The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
Originally published September 11th, 2013
The Barkleys of Broadway, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ last film together as well as their only one in color, probably wasn’t the one I should have started with; that or I’m not going to enjoy their earlier work. The Barkleys of Broadway feels like a lot of “been there, done that” which isn’t surprising considering they’d been in so many pictures together that probably utilized the same premise. The dancing is spectacular – about what I expected from them – but Fred Astaire continues to be unlikable to me.
Josh and Dinah Barkley (Astaire and Rogers) are an acclaimed musical comedy duo constantly feuding. Dinah wants to be taken seriously as an actress while Josh is a perfectionist who constantly criticizes his wife. When the two split up to follow their dreams, they end up realizing how much they truly need each other.
I mentioned this already, but there’s something to be said about the fact this was the first, and last, teaming of Astaire and Rogers. After a ten-year hiatus from each other, there isn’t any particular sparkle outside their dance sequences. I’m afraid over-familiarity and general exhaustion is apparent as they go through the motions of the plot. The one-upmanship between the two is decent, and doesn’t thrive on insults but compliments that are obviously backhanded; the intent being that they can’t live without each other. Due to the sheer amount of times Astaire and Rogers have been paired up, I wondered whether the fights between them were art imitating life.
It’s no secret that I’m no fan of Fred Astaire. His presumption and pride are obnoxious to me, and I’ve never seen him as endearing. Here, he’s the same smug perfectionist as in past roles, and it’s surprising that Dinah would put up with him. When Dinah asks Josh about her performance, he nitpicks to which Dinah responds “It’s always just a detail!” Josh is a vain perfectionist, and the movie equates Dinah’s desire to work in another genre – and in a play written by another man – as outright infidelity. The movie focuses on the Barkleys as a couple, but the point of view rests firmly with Josh who believes Dinah is cheating on him. Unfortunately, there’s no clear resolution other than a tacked on contrivance at the end, and it’s as if Dinah simply caves to Josh’s obsessive ways. Rogers herself is stifled by Astaire, of which this is his film. She’s the rote “better half” of the duo, who is capable of acting with him only until she leaves; once she’s on her own, she can’t act at all and needs to be “coached” through his suggestions, of which she is totally unaware. The plot is silly already, but to add insult to injury you’re forced to watch a rather intelligent character, played by Ginger Rogers no less, act like a total moron.
There are elements within The Barkleys of Broadway that are entertaining. I generally avoid movies starring Oscar Levant, but he has a lengthy piano playing sequence that is astounding! He isn’t much of an actor, but his tickling of the ivories is unparalleled. The “Highland Fling” number between Astaire and Rogers is also the humor highlight of the film, mostly due to the way Rogers over-exaggerates rolling her “R’s.” The script is implausible in several instances, but there is an intriguing discussion held about the differences in musical comedy and dramatic acting (dramatic acting having to play to the back of the crowd vs. musical where singing and hamming are de rigueur).
The Barkleys of Broadway is disappointing in that it takes two stars who have cooled towards each other and put them in what feels like a last hurrah (and it would be). The dancing is beautiful, and there are moments where things connect, but they’re few and far between. I’ll go back to the earlier Astaire and Rogers movies and see how I feel.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
This is probably the least effective and entertaining of all the Astaire/Rogers films…I do think you should give a couple of the earlier ones, filmed at RKO in the thirties, like Flying Down To Rio or Top Hat a chance. They are simply marvelous…maybe you won’t like Fred Astaire any better (he’s still smug) but the films themselves have that sparkling, silvery black-and-white dreamlike quality and are peopled with lots of talented character actors and choruses of Busby-Berkeley-style dancers. Truly magic. This 1949 MGM film was originally supposed to star Judy Garland in her follow-up pairing with Astaire, but she had a breakdown and was replaced by Rogers. Maybe with Judy the chemistry would have been better. Ginger was said to have tired of playing with Fred after the first few pictures, but together they topped the Quigley Poll of Top Moneymaking Stars and kept making at least a movie or two a year…11 in all, I think.
I do have Top Hat on my list of to-watch. I’m glad to know I wasn’t too harsh on this. Garland might have been better, although I think the problem lies in the weak script so maybe Garland would have failed as well.
I agree with you that this is, perhaps, the most disappointing Fred and Ginger film.
But to admit that you’re no fan of Fred Astaire, arguably the greatest artistic genius in the art of tap dance of all time, simply because the roles he plays as an actor annoy you, makes it incredibly difficult to take you seriously as a critic.