – “Too Hot to Handle”
Anyway. I think you get the picture – they’re fabulous together. Period.
In 1939, after completing The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, Astaire and Rogers split. Astaire’s salary demands proved too much for RKO pictures. Fred Astaire went on to make movie musical magic in all manner of ways, both alone and with other outstanding talents, leaving a rich legacy of treasures. Ginger Rogers went on to prove herself a true quadruple threat. We knew by 1939 that she could sing, dance and be funny but now, determined to go into straight drama she reaches the pinnacle with an Academy Award-winning performance in Sam Wood’s, Kitty Foyle in 1940. It’s difficult to think of other actors who make the transition from film genre to film genre so seamlessly. A rare talent. (I posted a pictorial tribute to Ginger not long ago. If interested you can access it here.)
Despite their great individual careers, however, the magic of Astaire and Rogers together cannot be understated. For me, Astaire never had a greater partner. Ginger may not have been the best dancer but it wasn’t necessarily the dancing, or not the dancing alone, that made them a perfect pair. It was the glances, the touch, the feel that made them magic. The spell of romance. That’s what she gave him. To me Fred was never as romantic as when he danced with Ginger. And you can credit that not to a split, or a twirl or tap. You can credit that to the actress that was Ginger Rogers.
Just look at her here – from Follow the Fleet in 1936, Irving Berlin’s spectacular, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”
Note her attitude, always in character…
Ten years after she made her last appearance on-screen with Astaire, Ginger Rogers walked onto the set of The Barkleys of Broadway. The cast and crew had tears in their eyes. This was special. She said her “hellos”, kissed Fred Astaire and they got to work. As a fan, I cannot fathom what it must have been like for audiences in 1949. If people are out of their minds excited about the release of a Twilight film today, if audiences drool over a new and rehashed installment of Spiderman, imagine seeing legends together again after a ten-year sabbatical. I would have had to take a Valium. I get chills just thinking about it, and admit a bit of that happens when I watch The Barkleys of Broadway in my own living room. From the moment I see the opening credits, which are shown while the couple is dancing, quite happily – she in a gold gown and he in a tux, I mean, seriously, I’m verklempt just thinking about it. We are all happy to be together again.
Barkleys is not the duos best film. But I feel the nostalgia, the love and familiarity of this pair, one of the truest matches made in movie heaven. I like to think destiny brought them together again just for me. I will always think that and I relish it. I love this movie and feel, whenever I see it, a reunion. As if I too had been without them for ten years.
Fred and Ginger play husband and wife in The Barkleys of Broadway, Josh and Dinah Barkley, very popular musical comedy stars. Here they are rehearsing one of their numbers, “Bouncin’ the Blues”…
On stage the couple is wonderful, as one would guess, but off the stage, they are constantly bickering. He is a strict perfectionist who is always criticising one thing or another about her performance. One day his criticism proves too much for Dinah. They go to a party in honor of the successful opening of their latest show and while she is getting food at the buffet table, a young, rather pompous man approaches her. It turns out he’s a huge admirer of hers and a playwright who’s just written a play based on Sarah Bernhardt. This man, Jacques Pierre Barredout, starts to woo Dinah to get her to star in his dramatic play. Her ego fed and her interest in doing something other than musical comedy peaked, Dinah decides to give drama a try albeit at the expense of her marriage.
Although they love each other madly, both Dinah and Josh venture forth on their own. He continues on with the show, dancing with her understudy and on his own. Incidentally, the couple’s split in the film comes at an opportune time since it gives Astaire as Josh a chance for a great solo number with dancing/flying shoes. Luckily he had that ready to go.
Dinah starts rehearsal in Barredout’s play, “Young Sarah,” directed by the playwright himself. Of course, this means Dinah and Barredout spend a lot of time together, which makes Josh very jealous and rightfully so. Dinah loves Josh but the younger man makes some moves and she is quite enchanted with his praise of her acting. I have to interject here to say that part of what makes The Barkleys of Broadway so special is the fact it closely parallels the Astaire and Rogers real-life split and reunion in a way. Astaire’s character, Josh, is happy to remain as a musical comedy star and goes on to great success in that realm. Dinah, as was the case for Ginger, longs to prove herself in drama. And she does, she is a smash hit as “Young Sarah.” But that can only mean one thing, that Josh has lost her.
Then their composer and close friend, Ezra Millar, played by the great, Oscar Levant has a great idea for reuniting the couple. There is a charity event coming up. The couple is not speaking so each refuses to show up with the other one in attendance. Ezra tells each of them that the other is too busy to appear at the benefit so, of course, they each agree to be there. Then this happens…
I don’t know. Seems to me that if anything on film is meant to be, that’s it. That number in this movie by these two tells all about what they’re come to mean to me and millions of others. To each other. Fred and Ginger performed that same number in Shall We Dance in 1937. The gorgeous music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin perfect for the Barkleys, but also for Fred and Ginger and their reunion. And for me.
The way your smile just beams
The way you sing off key
The way you haunt my dreams
No, no, they can’t take that away from me
Here is the first time…not a dance routine but a wonderful moment on film.
If you’re not convinced about how much Ginger Roger’s wonderful acting added to those routines, songs, scenes go back and watch them both again. Different circumstances and characters, different moods and a different, distinct performance from her in each – though she says not a word in either. “No, no, you can’t take that away from me. “
Right after the couple does “They Can’t Take that Away from Me,” in Barkleys, they stop to speak backstage. Thinking this great performance means they are reunited, Josh expresses his excitement to Dinah. But she tells him she’s not sure she wants to go on with musical comedy, in essence, whether she wants to stay with him. They’ve had such great success apart. She says, “Look…you’re doing very well without me and…I’m doing what I guess I’ve always wanted to do and, in the long run, we’ll be much happier apart….our break-up wasn’t just a whim, it’s been coming for a long, long time. It had to happen. You’ve been taking me for granted for too long. I have to stand on my own two feet as a person and as an actress. Until I do, I can’t take time to think about “us.”
Well – is that Ginger or Dinah? Both proved themselves after separating from perfectionists that take the form of Fred Astaire, extraordinary talent aside (and I do love him). This scene never fails to grab me. I admire Ginger Rogers for so much more than just dancing and she had a unique career that spanned all genre of film, as mentioned above. She is one of the greatest talents Hollywood has ever seen, in fact. But I can’t help wanting them together forever. Josh and Dinah and Fred and Ginger. Sorry but it’s true. They make me swoon. It’s that simple.
The Barkleys end up back together again. It can’t end otherwise in an MGM musical. Nor do we want it to. This film, which is the only one Fred and Ginger made in color together, by the way, ends with the requisite, huge production number. It’s a fun rendition of “Manhattan Down Beat” during which Ginger wears one of the many gorgeous gowns she wears throughout this film. MGM never skimps on glamour or color and both are vivid throughout this film.
Fred and Ginger end the film as the Barkleys as they began it on-screen, laughing heartily. All I can think is “DON’T GO!” But they do. And I am left to rewind and re watch in perpetuity. Oh, and to post a blog in their honor, trying to convey how much I love them.
Here are a few (gorgeous) publicity stills for The Barkleys of Broadway, capitalizing on the “reunion”:
I’m never letting them go.
Today is Ginger Rogers day on Turner Classic Movies‘ (TCM) Summer Under the Stars (SUTS) where the full spectrum of her astounding talent will be on display for 24 hours. I am submitting this entry, honoring Ms. Rogers and The Barkleys of Broadway as part of the SUTS blogathon hosted by Michael of Scribehard on Film and Jill of Sittin’ On a Backyard Fence. This event will last all month to coincide with the TCM schedule. For details on the schedule, participants and submissions, go to either of the host sites and prepare to be enchanted and informed.