The Barkleys of Broadway June 18, 2016
The films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers bear a sparkle that I cannot quite fathom — unearthly is the way their projects glow in their spectacle, their wit, and their performative output. As one watches The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, or Swing Time, their best movies, expected is an open mouth and an incessantly beating heart. When we aren’t dazzled by their song-and-dance showcases, we’re enamored with their linguistic capabilities, the easygoing rapport between its central pair. For a period lasting from 1933-39, Astaire and Rogers were perhaps the most delectable connoisseurs of breezy, musical entertainment. Hell, they still are.
So 1949’s The Barkleys of Broadway makes for an intriguing reunion, as it was released ten years after their final picture together (’39 flop The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle), and as it was an accidental repairing (Judy Garland was supposed to co-star until her mental health got in the way). The results are noticeably varied — Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Sidney Sheldon’s screenplay struggles in recreating Astaire and Roger’s sharp bantering style (and in concocting an apt storyline), and the musical sequences never quite jump off the screen — but combating the wonderful sensation that comes along with seeing our favorite song-and-dance team getting back together again is an unstoppable force.
In the film, they are Josh and Dinah Barkley, a musical comedy duo not unlike the ones they played in their youthful pasts. With decades of working together under their belts, their personal and professional partnership has been a rewarding one. To stop now wouldn’t make sense. Their commercial prowess has never been stronger.
Yet there’s something in Dinah that itches for change, and that itch grows into a rash when she meets Jacques Pierre Barredout (Jacques François), a French playwright who suggests that she could become a great dramatic actress if she tried. A role in his latest play awaits her. But if she takes it, it could spell disaster for her relationship with Josh, which is already on the rocks (arguments pepper their marriage now more than ever). A tug-of-war lies ahead of her. She can either try something new and leave an old career behind, or stay in a career she knows suits her without stretching her limits.
But this psychological “battle” never proves to be much of a captivating plot-driver, since the screenplay treats it with one-dimensional seriousness (not the frivolousness that would fit it), and since the songs and dances never are mind-blowing enough to make up for the story’s malnourishment (they’re still good, though). Shot in Technicolor and provided with a soundtrack touched by George Gershwin, The Barkleys of Broadway has the means to be one of the finest films the focal couple ever made.
But it has more in common with their less acclaimed works — the film is amiable and unpretentious, but its most inspired moments are not enough to give the entire piece inspiration. You know you’re in trouble when Oscar Levant, who steals scenes a number of times through his explosive pianistic skills, is oftentimes the best thing about a movie where the leads should absorb all our attention.
The Barkleys of Broadway is competently shot and intelligently acted, and I enjoy the semi-biographical touch the film throws into the mixture (Astaire and Rogers’s original partnership did come to a close due to Rogers wanting to pursue more dramatic roles). But, alas, it’s fine when it should be outstanding. The stakes wouldn’t be so high if any other musical couple were starring, and everyone involved in the film’s making certainly knows it. C+