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 into 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 realize they are in love again. Fred sings “You’d Be Hard to Replace” again in their apartment, 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 its 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 a 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