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William A. Seiter
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Josh and Dinah Barkley are a successful (though argumentative) musical-comedy team, yet Dinah chafes as Galatea to her husband's Pygmalion. When serious playwright Jacques Barredout envisions her as a great dramatic actress, Dinah is not hard to persuade. Written by
Diana Hamilton <firstname.lastname@example.org>
"The Barkleys of Broadway" (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1949), directed by Charles Walters, goes down in history as one of Hollywood's biggest events, being the motion picture that reunited the ever popular song and dance team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, whose nine musicals for RKO Radio from 1933 to 1939, entertained as well as popularized the art of the dance on screen, and whose reputation continues to make this dynamic dual a legendary item.
Plot Summary: Josh (Fred Astaire) and Dinah Barkley (Ginger Rogers) are a sensational husband and wife dancing team on Broadway who appear to be the most perfect couple while performing on stage, but in reality, come to arguments after the curtain goes down. It is up to Ezra Millar (Oscar Levant), composer and close friend, to act as their referee. Dinah feels Josh takes her for granted while Josh finds Dinah neglectful towards him, with instances finding Josh literally left out in the cold on a patio during a social function given by Mrs. Livingston Belney (Billie Burke), and later at the golf course waiting for Dinah's arrival only to remain there until he gets himself drenched from a sudden rain storm, each due to Dinah's meetings with playwright (Jacques Francois) who insists she's wasting her time in musical comedy and should pursue a dramatic career and become another legend like Sarah Bernhardt. At first she turns down his offer to star in his latest play, but after Josh belittles her, she decides to take the challenge, splitting up the team and causing the Barkleys partnership to go their separate ways.
The Music and Lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Harry Warren: "The Swing Trot" (danced by Astaire and Rogers); "The Sabre Dance" (piano solo by Oscar Levant); "You'd Be Hard to Replace" (sung by Astaire); "Bouncin' the Blues" (instrumental); "My One and Only Highland Fling" (sung by Astaire and Rogers); "A Weekend in the Country" (sung by Astaire, Rogers and Levant); "Shoes With Wings On" (sung and performed by Astaire); "Concerto in "B" Flat Minor" (by Tchaikovsky/piano solo by Levant); "They Can't Take That Away From Me" (sung by Astaire/danced by Astaire and Rogers) by George & Ira Gershwin; "You'd Be Hard to Replace" (sung by Astaire from phonograph record) and "Manhattan Downbeat" (danced by Astaire and Rogers).
Supporting casts consists of Gale Robbins as Shirlene May, Dinah's understudy; Clinton Sundberg as Bert; and George Zucco appearing briefly as the judge in the play portion of the film.
For their tenth and final collaboration of Astaire and Rogers on screen, "The Barkleys of Broadway" could very well have been a sequel to any one of their earlier efforts, showing what's become of their characters after dancing to a happy conclusion. SHALL WE DANCE? (1937) comes to mind since it introduced one of their signature tunes, "They Can't Take That Away From Me," only this time having Fred and Ginger dancing to it, resulting as being one of the most moving and sentimental dance pieces ever recorded on film, illustrating the chemistry and magic they had over a decade ago is still quite evident in 1949. After many musicals, the genius of Astaire never ceases to amaze with his creativity, particularly the "Shoes With Wings On" number, one of the true classics in movie musical history. As for the dance numbers with Astaire and Rogers during the opening and closing segments, it a wonder why they're so brief.
While screen reunions usually fail to recapture the magic of the "good old days," "The Barkleys of Broadway" is no exception. The writers had wisely avoided reliving the past for them with the typical boy meets girl plot that had become standard with most Fred and Ginger musicals. However, the film offers supporting players in the likeness and manner of those who have enacted with the team in the past. Billie Burke and Jacques Francois could easily be true reminders of GAY Divorcée (1934) co-stars Alice Brady and Erik Rhodes, although Hans Conried, seen briefly as a waiter, comes close as the Rhodes prototype. Edward Everett Horton might have been most welcome in the Levant role, but as far as it goes, new and younger faces of MGM players assumed center stage instead.
Astaire's character comes as a little sarcastic at times, which he is supposed to be, thus offering him new direction from those easy going dancing guys he's portrayed so well and often. Rogers appears more youthful during the film's latter portion, and although a fine comedienne, her Sarah Bernhardt interpretation reading of "La Marseillaise" comes off as a bit forced. And then there's the droll and dry, yet sometimes amusing humor of Oscar Levant, whose piano solos slow down the pace, making one yearn for Chico Marx in piano playing to these classical compositions with his unique and lively style instead.
In spite of its pros and cons, this is a satisfactory conclusion for Astaire and Rogers partnership, offering viewers a chance in seeing them together again, dancing on stage one last time on screen as the Barkleys of Broadway.
Displayed on video cassette since the 1980s and later to DVD, "The Barkleys of Broadway" at 109 minutes, is one of the more revised classic films broadcast on Turner Classic Movies. (***1/2)
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