The Barkleys of Broadway

  • Title:  The Barkleys of Broadway
  • Director:  Charles Walters
  • Date:  1949
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Genre:  Musical
  • Cast:  Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Oscar Levant, Billie Burke
  • Format:  Standard, Technicolor
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

The Barkleys of Broadway is the last Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical, the only one in color, and the only one made by MGM rather than RKO. This time Fred is Josh Barkley and Ginger is his wife, Dinah (only the second time they played a married couple – the other being the biopic The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.) However, all is not well between Josh and Dinah — she thinks he’s too critical and feels he’s holding her back from a chance to prove herself on the legitimate stage as a serious dramatic actress. For his part, Josh sees nothing wrong with musical comedy and can’t understand why his wife isn’t happy doing the same thing she’s always been good at. Needless to say, their marriage is falling apart.

When a French director pursues Dinah, offering her the lead in his new play “The Young Sarah (Bernhart)”. Dinah was set to refuse – but after a fight with Josh, she  accepts. She walks out, and joins the cast of “The Young Sarah“. Meanwhile, Josh is miserable without his wife – not that he’d let anyone know it. He sneaks in to the theatre to watch his wife, and seeing how poorly the French director treats her actually feels bad. Later drowning his sorrows at a bar with his buddy, Irza (Oscar Levant), he gets a bright idea and calls his wife, and, imitating the director he gives her just the direction she needs. Over the next few weeks, Josh literally phones in performance cues for Dinah.  Meanwhile, Irza knows the two are miserable, and gets them both to a benefit for a hospital by claiming the other won’t be there — the two dance to “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” (From Swing Time), but do not re-unite. After Dinah’s triumphant dramatic debut, Josh decides he has to find out, once and for all, who Dinah loves – him or her new director. She’s about to say… when the director walks into the dressing room during the phone call. And it’s Dinah’s turn to have some fun. She then goes to their apartment to meet Josh and confess her little joke. Josh comes in, announcing he won’t contest her divorce, but over the course of their argument they realise they are in love again. Fred sings “You’d be Hard to Replace” again in their apt, and the number fades into a big show-stopping number on stage “Manhattan Downbeat”, as the two return together to musical comedy.

List of Musical Numbers

  • The Swing Trot
  • Sabre Dance (played by Oscar Levant on piano)
  • You’d Be Hard to Replace
  • Bouncin’ The Blues
  • My One and Only Highland Fling
  • A Weekend in the Country
  • Shoes with Wings On
  • Tchaikovsky Concerto #1 (played by Oscar Levant on piano)
  • They Can’t Take That Away from Me
  • You’d Be Hard to Replace (Reprise)
  • Manhattan Downbeat

Although not my favorite Astaire/Rogers musical – The Barkleys of Broadway has it’s moments.  Ginger really gets to sink her teeth into this plot – from comic moments such as her first argument with Fred in their apt at the beginning of the film – to her dramatic turn, first, playing a “dying” scene at a friend’s country house, then her audition for the French Conservatory in the finale of “The Young Sarah”. Fred, never a slouch in the acting department either, also gives a typically wonderful low-key performance as Josh – we never for one moment doubt he truly loves his wife, even when the two are fighting. In their opening fight scene in their apartment, for example, Dinah gets mad enough to throw something at Josh – but she panics when he points out he’s bleeding. When she insists he hit her back – he instead kisses her – passionately. Though, the idea of spousal battery being used for comic purposes is pretty awful by today’s standards, it was apparently OK in the 1940s. And the dance numbers are pure magic – especially Fred and Ginger’s tap number “Bouncin’ the Blues” and their ballroom number (a reprise from Swing Time) “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”. The expressions, the acting, and, of course, the dancing – it’s pure magic. And unlike many other musicals – since Fred and Ginger are playing professional dancers – it makes sense they would dance, especially with each other. There is story here as well as dance, without the artificiality of a “show within a show”, another hallmark of Fred and Ginger musicals, which often have more in common with the romantic comedy than the MGM musical.

Fred and Ginger’s dances are also shot full frame (that is, they can be seen from head to toe) and often in a single shot. When Fred sings “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”, he’s singing to Dinah, and his sense of loss is felt in the lyrics as well as in their dance (as is Dinah’s own sense of loss). The song, is about having memories, and only memories left of someone one cares about. Similarly, when he sings “You’d Be Hard to Replace” – he’s singing it to Dinah as they re-unite. Often in other MGM musicals the musical numbers are addressed to the audience rather than to the other characters in the film.

Recommendation:  See It
Rating:  4 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Batman Begins

The Bandwagon

  • Title: The Bandwagon
  • Director: Vincente Minnelli
  • Date: 1953
  • Studio: MGM
  • Genre: Musical
  • Cast: Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan
  • Format: Standard, Technicolor
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC, 2-disc Special Edition

“We enter with nothing but a dream – but when we leave we’ll have a show! In between there will be enthusiasms, frustrations, hot tempers, cold coffee, some of us will fight, some will fall in love but all of us will work… The night that curtain goes up it will go up on a smash hit! And believe me kids, there’s nothing in the world so soothing as a smash hit.” — Jeffrey Cordova

“Gosh, with all this raw talent around, why can’t us kids get together and put on ourselves a show!” — Lester Martin

The Bandwagon is, in many ways, a parody of the standard WB/MGM musical. It certainly has a light-hearted twist on many of the conventions of a musical. Astaire is Tony a “song and dance man”, “a hoofer”, who left Broadway and went to Hollywood, making his fame in a string of musical films, such as “Swinging Down to Panama” (a reference to the classic Astaire / Rogers film Swing Time and Astaire’s first film with Ginger Rogers – Flying Down to Rio). But, that was ages ago, and in the opening scene he sells his top hat, gloves, and dance cane to raise enough money to buy himself a ticket back to New York, where some old friends have promised him a role in a new stage play to be directed by the famous Jeffrey Cordova. Tony hasn’t heard of Cordova, but any job is a job, so he agrees to see him. Tony’s first sight of Cordova is on stage – playing Oedipus Rex, Tony scoffs – “This is the man that’s going to direct a musical?” But his friends, Lily and Lester Martin (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant) assure him Cordova can do anything.

The next issue Tony has is his co-star — Lily, Lester, and Jeffrey have choosen, Gabrielle – a ballerina (Cyd Charisse). Tony, besides thinking she’s too tall, is intimidated by the cool dancer. Gabby also has her own doubts – not only intimidated by Tony but worried she won’t be able to handle the pressures of a Broadway show.

And what a show – Jeffrey takes Lily and Lester’s light-hearted musical comedy and turns it into a dark, gloomy, musical version of Faust. And yes, it does turn into the disaster you’d expect. In fact, the first half-hour of the film involves the pulling together of the musical, and their first out-of-town show, which is a complete flop. That the show is a flop instead of a rousing success is the exact opposite of many musicals about the pulling together of a Broadway show.  The shocked faces of the audience and backers as they exit the theatre are amusing, but the cast of the show is in trouble.

At the after-show cast “wake” Tony takes the reins, and with the help of Lily and Lester decides to take the show back to it’s roots – testing in each city on the road until they are ready to go back to New York. Even Jeffrey agrees.

What follows is a quick montage of numbers, then the show returns to New York. In New York, we see the play book, heard the numbers we’ve seen on the road, and the finale number is “Girl Hunt” — film noir done as a musical ballet with Fred as the Detective (complete with a deliberately corny monologue) and Cyd Charisse as the sweet blonde victim and the dark-haired Femme Fatale. It’s a pure jazzy ballet — music and dance telling the story, in between Tony’s monologue. It’s a brilliant number and one of my favorites ever, especially in a MGM musical. And again, it’s an example of the very clever nature of the movie to have a musical Film Noir piece as the center-piece conclusion of the film.

What sets The Bandwagon apart from similar MGM musicals is it’s nod-nod-wink-wink cleverness that acknowledges the audience knows exactly what they are poking fun at. “Tony” selling his top hat, gloves, and stick – the uniform of Fred Astaire’s traditional b/w Art Deco films which had gone out of style by the 1950s. The very traditional back stage musical that runs up to a big premiere – only to have that premiere be a complete flop. Lester’s comment, “Gosh, with all this raw talent around, why can’t us kids get together and put on ourselves a show!” even delivered to sound like Mickey Rooney – is a dead-on reference/parody of the WB backyard musicals (think young Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney) that wouldn’t go over the heads of a 1950s audience at all. As I said – clever. The second half, or even last third of the film is more the traditional MGM musical, with as many songs by the same composer jammed in as possible. But, at least it makes sense, plot wise, since each is performed in a different city as the troupe is testing the waters. And “Girl Hunt” is pure brilliance that works on many levels — it’s a brilliant dance, the colors are incredible, the explosions and special effects look like stage effects – as they should, and the whole number itself takes a film-noir story and condenses it into about 10-15 minutes of wordless performance of jazzy music and dance (wordless except Tony’s monologue).

List of Musical Numbers

  • I’ll Go My Way by Myself
  • Shine on your Shoes
  • That’s Entertainment!
  • Dancing in the Dark (music only)
  • More Beer/I Love Louisa
  • New Sun in a New Sky
  • I Lost the One Girl I Found
  • Louisiana Hayride
  • Triplets
  • Girl Hunt
  • Reprise – I’ll Go My Way by Myself
  • Reprise – That’s Entertainment

Other music in the film that’s particularly enjoyable: “Shine on your Shoes” – Fred tears up a old-fashioned street arcade, while a shoe-shine guy dances to the rhythm as well. It’s great fun, and well filmed – though there’s a noticeable edit in the middle of the scene, unusual in any of Fred’s dance numbers. “Dancing in the Dark” – performed without lyrics, is a beautiful ballroom dance piece with Charisse and Fred dancing together. It’s shot full-frame, that is, we can see the dancers from the tips of their toes to the tops of their heads for every beat of the dance – and the entire dance is one shot – no edits to spoil the rhythm of the movement of the dancers. It’s a beautiful, beautiful piece. “Louisiana Hayride” with Nanette Fabray belting out the vocals is pure fun, tho’ it also includes some of the worst grammar ever in the lyrics, yet it’s still energetic and fun. “Triplets” includes some clever costume effects to make Fred, Nanette, and Jack Buchanan all look like infants. And then there’s “Girl Hunt” discussed above. Overall, fun, light, enjoyable, — a film to cheer one up, and leave the theater singing. A joy to watch.

Recommendation: See it!
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film: The Barkleys of Broadway