Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are probably best remembered today as being each other’s dance partner through the 1930s. They made nine films together at RKO in that decade, from their scene-stealing supporting roles in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio to the title characters in 1939’s The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, which was meant to be their last film together. Fortunately for us, they reunited ten years later for MGM in The Barkleys of Broadway, their only Technicolor movie.
Josh (Fred Astaire) and Dinah Barkley (Ginger Rogers) are a successful musical comedy team. Though they are seemingly perfect together in their performances, backstage it’s a little tenser. The married couple constantly argues, with Josh critiquing his wife over the smallest details and Dinah wanting to branch out beyond her husband’s grasp. On the opening night of their latest show, Dinah meets French playwright Jacques Pierre Barredout (Jacques François), who tells her she’d make a great dramatic actress. Feeling overshadowed by Josh, Dinah takes the lead role in Jacques’s new play about a young Sarah Bernhardt, and the Barkleys split up.
The plot for The Barkleys of Broadway is an instance where art imitates life as it closely mirrors the professional relationship between its stars. At the end of the 1930s, Ginger Rogers wanted to pursue more dramatic roles and didn’t want to be tied to her association with Fred Astaire. She ended up becoming successful in her endeavor and won the Best Actress Oscar for her lead role in the 1940 film Kitty Foyle. In the mid-1940s, she was Hollywood’s highest-paid actress.
Astaire found success as well after his partnership with Rogers came to an end, teaming up with the likes of Eleanor Powell, Rita Hayworth, and Bing Crosby throughout the 1940s. But in 1946, Astaire announced his retirement as he believed his career was beginning to falter. His early retirement didn’t last long, as MGM asked him to replace an injured Gene Kelly in the 1948 film Easter Parade, pairing him with Judy Garland. The film proved to be a huge success, and Astaire and Garland were set to reunite in The Barkleys of Broadway. Garland was forced to drop out though as it became clear that she was in a much too fragile, emotional state to do the film.
As fate would have it, Rogers had sent producer Arthur Freed a telegram congratulating him on the success of Easter Parade. With Garland out of the picture, Freed saw it as the perfect opportunity to reunite Astaire and Rogers on screen. Though there had been rumors that the duo didn’t get along, both of them denied it and had even discussed the possibility of reuniting.
The film itself works as a great tribute to the dynamic partnership between Astaire and Rogers, highlighting their strengths together and apart. The most touching scene in the film comes from a ballroom dance between the two that calls back to their 1937 film Shall We Dance. In the earlier film, Astaire sings “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” which was the last song written by George Gershwin before he passed away. Unlike most songs in an Astaire-Rogers musical, the song didn’t feature a dance number. The use of the song in The Barkleys of Broadway works wonderfully well in the film’s context, as it is the first time Josh and Dinah are reunited after their separation, and though they wouldn’t admit it, you can see how much they miss each other.
The Barkleys of Broadway isn’t one of the best films to come out of the Astaire-Rogers partnership, but for anyone who is a fan of them like me, it’s an enjoyable experience to see the two together again after ten years (and in beautiful Technicolor). While their penultimate film The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle ended on a bittersweet note for audiences, The Barkleys of Broadway proves to be a more satisfying conclusion to cinema’s most famous dance team as Astaire and Rogers joyfully dance together until the screen fades to black.
I wrote this entry as a part of the Backstage Blogathon, where many bloggers are writing about films that go behind-the-scenes of the performing arts. Click the banner below to read more wonderful entries!