In honor of Fred and Ginger's final film, Judge Bryan Pope does a spirited lap dance in a top hat and white spats. Wait—we meant tap dance.
"All I know is that you'd be hard to replace.
Where else, indeed.
Facts of the Case
Husband-and-wife dancing duo Josh and Dinah Barkley (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) are America's sweethearts, having made lucrative careers by turning out one frothy musical comedy after another. The audiences love the pair, and Josh and Dinah love each other (so what if their love occasionally involves hurling objects at each other's heads?). For Dinah, the never-ending tap dance routines and smile-this-is-comedy faces are becoming old hat. Her wish to branch away from musical comedy (not to mention her professional association with Josh) is granted when stage director Jacques Barredout (Jacques Francois) entices her to take a dramatic role in a straight play. But will her departure also signify the end of her love-hate marriage to Josh?
As sheer stand-alone musical entertainment, 1949's The Barkleys of Broadway stands heads and shoulders above most other films released at the time. As a product of MGM's hit factory, the Arthur Freed unit, this probably goes without saying. It's only when you match Barkleys against almost every other Astaire/Rogers vehicle that the flaws become apparent.
Astaire and Rogers are a delight. The two are such a natural fit, how could they not be? Problem is, everything they do here, they've done before, and usually better. One gets the sense that even they realize it. We've seen them bicker and engage in cutesy banter, knowing that within 90 minutes they would be dancing hand-in-hand, cheek-to-cheek, into the cinematic sunset. We've seen Rogers prove time and again that she's no mere second fiddle to the nimble Astaire. And by now it's a foregone conclusion that these two stars will generate a certain special something anytime they're paired together. After Top Hat, Shall We Dance, Flying Down to Rio and Swing Time (to name but a few), we need no further proof of that. Which makes The Barkleys of Broadway a pleasant, but rather redundant, film.
But with the incomparable Fred and Ginger as the headliners—in their final outing together, no less—Barkleys is most certainly deserving of our attention. As usual, the trifle of a plot does little more than usher the pair on to their next number (even though crafty, longtime writing partners Betty Comden and Adolph Green gleefully inject the screenplay with pointed humor, but more on that in a moment). Some of those numbers rank with Astaire's and Ginger's very best, including the breezy, off-the-cuff rehearsal of "Bouncin' the Blues," where Ginger proves she can still match Astaire step for step. Then there's "Shoes With Wings On," in which Astaire, through the magic of some truly special effects, does an extended tap routine with a dozen or so unoccupied pairs of shoes. Other numbers, such as the borderline embarrassing "When I Went a Dancing," don't work nearly as well. "Dancing" finds the two stars sporting Scottish brogues so broad one hopes Brigadoon's Cyd Charisse will show up for a lynching. The story also stops not once, but twice, while costar Oscar Levant tickles the ivories, making for some distracting filler. But if you can excuse these moments, you'll have a fine time enjoying Hollywood's specialized style of innocent entertainment.
Between this film, Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon and Broadway's On the Twentieth Century, scribes Comden and Green have carved an impressive niche for themselves in writing showbiz comedy. This is easily the least satisfying of the bunch, but they still crank out a few good jabs at the surreal silliness of stardom (Dinah's appalled reaction to an artist's rendering of her: "I beg your pardon, but why am I a pancake?"). They also have sneaky fun at the stars' expense. Josh is written as the fussy perfectionist Astaire was reputed to be (Comden and Green would sucker punch him even harder a few years later in The Band Wagon), and the entire plot centers around Dinah's exodus from musical comedy (mirroring Rogers' real-life desire to pursue more serious film roles). Comden and Green also toy around with then-popular gossip. Rumor incorrectly had it that Astaire and Rogers didn't particularly enjoy working together, so the screenplay includes temper tantrums that almost surpass the dance numbers in their ferocity.
But don't be fooled by idle chatter. The affection between Astaire and Rogers is never more evident than when they're twirling around the dance floor. During those musical moments—and, in this film, they're few and far between—we're transported to a time when actions spoke louder than words, especially when accompanied by songs such as the Gershwins' "They Can't Take That Away From Me." With this number, Astaire and Rogers get a musical sendoff worthy of their legacy. And as they glide effortlessly off the stage during the song's closing strains, one can't help but feel the heart break as the curtain closes on a wonderful era.
As with the other titles in its Astaire/Rogers DVD collection, Warner Bros. has given The Barkleys of Broadway a handsome transfer. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the film's vibrant colors are beautifully preserved, and the picture has been polished to near perfection. The mono soundtrack is serviceable but unspectacular. Audio during the musical sequences is rich and full for a mono track, but dialogue-heavy scenes often sound quiet and muffled.
If this package isn't as rich in extras as some of the other titles (to begin with, it lacks a commentary track), perhaps it's because there's not much left to say at this point about the legendary couple. That special Fred and Ginger magic has already been detailed in the previous titles in this collection. Still, Barkleys includes the original theatrical trailer and a pleasant featurette, "Reunited: Astaire and Rogers Together Again." Featuring remarks by the likes of film critic Leonard Maltin, Astaire biographer John Mueller, and Astaire's daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie, "Reunited" offers a glimpse behind the much publicized reteaming of Astaire and Rogers. At a brisk 12 minutes, the program is jam-packed with fascinating nuggets, although most may be old news to Astaire/Rogers enthusiasts. For example, they probably already know that Barkleys began life as a vehicle for Astaire and Judy Garland, who enjoyed recent success together with Easter Parade.
The package also includes two shorts. The first is "Wags to Riches," a seven-minute MGM cartoon featuring the loveably unflappable Droopy Dog as the benefactor of his owner's luxurious estate, provided he isn't offed by the scheming bulldog Spike. Typical Droopy fun, but an odd inclusion here.
Odder still is the inclusion of "Annie Was a Wonder," a vintage short starring a shockingly youthful Kathleen Freeman as a Swedish immigrant who finds work as a live-in housekeeper for an American family. This 10-minute short would be entirely forgettable were it not for the likeable Freeman, who would go on to bit parts in countless movies and television shows (Singin' in the Rain, Gremlins 2).
How nice to see Fred and Ginger together one last time, even if the film as a whole doesn't measure up to the standards set by their previous outings. With a nice transfer, passable soundtrack and respectable extras, The Barkleys of Broadway is well worth its $20 price tag.
The court thanks Fred and Ginger for a legacy of glittering, graceful entertainment. Case closed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Reunited at MGM: Astaire and Rogers Together Again (featurette)
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